NextGen winners: The firms that will lead Britain's recovery

Agility, impact and vision define our next generation of great companies.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 09 Apr 2020

We launched the NextGen Awards at the tail end of last year, before coronavirus first emerged in China and before terms such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” entered the lexicon. Our mission was to shine a spotlight on the next generation of ground-breaking, high-growth businesses.

Since then, coronavirus has spread to more than 190 countries around the world, with more than 1.5 million cases confirmed globally and over 88,000 deaths. 

The impact on SMEs, particularly those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, has been devastating. According to analysts at the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), the coronavirus pandemic could cause UK economic output to plunge by an unprecedented 15 per cent in the second quarter of the year and unemployment to more than double.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak says he will do “whatever it takes” to see the UK through the crisis. The government will pay 80 per cent of salary for staff who are unable to work due to the pandemic, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month, and it has introduced an interest-free Business Interruption Loan Scheme for small and medium-sized firms plus a Bank of England finance option for bigger companies.

There’s no escaping the scale of the challenge. But UK businesses are nothing if not resilient. Many SMEs have pivoted the way their business operates to continue trading through the crisis. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School and a NextGen judge. “A lot of very innovative ideas come out of economic crises, as entrepreneurs pick up on new and surprising opportunities.” 

The NextGen winners, ranging from law firms to valve manufacturers, demonstrate agility and impact. They won’t just survive, they will thrive. And they will play a crucial role in Britain’s recovery. 


NextGen winners

NextGen Business of the Year and NextGen Impact: Kura

Mathew Hassell started Maidenhead-based Transport2 in 2011, creating a range of apps that deliver safer, greener, lower cost travel for the corporate, education and leisure sectors. Now, with his latest service Kura, he’s revolutionising the daily school run. The app allows parents to track their children’s school journey in real time from the bus stop to the school gates (and back again), helping to improve pupil safety. The tech also increases fuel efficiency by analysing traffic, timing and passenger data to identify and avoid bottlenecks. The aim: to take thousands of cars off the road each day, encourage shared transport and reduce school-run related emission by up to 75 per cent. Launching at the beginning of the 2019/20 academic year, Kura was transporting 7,000 students to school each day (before COVID-19 forced a national shut-down).


NextGen Impact (highly commended): School Lettings Solutions 

Spotting an opportunity to help schools rent their facilities after hours, former colleagues Scott Warrington and Paul Andrews started School Lettings Solutions in 2012. Working with more than 300 schools across the country, they take the keys to the school gates and hire out the athletics tracks, tennis courts, sports halls, swimming pools and meeting rooms to individuals, businesses and national sports bodies such as Netball England, Rugby Football League and UK Active. School Letting Solutions removes the hassle of renting by handling everything from marketing and online bookings to cleaning. The Manchester-based firm turns over £13.2m and employs 1,400 people.


NextGen Culture: Punter Southall Aspire 

Since launching in 2016, workplace pensions and savings firm Punter Southall Aspire has acquired four businesses, adding five regional offices and almost doubling its workforce from 75 to 144. To make sure all employees at the £15m-turnover company felt included, respected and able to fulfil their potential, CEO Steve Butler set about transforming the culture and improving D&I. He reshuffled the management structure, increasing female representation at a senior level by 92 per cent. He also created a company D&I booklet and formed a people strategy group to develop the Investors in People framework. These initiatives are paying off: in the firm’s last staff survey, 95 per cent agreed the company is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Butler is an advisory council member for the Diversity Project, a cross industry initiative to drive change, and author of Manage The Gap on leading intergenerational teams. 


NextGen Innovator: M Squared 

Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE and Dr Gareth Maker met at the University of Strathclyde while completing their PhDs. After selling their university spin-out Microlase to Nasdaq-listed Coherent for £2m, the pair teamed up again in 2006 to start M Squared. Claiming to produce “the world's purest light”, this Glasgow-based company designs and manufactures high-precision laser systems which can do everything from mapping pollutants from space to detecting, diagnosing and treating diseases. Among its customers are Nobel Prize winners who regularly use M Squared's lasers for their research, as well as universities such as Cambridge, MIT and Harvard.


NextGen Innovator (highly commended): Trailar

As part of a DHL management development programme, Aaron Thomas and Denny Hulme were paired up and tasked with thinking of products that could potentially disrupt the transportation industry in the UK. Their idea: to generate extra energy for trucks through solar panels on their roofs. They worked with UK trailer manufacturer Don-Bur and a solar panel provider in Silicon Valley to produce a prototype, presented the idea to their management team, and were selected for the firm’s incubator start-up programme. Set up as a limited company in 2018, Trailar uses cutting-edge solar technology, applied to commercial vehicles, to reduce their fuel consumption and emission. The Oldham-based firm employs 34 people and sold more than 1,000 units across five continents in its first year.


NextGen Leader: Tamara Littleton, The Social Element 

Tamara Littleton started The Social Element from her garage in 2002 using a £10,000 loan from her parents. It was one of the country’s first social media agencies. Her first big project was the "Picture a Healthy World" campaign for GE – the first digital "take over" of Times Square. Clients including PlayStation, Disney, Toyota and Diageo soon followed. Littleton has built a highly inclusive business that challenges traditional agency structures. The Social Element’s 350 staff work remotely and flexibly: 70 per cent are female, 8 per cent have a disability, 10 per cent are over 55, and 41 per cent have caring responsibilities. Committed to encouraging other female entrepreneurs, Littleton has built a network called “Evil Genius” that brings together start-ups, mentors and budding female founders. She also supports LGBTQI communities, taking part in Series Q (a network for LGBTQI people at start-ups in the UK) and Lesbians Who Tech. She works with the Internet Commission to make the internet safer for children.


NextGen People Champion: Code Worldwide 

Started in 2003, Code Worldwide is a digital strategy and technology consultancy with 172 employees and clients ranging from Peugeot to the Post Office. To make sure its workforce is reflective of “Real Britain”, the firm has ramped up its diversity and inclusion efforts over the past year. Driven by Code’s managing director Carolyn Stebbings, initiatives include: mandated unconscious bias training for all employees; a new Flexible Working Manifesto; a partnership with a mental health coaching organisation Sanctus to offer free, confidential coaching sessions to employees every month; and a speaking platform called “Curiosity Labs” where employees are encouraged to share their personal stories and diverse backgrounds. Last year, Code took on 10 apprentices and mentored 15 pupils from the University of Greenwich, which has the highest percentage of BAME students in the UK. 


NextGen sector winners

NextGen Business Services: Escalate Law

Most businesses avoid commercial disputes like the plague: they’re risky, lengthy and legal bills can spiral out of control. Rather than going through the hassle of a dispute, SMEs reluctantly write off what they’re owed - and lose an estimated £40bn a year. Mark Osgood, Chris Clay (pictured) and Nick Harvey decided to fix the problem. The trio set up Escalate Law to revolutionise the traditional dispute resolution process, focussing on quick settlements, removing upfront costs and minimising risk. It tackles cases ranging from bad debt to IP infringement on a fixed-fee basis - and aims to resolve disputes within three months. The Liverpool-based firm turned over more than £2m in 2019, its second year of trading, and is on track to hit £5m in 2020. It won “Innovation of the Year” at this year’s Modern Law Awards.


NextGen Social Enterprise: The Ability People

According to the charity Scope, there are nearly 14 million disabled people in the UK - and they are twice as likely to be unemployed. Shocked that the talents of disabled people were being ignored, former gold-medal winning Paralympian Liz Johnson set up The Ability People (TAP): staffed exclusively by disabled people, her social enterprise provides training and support for the likes of HSBC, Chelsea FC and Slater & Gordon to help them improve how they recruit, retain and promote disabled people. “From applications that aren't disability friendly, to unconscious bias in the interview room, there are so many hurdles for a disabled candidate to overcome in order to be given the chance to prove themselves,” says Johnson, who has cerebral palsy. “We don't need more vanity metrics or glossy marketing campaigns: we need real, tangible, and long-term change led by disabled people themselves.” 


NextGen Manufacturing: Oliver Valves

Working from his garage, Michael Oliver developed an innovative high-pressure valve in 1979 to control the flow of oil and gas. Today his Cheshire-based business, comprising Oliver Valves, Oliver Valvetek and Oliver Twinsafe, offers a range of more than 8,000 different valves to some of the world’s largest oil and gas operators. The crash of the oil market in 2015-2016 caused revenues to plummet from £81m to £30m but Oliver has steered the business back on course. He opened a new R&D facility last year with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, employs more than 300 people and has seen revenues bounce back to £70m, with 80 per cent of sales now coming from overseas. The business looks set to skyrocket: in March, it secured an order with NASA to supply valves for the Kennedy Space Centre and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.


NextGen Marketing: Croud

Realising that most agency teams are under-resourced and overstretched, Luke Smith and Ben Knight decided to create an entirely new kind of digital marketing agency, Croud. They’ve developed proprietary technology and built a remote network of more than 2,000 on-demand digital marketing specialists (known as “Croudies”) to work on campaigns across 118 markets around the world. Last year, the firm secured a £30m minority investment from mid-market private equity house LDC and Jerry Buhlmann, former CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network, joined the board as a non-executive chairman. Counting The Royal British Legion, Boohoo and Avon as clients, Croud’s revenues have jumped 40 per cent year-on-year and are set to hit £20m in 2020.


NextGen Technology: Content Guru

In the last two weeks of March, NHS 111 responded to more than 1.7 million inquiries from people concerned they might have symptoms of coronavirus. NHS 111 London managed this huge spike in calls using a technology platform developed by Berkshire-based Content Guru. The cloud-based system, called “Storm”, automatically decides (based on factors such as frequency of repeat calling or medical history) how best to route calls, helping to improve the patient experience and cut ambulance call-outs. Content Guru, started in 2005 by Sean Taylor, also powers cloud contact centres for the likes of EDF Energy, Sodexo and the RAC. The firm employs 285 people across the UK, US, Netherlands, Japan and Germany.


NextGen Education: White Hat

Euan Blair grew up in Downing Street. But instead of following his father into politics, the eldest son of the former Prime Minister became a tech entrepreneur. He launched White Hat in 2016 with business partner Sophie Adelaman. Believing that university is “broken as a route for delivering the talent businesses need”, White Hat matches school leavers with apprenticeship opportunities at major employers such as Facebook and Clifford Chance. It reaches out to students from London's most deprived boroughs, offers training and coaching through its tech platform, plus an online and offline community for apprenticeships. The system works: 97 per cent of White Hat apprentices pass their qualifications (compared to an industry average of 67 per cent) and, within their jobs, 91 per cent receive a promotion or pay rise. White Hat employs 130 people.


Our inaugural NextGen Awards were judged by London Business School’s Julian Birkinshaw alongside Linda Grant, chair of Virgin StartUp; Tom Chapman OBE, co-founder of Matchesfashion.com; Ewan Kirk, founder of Cantab Capital Partners; Dame Cilla Snowball,  governor of the Wellcome Trust and a non-executive director of Derwent London; and Management Today’s Kate Bassett.  

Image credits: Peter Summers/Stringer, yellowsarah and AFP/Staff via Getty Images

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