If you'd told Andy Barr a year ago that his scallop fishing-gear company would have diversified into cleaning up nuclear sludge, he wouldn't have believed you. The MD of Barrnon, a small Cumbrian engineering company that makes tools for scallop trawling, saw a web enquiry from Magnox and suddenly realised his technology could be modified to recover nuclear waste from power stations. The kit worked and Barrnon helped clean up the Hunterston A plant in Ayrshire – the firm is now bidding for international contracts.
This kind of imaginative, opportunistic activity is exactly what The Real Innovation Awards was set up to celebrate; at last year’s event, Barrnon won The Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award. Nominations for this year’s awards close at the end of the month, and the quirky categories – including The If At First You Don’t Succeed Award – reflect the messy, haphazard, exciting way that innovation actually occurs.
Another company that collected a gong at last year’s event – The Harnessing The Winds of Change Award – was BlaBlaCar, the carpooling start-up. The company picked up on the sharing economy trend in 2003, way before the likes of Uber and Airbnb. Its founder, Frédéric Mazzella, was trying to get home for Christmas and, finding that the trains were full, he cadged a lift from his sister. He noticed that the cars around them were half-empty, and thought up the idea for his business for cash-strapped, like-minded millennials to share rides securely. It now has 30 million users in 22 countries.
Jane Chen, CEO of Embrace Innovations, won last year’s George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award for her stubbornness and tenacity in not letting her product fail. Her company makes infant warmers – sleeping bags filled with a wax-like substance that maintains its temperature when melted – for pre-term babies, at 1% of the cost of traditional incubators. They’re particularly useful in developing countries where there may be no electricity.
An initial rejection led Chen to move to India – where they have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world – to pursue her not-for-profit venture. Later the company lost an investor and employees deferred their salaries until a new investor was found. ‘You have to stay rooted in your purpose, even when the more practical thing to do would be to shut down,’ says Chen. ‘During these challenges I remind myself that this work is bigger than me, and that the challenge is temporary.’ The product has now helped more than 200,000 babies worldwide.
You may have a similarly inspiring story to tell about your business’s success, so why not get the recognition you deserve for your creativity and fresh ideas? There’s an awards ceremony at London Business School in November and your company will get plenty of publicity from features in Managament Today. So don’t delay – enter here for the 2017 Real Innovation Awards.