What is innovation? How do you recognise it in business?

London Business School’s Real Innovation Awards showcase the real ingredients of innovation: tenacity, originality, good timing and serendipity. Who were the winners this year and what made them the innovators to watch in 2018 and beyond?

Gerard Vidal, founder of Enigmedia is the winner of the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award, given to a person or organisation that built a thriving business on an idea that originated in the most unexpected or surprising way. The judges selected Vidal for his achievements in data security. He applied his 2005 PhD findings along with his telecoms degree to develop a faster and more efficient encryption process. He has a simple message for those looking to follow in his entrepreneur’s footsteps: “Whatever happens, just keep doing what you are doing and try to change the world.”

Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) and one of the awards’ judges, says the panel was impressed by the versatility of the software, which enables business to have conversations and share videos without any risk of being hacked. “It guarantees ownership of the most valuable digital assets,” he says.

Tarek Al Emam collected the Peoples’ Choice award in the same category for Freezmate. It produces heating and cooling products – from neck coolers to mattresses for refugees. Says Skinner: “This business started by solving first world problems like neck coolers but it soon spread into multiple uses to keep dogs and babies warm or cool.”

Off the back of commercial success Al Emam has formed a partnership to supply mattresses to Syrian refugees. Reflecting on his achievements the Freezmate founder and CEO, says: “I put aside 15 years of banking to come up with this idea. The payback was seeing smiles of the children in Syria and Lebanon – that was the reason I did this.”

In the only instance this year of the people agreeing with the experts’ choice, Harare-based EcoCash collected both the Judges’ and People’s Choice in The Best Beats First Award. This award is for the company that moved quickly to dominate an emerging market category, typically with a different and better business model than the first mover. EcoCash did this in Zimbabwe by providing banking to millions through their mobile phones.

“EcoCash have built a customer orientated product, which embraces the financially marginalised and dramatic growth followed,” says Julian Birkinshaw, panel judge, LBS Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Deputy Dean.

“I put aside 15 years of banking to come up with this idea. The payback was seeing the smiles of the children in Syria and Lebanon.”

Natalie Jabangwe-Morris, CEO of the mobile payments and banking company, says, “Our story was birthed out of a need, you’ve all heard the story of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. Eight years later we have 11 million customers. Our aim was to provide banking to a people who were previously excluded.”

The Judges’ Choice for The George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award went to Charles Khairallah of Robotics Design Inc. His modular articulated trunk robots are revolutionary because of their unique design, ease of use and wide range of industrial applications. This award is for an individual who has shown enormous tenacity and stubbornness in pursuing an idea, despite the difficulties encountered along the way.

The judges were impressed at how Charles persevered providing robots to repair ducts and vents, overcoming lack of interest from incumbents and winning over union scepticism.” Khairallah, says: “Our idea was out-of-the-box and very risky and I want to thank everyone who supported us in the beginning. They drove us to reach our goals.”

Mohammed Aldhalaan, co-founder and CEO of Noon Academy took the People’s Choice Award for his revolutionary approach to booking tutors online in its native Saudi Arabia. He says: “We give our tutors a sense of ownership and it is very transparent, it is wonderful to see the results.”

The judges were impressed by Noons’ mission to re-educate a whole market and prove to investors they were onto something. “They overcame rejection after rejection,” says Skinner.

Improbable, which creates virtual reality games, is the winner of the Harnessing the Winds of Change Award – given to those who spot what’s just around the corner soon enough to take advantage of it. “The judges chose a winner at the forefront of technology,” says Professor Birkinshaw. “If you play Fortnite, you could take this virtual world for granted but it’s mindboggling if you think about how to create that software. Improbable has worked out how to do this on a bigger scale than anyone else.”

"Our idea was out-of-the-box and very risky and I want to thank everyone who supported us in the beginning. They drove us to reach our goals."

According to founder Herman Narula, the company was born out of a desire to build virtual worlds. Its latest invention SpatialOS powers games of unprecedented scale and complexity in which gamers can lose themselves. It’s a strong field, adds Daniel Griffiths, Improbable’s Head of Communications. He says the firm started with “A problem, which turned into vision and a solution.”

Tracy Young from PlanGrid took the People’s Choice for the same award. She has pioneered the use of iPads to deliver organisational improvements on building sites. The software eliminates blueprints blowing around building sites, cuts miscommunications and saves time. Regional sales manager Michelle Jeffs pays tribute to CEO and founder Tracy Young: “Tracy saw the opportunities presented by the introduction of the iPad onto the construction site and the growth of the cloud that addressed the challenges she saw every day.”

Professor Birkinshaw says: “The winds of change have come to the world of construction and PlanGrid has harnessed them to great effect.” Young missed the award ceremony, in November, as she was finalising the sale of PlanGrid to the California-based multinational software corporation Autodesk, for £681 million.”

ClassPass is a unique way to book dance classes. “They say ‘if you stumble, make it part of the dance’,” says Jeff Skinner. “Given the number of times ClassPass’s founder Payal Kadakia almost failed, the judges felt this was the most appropriate category for her achievements.” The If At First You Don’t Succeed Award celebrates an individual or organisation who tried something that didn’t work out – but which provided the stepping-stone for a subsequently successful outcome.

ClassPass continually adjusted its business model as it adjusted to people’s behaviour and the dance class market, sailing close to failure. Chloe Ross, Vice President of International, says their mission remained the same: “To connect people to soul-nurturing experiences seamlessly.”

“For Payal that experience was dance,” she goes on. “There was a lot in the idea but the team suffered setback after setback until we are at the point where we are now: live in 60 cities.”

The People’s Choice went to father-and-son team Chen and Zvi Nachum whose unique product, Livia, blocks menstrual cramps using electronic pulses. The duo showed tenacity in overcoming hurdles in marketing and design paired with hard work backed by their belief in the product’s abilities and the need for it.

Chen pays tribute to his father’s invention, saying it was gratifying to know millions of women can enjoy “a whole month of comfort and productivity” because of it.

The Masters of Reinvention Award was hotly contested this year. The People’s Choice was a Ukrainian oil-trading business turned convenience store chain called WOG (pronounced “Vog”).

“WOG decided to turn a side business into their main business and they have taken it a step further offering convenience shops away from petrol stations,” comments Professor Birkinshaw. “Today WOG is unrecognisable. Not so much reinvention as reincarnation.”

CEO Sergii Koretskyi says: “We are really proud to win this award. During this transformation our philosophy as a company has completely changed with this new vision for WOG.”

Italian energy giant Enel, People’s Choice winner for the same category, impressed the panel through its embrace of renewable power sources. “Every company is pushing in this direction but Enel have gone further than anyone else,” he says.

Enel’s Head of Innovability Ernesto Ciorra summed up the spirit of the awards, saying: “Without the innovators’ craziness and hunger we will never break out from the dominant rules we all follow.”

The awards for 2018 may be over but real innovation never sleeps – nominations for the 2019 shortlist will open in February.

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