The Cambridge Innovation Summit is now in its seventh year and continues to provide an opportunity to share ideas and projects with a global audience of experts, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and commentators.
This year’s virtual event took place on a platform that presented live events over two days, with speakers and networking opportunities throughout.
At the summit’s heart is a somewhat brutal mass pitching session with 30 companies given five minutes to present their business model to delegates, hosted amiably by Adam Swash, director corporate venturing programmes at the Centre for Business Innovation – with no timing exemptions beyond exactly five minutes.
The sense of being in the Colosseum is always apparent in any Dragons’ Den-type setting. Regardless of any geniality, the rules are the rules, and no amount of bluster and deflection – popular qualities though they may be in public life today – changes that simple fact. So it was surprising how many people launched into their preamble and were still effectively on the preamble four-and-a-half minutes into their pitch.
It is surprising how many people failed to introduce themselves properly at the start of their talk – that is name, job title and company name for anyone who has not been keeping up with the business etiquette that has been around for half a century at least.
Having said that, the content was fascinating. Almost every one of the 30 pitches were for organisations that addressed the incoming climate change crisis. Some were looking for partners, some investors, and some just wanted to engage with a collection of the planet’s brighter business minds.
First up was Sheena Macpherson, CEO and founder of MIOTIFY – “Saving the world one algorithm at a time” – who outlined the challenges of developing trust in AI outputs.
Next was Kaitlyn Salter, marketing manager of digital freight forwarder Zencargo, who analysed how agility in an interconnected world has moved from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have”.
Third was Will Richardson, CEO and creator of Compare Your Footprint, which is helping organisations become greener. Compare Your Footprint has the carbon footprint calculators to benchmark your footprint. Will insisted that every company should be taking carbon reporting seriously – “it should be on every company’s listing at Companies House”, he said, adding: “Every single company in the UK and the world should be reporting on their carbon footprint…. Every company should be part of a carbon-free future.”
Delegates then listened to Liz Heard, programmes manager of Planet Patrol, whose mission is to clean up the planet. An app helps users name and shame planetary polluters large and small. The litter analytics tool really shows what is actually going on on the basis that if you do not measure it, you cannot identify improvements.
The pitch from Rajan Pandhare, CEO of QiQ Technologies, outlined QiQ’s business mode – “driving sustainability using AI” – which delivers cost savings of 5-20 per cent, and boosts productivity by 10-20 per cent.
Scott Cain, founder and CEO of Active Things, then took the virtual stage to explain how urban travel could be transformed by finding, accessing, and paying for bike parking and other ‘active travel’ amenities.
He was followed by Jo Morley, head of marketing and programmes at City To See, an environmental organisation on a mission to stop marine plastic pollution. Jo showcased their Refill app which helps you eat, drink and shop near your home without pointless packaging.
The first pitch not to include an environmental theme directly was from David Liu, CEO of Sonde Health. Using a short voice sample, Sonde’s symptom detection technology can tell if you are at risk for leading health conditions, including asthma, COPD, Covid-19, depression, and anxiety. All from your voice. Who knew?
Meanwhile, Omegacrop has an early warning system for wheat-damaging weeds and diseases.
“We can provide information on a plant-by-plant level,” Jared Bainbridge, co-founder and CEO, told the Summit audience, adding that he is “looking for partnerships to achieve scale”.
Then, Marc Jones, business director at agricultural robot company AntoBot – part of the AgriTechE network – outlined how he is “looking for corporate and retail partners to co-develop production and maximise the benefits through food-chain integration”.
Some corporate-speak is inevitable at such events, but it was minimal. Introducing Ecogea, Adam said: “They provide ‘natural biological performance enhancement’, so I have no idea what they’re going to talk about!”
He was not alone, and for some –OK, me – that feeling never quite went away. Safe to say Ecogea has developed BioComplex, which ‘feeds and protects microbes in their host environment’.
More saving-the-world solutions were available from Airponix – “growing produce in mid-air”– and others including Higher Steaks, Brill Battery, Qatalog, KisanHub and Anaphite. Somewhere along the line, amid this embarrassment of innovation riches, I was pinged by Daria Sopelkina, founder and CEO of nutritional science company Tumchi, whose personalised nutrition platform is making progress, including via the Accelerate Cambridge programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.
Later, Daria said: “It was an absolute pleasure to participate in the summit. We have found out about the pitching opportunity through our accelerator programme, Accelerate Cambridge. The networking was brilliant. We have met very interesting people in our area. We are also going to begin our first fundraising round soon and it was a great place to pitch Tumchi.
“We are in developing. Our first release will be this August. Our first customers will be able to register, sign up and order at-home blood testing kits and receive personalised nutrition plans. Our first target audience is people with pre-diabetes.”
Also pitching was Animal Alternative Technologies, whose bio-reactor will produce the first structured meat alternative – ie steaks not mince – for commercial use.
“They adopt Renaissance Farm, our manufacturing system,” said Clarisse Beurrier, co-founder and CEO. “It works rather like a coffee machine. Unlike most companies who sell their cultured meat, we provide them the system to make their own meat and scale it up. It’s a complete system for cultured meat production.”
This was just day one: the theme for day two (July 1) was ‘Innovation under Pressure’ and delegates could choose between visiting booths, listening to speakers on stage, setting up side meetings, responding to polls… This was a busy, sometimes frantic, but always engaging event – sponsored by Pepsico Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank – with a great deal of the random networking that makes physical events so enjoyable.
The event was hosted by Peter Hewkin, CEO of the Centre for Business Innovation, who said: “The Cambridge Innovation Summit brought together 140 virtual delegates from 13 countries seeking to understand how innovation under pressure – eg of Covid and Brexit – had fared.
“The overwhelming opinion was that ‘pressure has been good for innovation so far – but we should not assume that ramping up pressure will always increase innovation’.”