Most Innovative UK Companies 2021

| Lucy Wilson

Here at Beauhurst, we have a range of criteria to identify high-growth companies in the UK. Each of these ‘triggers’ is a sign of external validation that a business is either actively growing or creating ambitious growth plans. Receiving a large grant (£100k+) for a specific innovation project is one such trigger. We track innovation grants awarded by a number of UK and EU-based organisations, including Innovate UK, Horizon 2020, FP7, and Scottish Enterprise.

In 2020 alone, more than 1,000 high-growth companies in the UK secured innovation grants valued over £100k—receiving 1,305 grants in total. Notably, 86% of these grants were awarded by funds managed by Innovate UK. The public body is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national funding agency investing in science and research in the United Kingdom. Throughout the pandemic, UKRI has made a distinct effort to support R&D projects related to COVID-19.

Unsurprisingly, technology was the most innovative sector last year, with tech and IP-based businesses securing 67% of innovation grants. This covers a range of verticals within the sector, from fintech and machine learning, to life sciences and healthcare technology. Meanwhile, companies that fall into the industrials and professional services sectors (instead of or as well as tech) were the next most innovative industries, both accounting for around 37% of grants received.

Looking at the geographical distribution of grants in 2020, London comes out on top as the most innovative region in the UK, being home to 296 high-growth grant recipients. Other regions with a large number of grantees last year include the South East (161—of which 33 are based in Oxford), the East of England (101—of which 37 are based in Cambridge), and the South West (94—of which 28 are based in Bristol). 

This disproportionate level of grant funding in the South is no doubt due to the high concentration of leading research universities in the area. Take Oxford and Cambridge universities, for instance, which received eight and nine innovation grants last year, respectively, whilst Imperial College London was awarded an impressive 12. These institutions have produced a plethora of successful academic spinouts which, in turn, have fostered further innovation in their surrounding regions. 

2020’s ambitious grant recipients are certainly ones to watch this year, as the UK’s most innovative companies. They’ll be utilising this influx of capital to produce new products and next-generation technologies in 2021. We’ve ranked the highest-value innovation grants awarded last year, and taken a closer look at the startups and scaleups that received them. 

Most innovative companies (by 2020 grant value)

=1    Entocycle  £10m 

=1    MarketFinance  £10m

=1    Tokamak Energy  £10m

  4.   Veolia  £7.71m

  5.   Magtec  £6m

=6    Funding Xchange  £5m

=6    Onfido  £5m

  8.   Infex Therapeutics  £4.51m 

  9.   SuSeWi  £3.39m

10.   Exvastat  £3.18m ($3.6m)

11.   Recycling Technologies  £3.15m

12.   Exscientia  £3.14m ($4.2m)

13.   Exemplas  £2.95m

14.   Poseidon Plastics  £2.73m

15.   Newable  £2.72m

 =1 Entocycle

Sector: Biomass & biofuels
Stage of evolution: Venture
Location: London

Entocycle Logo

Entocycle is revolutionising the animal feed industry by building a localised and more sustainable food chain. The company rears insect larvae that are nutritionally-comparable with meat and fish, and feeds them on local food waste. Since insects produce protein much more efficiently than farmed animals (or soy), which require a large amount of land and water, Entocycle also has a much smaller carbon footprint compared to traditional producers. 

The company was founded in 2014, and has so far attended three accelerator programmes for innovative startups. Whilst it’s had no announced fundraisings so far, Entocycle’s latest £10m grant from UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) is its sixth innovation award to datetaking the total to £10.9m. It secured the grant in October to build a new large-scale facility outside of London, where it will raise black soldier flies (fed on food waste) for the production of its sustainable insect protein.

 =1 MarketFinance

Sector: Fintech
Stage of evolution: Growth
Location: London

MarketFinance Logo

MarketFinance (formerly MarketInvoice) has developed an online platform that allows businesses to raise funds quickly through business loans or invoice finance. Businesses register with the site, then nominate core blue-chip customers, and put up invoices for bidding. Since being founded in 2010, MarketFinance has been named on seven high-growth lists, and attended two accelerators, including Tech Nation’s Future Fifty programme for late-stage tech companies. It’s also secured £59.7m in equity investment, across eight funding rounds.

The fintech was awarded its first innovation grant in September last year, securing £10m from BCR’s (Banking Competition Remedies) Capability and Innovation Fund. MarketFinance will use the grant to better serve small businesses in the alternative lending space. It’s promised to deliver solutions that make it easier for SMEs to manage their finances in one place, joining forces with new innovation partners, and creating more than 200 new jobs.

 =1 Tokamak Energy 

Sector: Cleantech
Stage of evolution: Growth
Location: Oxfordshire

Tokamak Energy Logo

Tokamak Energy is working to advance the development of commercial energy production through fusion, using devices that combine plasma in a magnetic field along with superconductors. By finding a ‘faster way to fusion’, it believes it can produce a clean, safe, and cost-effective energy source for the world. Spun out of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxford, Tokamak Energy has secured £123m in equity investment to date, through 10 funding rounds

So far, Tokamak Energy has been awarded five grants for the development of its clean energy technology, totalling £10.4m. It received its latest £10m grant from the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in July, as part of the Government’s Advanced Modular Reactor Project. The funds will be put towards the company’s development of high temperature superconducting magnets and divertor technologies, both critical for the provision of fusion power on a commercial basis.

 4. Veolia 

Sector: Cleantech
Stage of evolution: Established
Location: London

Veolia Logo

First founded in 1990, Veolia is an environmental solutions company, providing a wide range of water, energy, and waste management services. Despite no prior announced fundraisings, Veolia has acquired two Beauhurst-tracked companies to date, including Oxford Technologies (remote handling tech) in 2016 and Biochemica (water treatment services) in February last year

Innovate UK awarded Veolia with its £7.71m grant, to kickstart the UK’s development of innovative new plastic recycling systems. This funding is part of a larger £20m project which will allow new technologies to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and reduce CO2 emissions, by closing the loop on all PET (Poly Ethylene Terephthalate) packaging. It forms part of UKRI’s Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP) Challenge. In collaboration with Unilever, Charpak, and HSSMI, Veolia will use the grant to create the UK’s first dual PET bottle and tray recycling facility.

 5. Magtec 

Sector: Automotive
Stage of evolution: Established
Location: South Yorkshire

Magtec Logo

Magtec designs and manufactures electric vehicle (EV) drive systems and components for a variety of vehicle types. Founded in 1992, the Sheffield-based company has secured 11 grants to date—£12.9m in total—alongside a £300k equity fundraising in early 2018. In 2020 alone, it received three separate Innovate UK grants, altogether worth £6.76m. 

The company’s largest (£6m) grant was awarded in June by the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), managed by Innovate UK, which provides funding and support to help the UK automotive industry transition towards a net-zero future. The money will be used to create 65 new jobs at Magtec, and a further 165 across the South Yorkshire region, to scale up production of its low-carbon technology, in collaboration with the company’s OEM, strategic, and research partners.

 =6 Funding Xchange 

Sector: Fintech
Stage of evolution: Venture
Location: London

Funding Xchange Logo

Funding Xchange supports SME business owners to take control of their funding via its online marketplace. The company’s platform allows users to compare information on a range of business funding options and quotes from credit providers. Funding Xchange has attended the Mayor’s International Business Programme, a London & Partners accelerator aimed at helping tech companies in the Capital to scale overseas. 

The business finance aggregator has secured five funding rounds to date, bringing in £18.5m in equity investment. It was awarded its first grant in August last year, receiving £5m from BCR. The company applied for the funding in conjunction with challenger bank Shawbrook, the NACFB, and Enterprise Nation, to make SME finance more accessible, affordable, and sustainable in the UK. Funding Xchange is planning to develop SME and broker hubs that will provide a further 1.1m businesses with funding by the end of 2022.

 =6 Onfido 

Sector: SaaS
Stage of evolution: Growth
Location: London

Onfido Logo

Onfido provides businesses with an online platform to carry out background checks and screening. It uses artificial intelligence to assess whether a user’s ID is genuine, and then compares it to their facial biometrics, allowing clients (including big names like Revolut) to onboard their customers securely. The SaaS cybersecurity company has been named on an impressive 12 high-growth lists, and also attended the Future Fifty accelerator programme in 2017. 

Founded in 2010, Onfido has raised at least £175m in equity investment, through 10 funding rounds, plus three grants, worth £5.26m in total. Alongside Funding Xchange, it was also awarded a £5m grant from BCR in August. This will be used to develop and integrate new technologies for biometric fraud detection, data anonymisation, and document fraud prevention, to minimise the impact of Know Your Business (KYB) processes on SMEs.

 8. Infex Therapeutics 

Sector: Pharmaceuticals
Stage of evolution: Venture
Location: Cheshire

Infex Therapeutics Logo

Infex Therapeutics is a biopharmaceutical company developing and licensing innovative drugs to treat pandemic infections. It has created a partnering model to progress research through to clinical trial quicker, so that treatments can be brought to market in the shortest possible time. The company is based at Alderley Park life sciences facility, near Manchester (the previous headquarters of AstraZeneca).  

Having already secured two equity fundraisings since launching in 2016, worth £2.95m in total, Infex Therapeutics received a grant in September from Innovate UK. The £4.51m grant funding will be used to deliver integrated solutions for human infections, as part of a broader £18.7m project, with funds also being awarded to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Unilever, the University of Liverpool, and Evotec.

 9. SuSeWi 

Sector: Biomass & biofuels
Stage of evolution: Venture
Location: London

SuSeWi Logo

Biotech company SuSeWi (formerly Feed Algae) has developed technology to recreate the natural growing conditions of algae—the planet’s fastest-growing, highest-yielding, and most nutritious and carbon-absorbing organism. Using this technology, SuSeWi can produce biomass for agricultural feed, fertiliser, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, human food, and other uses. 

To date, SuSeWi has raised £5.3m in equity funding, across three rounds. The company has also been awarded three grants, two of which it secured in 2020. The largest of these was a £3.39m grant in September that forms part of Innovate UK’s AGRI-SATT programme (agricultural growth using remote-sensing, IoT, satellite, and autonomous telecommand technology). Fellow funding recipients include the University of Southampton and the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

 10. Exvastat 

Sector: Pharmaceuticals
Stage of evolution: Seed
Location: Cambridgeshire

Exvastat Logo

Another innovator in the biotech space, Exvastat was spun out of the University of Cambridge in 2016. The company is developing a treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), based on the reformulation of imatinib, an existing drug that’s currently used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. There are currently no approved pharmaceutical therapies for ARDS, with treatment limited to supportive ventilatory care.

Whilst it’s had no announced fundraisings, Exvastat successfully secured two grants during 2020, worth £3.67m in total. The largest of these was a £3.18m award from EU public-private partnership fund Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), back in May. Under the award, Exvastat will collaborate with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam Medical Center, KABS, and Simbec-Orion to produce its reformulated version of imatinib and test it in critically ill COVID patients.

 11. Recycling Technologies 

Sector: Cleantech
Stage of evolution: Growth
Location: Wiltshire

Recycling Technologies Logo

Cleantech startup Recycling Technologies has developed modular technology that can convert mixed plastic waste into feedstock for new plastic production. Spun out of the University of Warwick in 2012, the Swindon-based company has since raised at least £23.3m in equity investment, through 12 funding rounds. It also attended the Unreasonable Impact accelerator programme in 2016, and has been awarded at least nine grants, worth £6.01m in total. 

Recycling Technologies was awarded £3.15m in funding from Innovate UK in September, its second grant of 2020. The company’s long-term goal is to create a circular economy solution to plastic production; it will use this latest grant funding to demonstrate its process of converting hard-to-recycle plastic on a commercial scale.

 12. Exscientia 

Sector: Pharmaceuticals
Stage of evolution: Growth
Location: Oxfordshire

Exscientia Logo

Founded in 2012, Exscientia is a pioneer in the automated drug discovery space, using big data and AI to design and then test the potency and effect of millions of potential small molecule drugs. This enables the company to shorten the preclinical discovery stage by at least 75%, accelerating the delivery of new treatments. Exscientia is a University of Dundee spinout, headquartered in Oxford Science Park. 

In November 2018, Exscientia acquired Dundee-based drug discovery services company Kinetic Discovery. It has now raised an impressive £91m to date, through four equity funding rounds, and has been awarded two grants (both in 2020), worth £4.31m in total. In December, it received a £3.14m grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund its research into treatments for malaria, tuberculosis, and non-hormonal contraception.

 13. Exemplas 

Sector: Business & professional services
Stage of evolution: Established
Location: Hertfordshire

Exemplas Logo

Exemplas provides outsourced advisory services across the public, private, and educational sectors. Its services include partnering with government bodies to encourage investment into SMEs, supporting new approaches to service differentiation and client acquisition (and retention) in the startup space, and enhancing universities’ SME engagement. Exemplas has continued to support SMEs during COVID-19 and through each national lockdown, through its delivery of public sector contracts. 

Despite no prior announced fundraisings, the consultancy scaleup has been awarded at least 20 innovation grants to date, worth £8.77m. An impressive eight of these were secured in 2019 alone, as part of various Innovate UK projects. Last year, Exemplas received three grants, the largest of which totalled £2.95m. It received the award in April from Innovate UK, as part of a wider £22.1m Business Growth Expansion (Advisory Services) project.

 14. Poseidon Plastics 

Sector: Cleantech
Stage of evolution: Seed
Location: Tees Valley

Poseidon Plastics Logo

Poseidon Plastics is developing chemical recycling technology that produces low-cost, sustainable feedstock for the global PET industry, with the aim of bringing an end to single-use PET plastics. Last year, Poseidon secured its first equity fundraising, worth £151k, alongside two sizeable innovation grants, together totalling £5.33m. 

The largest of Poseidon’s grants (worth £2.73m) was awarded in August, as part of an Innovate UK project to demonstrate the circular economy for PET plastic and prevent environmental pollution. Meanwhile, the company’s most recent grant in October was awarded by UKRI’s SSPP Challenge, to fund construction of its first commercial facility in Teesside.

 15. Newable 

Sector: Business & professional services
Stage of evolution: Established
Location: London

Newable Logo

Newable supports the UK’s thriving SME market through access to funding and financial services, flexible workspace solutions, and professional advice across a range of areas (from business model innovation and social media strategy to international growth). Whilst it has no announced equity fundraisings, the scaleup has received 24 innovation grants to date, worth a total of £7m. 

In April 2020, Newable was awarded a £2.72m grant from Innovate UK, joining fellow grant recipient Exemplas as a part of the agency’s Business Growth Expansion project. Newable recently acquired entrepreneurial coaching business (and Beauhurst-tracked company) Winning Pitch, in January this year—its third acquisition to date.

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