2023 Startups 100 | Exceptional Founder shortlist and award winner

These nine entrepreneurs have each made it their mission to drive positive change across UK industry. Meet our Exceptional Founder shortlist for 2023.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Behind every high-growth business is the person or people who spent months grinding away on early-stage plans, product testing, and more, all to emerge triumphant with that very first sale.

That’s why we’ve chosen to shine a spotlight on nine extraordinary entrepreneur talents from this year’s Startups 100 index. 

Our Exceptional Founder award celebrates those go-getters who are working to make life easier for others by fixing a societal issue, or addressing a challenge that they themselves have personally experienced.

We invited guest judge Ian Wallis, Head of Startups at FieldHouse Associates, to help us decide on the overall winner. Read on to find out more about the incredible business journeys of our very exceptional nominees, and who we judged to be bringing about the biggest industry change.

Ian Wallis
Introducing Startups 100 guest judge, Ian Wallis!

Currently Head of Startups at FieldHouse Associates, Wallis is a former business journalist and co-founder of Venturers Club, an entrepreneurs' network. He has spent more than 20 years writing about business owners for various outlets including Startups.co.uk, where he helped launch the original Startups 100 in 2008!

WINNER: onHand – Sanjay Lobo MBE

onHand

Startups 100 WINNER
2023 Startups 100 | Winner of the Exceptional Founder award

In recognition of the entrepreneur who has turned their own personal struggles or challenges into a force-for-good, leading the way for industry change and innovation.

Learn more about onHand

Picking Sanjay Lobo as the winner of the Exceptional Founder award, Wallis recognised the hugely positive impact that Lobo’s business, onHand is having on corporate social responsibility – helping employers give back to their local area.

During the pandemic, Lobo’s 77-year-old Dad was told to stay at home to stay safe. But, he lived alone in London, while Lobo was based in Brighton. Like thousands of others, Lobo worried about how to help his Dad with basic needs like shopping and cleaning.

That’s why onHand started: to help manage the care needs of the UK’s rapidly growing older adult population. The volunteering platform harnesses local business partnerships so that employees can do household tasks and everyday errands for vulnerable people. onHand’s impact proved so positive during COVID-19 that Lobo received an MBE from the Queen.

Having expanded to cover issues including homelessness support, food poverty, youth mentoring, sustainability and the climate crisis, Lobo is now looking to turn the solution built for him and his Dad into a frontline volunteering force to help millions across the UK.

Wallis volunteers his own opinion with a clear thumbs-up for onHand. “Sanjay has clearly achieved a lot in a very short time, including being recognised by the Queen for his support for older people during Covid-19,” he notes. “There is an enormous challenge in the care sector. onHand is clearly being recognised as a service provider of choice.”

“onHand has been created to help companies become an important part of the fabric of their community by encouraging employees to volunteer some of their time,” Wallis concludes. “It’s a scalable model that could help a great many people if the workforces of big brands are harnessed and engaged.”

Runner Up: Drop Bear Beer Co. – Sarah McNena and Joelle Drummond

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that beer has a PR issue. Only recently, Brewdog has stained the industry name with revelations about its toxic work culture. More widely, the beverage’s association with football tournaments and lad culture means it’s been incorrectly classed as a ‘man’s drink’.

Not any more. Drop Bear Beer Co has set out to reclaim the beverage’s identity. As the world’s first female, LGBTQ+ founded alcohol-free brewery – not to mention Wales’ first B Corp beer factory – cofounders Sarah McNena and Joelle Drummond want their product to be accessible to all. Drop Bear is the only brewer to be all vegan-friendly, gluten free, natural ingredients, low sugar, low carb, and low calorie.

In a male-dominated beer industry, and a world where VC funding for women is disproportionately low, the founders' determination is even more impressive. They have already overcome the funding challenge and garnered millions of investment. But, when it comes to partnerships, they remain tenacious, refusing to work with and boycott organisations that don’t hold the same values.

Wallis is clearly on-side: “Drop Bear is something for modern manufacturers and all entrepreneurs to aspire to,” he says. “The cofounders appear to have developed a product that customers love, evidenced by Drop Bear’s impressive revenue growth and crowd-backed funding.”

Runner Up: Kiteline Health – Candice Hampson

Kiteline Health

One third of the UK workforce is living with a long-term health condition. This can mean having a sickness absence rate that’s four times greater than those without such a condition. Candice Hampson was one of them.

In 2015, at age 32, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, with a recurrence two years later. While thankfully fully recovered now, she was instantly struck by a desire to provide for others affected by a long-term illness with the help she didn’t get herself.

One of the biggest problems Hampson had faced was finding evidence-backed information about the lifestyle changes she should make to promote her recovery and prevent recurrence. She decided to launch Kiteline alongside cofounder Christine Beardsell. Kiteline is a tech-driven solution that uses gamification and rewards to reach people earlier, support them to change their lifestyles and behaviours, and prevent long-term conditions from occurring.

Kiteline is making it easy for people to be proactive about their health and bring integrative medicine to the mainstream through lifestyle and health coaching. Wallis’ verdict? “It's a laudable mission and Candice has certainly identified an area employers need to solve in terms of sickness and absenteeism.”

Runner Up: Travel Hands – Ishan Jha and Kazeem Busari

Travel Hands

Software engineer Ishan Jha was volunteering at an assistive technology class with the Blind Aid charity when he helped to walk tutor Kazeem Busari to his door. Busari is blind, and he shared with Jha how travelling with a guide had saved him both time and money. For Jha, who himself has a degenerative eye disease, it was the lightbulb moment that kicked off a revolutionary idea.

In 2019, the two came up with Travel Hands, a tech solution for London’s 42,000 registered Visually Impaired Persons (VIPs), helping them to travel around the city safely, cheaply and independently. It works like Uber, with sighted, verified volunteers signing up to guide VIPs to their destination – and make a friend along the way.

Jha now exclusively leads on Travel Hands and wants to take the service national and, in the long-term, globally, to empower the world’s 258 million VIPs to regain their independence and the confidence to travel.

Wallis expresses particular affection for Travel Hands and its admirable mission, telling Startups that “Ishan is building something that could make a huge difference to visually impaired people's lives. If it manages to see its user figures grow nicely I'll be very happy.”

Runner Up: Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing – Lee Chambers

Lee Chambers Great British Entrepreneur Award Win

In 2014, Lee Chambers was riding high. Having grown up on a Bolton council estate, he had been the first in his family to go to university and had even launched a successful seven-figure business five years previous.

Then, disaster struck. Chambers’ immune system went into shock, and he lost the ability to walk. It took him 11 months to learn to walk again unaided – just a bit sooner than his newborn daughter. After this experience, and having overcome so much adversity in his life, Chambers decided it was time to help others do the same.

In 2021, he founded the workplace wellbeing business, Essentialise, striving to foster more inclusive practices in business. In just 12 months, the company has more than doubled its growth, despite the economic challenges facing businesses post-pandemic.

Through Essentialise, Chambers also works with SEND (Special Educational Needs) schools and has founded a support and mentoring programme aimed at Black STEM graduates.

“With inclusivity awareness the area Lee has chosen to focus on, he clearly brings authenticity through his own experiences,” concludes Wallis. “I imagine HR teams are scrambling to ensure staff are trained and aware, making Essentialise a strong option in a busy wellbeing space.”

Runner Up: TeamSportz – Francisco Baptista

Team Sportz

As a child growing up during the Angolan civil war, basketball was Francisco Baptista’s one true love. Even after moving to the UK – without speaking English – the obsession continued.

But when Baptista wanted to take his love of the sport to the next level, he hit a ceiling. Grassroots teams simply couldn’t afford the expensive technology required to develop their skills. As a software engineer, Baptista felt compelled to act. He built TeamSportz, a multi-sport AI platform that analyses play and movements to maximise athlete performance.

After a proof of concept was accepted to the Sports Tech Hub Accelerator, TeamSportz developed as rapidly as its user base. The app now has more than 2,000 sign-ups, has been funded by Strava founder, Mark Gainey, and is entering the US market this year. Yet of his impressive player stats, Baptista is most proud to be working with all-size clubs to democratise access to sports technology.

Wallis describes Baptista’s story as “incredibly inspiring”, and applauds the value proposition of the platform. “TeamSportz could easily grow by building a strong network across leagues and associations, particularly if entry to the US market takes off,” he appraises.

Runner Up: Flexa – Molly Johnson-Jones

Flexa

Right now, the most sought-after benefit for UK workers is flexible working. But while HR reps and marketers harp on about hybrid working models, many staff are finding out that their new role – advertised as ‘flexible’ – is actually far from it.

Flexa was born out of Johnson-Jones’ personal frustration with the broken job hunting process. Since she was 18, she’s lived with a chronic auto-immune disease. So, in her previous job, she asked her employer if she could start working from home once a week. Within a few days, she was sacked.

Far from deterring Johnson-Jones, the experience fuelled her desire to change the story and force employers to be up-front and honest about their flexible working policies. She teamed up with cofounders Maurice O’Brien and Tim Leppard to develop the Flexa platform and tackle the global problem of opaque job descriptions.

So what does Wallis have to say about Johnson-Jones and the mission to rebuild employee trust in flexible working? “Molly’s story is inspiring,” says Wallis. “Flexa’s USP of being able to tell candidates how flexible potential employers will really be through vetting and verifying is made for today.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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