The best SMEs innovating their way through COVID-19

In our recent Post-Pandemic Places Innovation Brief we took an in-depth look at the impact of COVID across the six key domains that constitute connected places – MobilityDecision Making and Institutions, the Built EnvironmentWellbeingPublic Space, and Critical Infrastructure.

The onset of coronavirus and the drastic, mitigating measures it has necessitated globally have brought an urgent set of challenges for businesses, governments and citizens. But despite its devastating impact on people’s lives and businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic also represents an inflection point for connected places and provides significant opportunities for innovative businesses and place leaders, and so we wanted to illustrate some of the best COVID-19 SME Innovation.

Here we highlight just some of the nimble, fast moving SME companies already diversifying their services and products to offer solutions that can help get the UK back to work.


Innovators in: the Built Environment

Key facts:

  • Multi-award-winning leader in nature-inspired innovation, revolutionising the built environment
  • World’s first community bio-manufacturer of Mycelium insulation
  • Commercialising bio-technologies that consume ‘waste’ and carbon
  • Developing groundbreaking innovations to end plastic pollution
  • Patented construction system for agile and regenerative buildings

BIOHM’s mycology lab in the Open Cell complex in West London had to respond immediately to the COVD-19 pandemic with emergency measures to protect their live mycelium – the core product in creating sustainable materials for building construction. With supplies becoming unavailable almost overnight and the UK lockdown coming into force, the team decided to freeze these fungal strains, preserving years of development.

Despite putting the freeze on their mycology lab, work at BIOHM has been as busy as ever, especially with the success of their equity crowdfunding campaign, which BIOHM has raised well over the investment target. The campaign is a unique opportunity to support more sustainable business and receive actual equity in BIOHM, through their crowdfunding partner Seedrs. The funds raised will support their research and development as the team finalise plans around their first bio-manufacturing facility in Watchet, Somerset.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation
Bow Tie Construction

Innovators in: the Built Environment

Key facts:

  • Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery (MVHR) delivers fresh air 24/7
  • Mandated by building regulations in many basements, MVHR systems are beneficial in nearly all domestic situations
  • Bow Tie Construction have already fitted more than 25 MVHR systems as part of their work retrofitting the UK’s housing stock

New guidance from REHVA (the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations) highlights the risks of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus through recirculation of air in commercial HVAC systems. However, a popular ventilation method that can deliver filtered fresh air into a building – whilst at the same time counteracting heat loss – is a Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery (MVHR) system. MVHR extracts warm but potentially stale and humid air from bathrooms, kitchens and utility rooms before passing this through a heat exchanger which transfers the heat to fresh air from outside the building. Now mandated by building regulations in many basements, MVHR systems are beneficial in nearly all domestic situations.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: Decision Making and Institutions and Wellbeing

Key facts:

  • Provides a pre-trained, fully automated chatbot to the social housing sector
  • 24/7 support for tenants with any housing related enquiry
  • Provided free chatbot and professional services to local authorities and housing associations to assist COVID-19 response
  • Chatbot virtual agent is now servicing an extra 65,000 homes

Fuzzlab’s pre-trained and ready to deploy social housing chatbot ensures tenants can access 24/7 support for any housing-related enquiry – anything from booking repairs, requesting adaptations to viewing their rent balance, or even applying for a home.

Heading into lockdown, social landlords needed to create resiliency in their contact centres to ensure they could support tenants through a time of heightened confusion, uncertainty and fear. Added to this, as the crisis unfolded, it quickly became clear that COVID-19 was also hitting lower socio-economic groups the hardest. Keen not to profiteer from a crisis, and knowing they were in a position to help, Fuzzlab offered their chatbot services to local authorities and housing associations for free, and with no strings attached. Fuzzlab have since deployed their product to Accord, Walsall Housing Group (whg), Flagship and Wandle and their virtual agent is now servicing an extra 65,000 homes across the UK.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Built Environment and Wellbeing

Key facts:

  • Building operating system that controls commercial and residential properties
  • Uses data collected from sensors installed throughout each building
  • Optimises heating, ventilation, hot water, cooling and other services
  • Use of a UV-C bulb could sterilize office spaces, killing COVID-19 and other airborne pathogens

Atamate’s building operating system controls commercial and residential properties using data collected from sensors installed throughout the building, using it to optimise heating, ventilation, hot water, cooling and other services.

Whilst seemingly perhaps not immediately applicable to a COVID-19 response, Atamate’s occupancy-based control, linked with the use of a UV-C bulb as a method of sterilization, would create a product that could effectively sterilize office spaces – killing not just COVID-19, but other airborne pathogens too.

The system would also link internal environment data for ventilation feedback, and alert building owners when ventilation is not optimised and should be addressed. And what’s more the project will integrate with the Apple/Google track-and-trace service, overlaying building data to provide a much greater level of triangulation and accuracy. A recent Innovate UK grant will see Atamate roll these services out in very short timescales to address COVID-19, as well as opening up longer-term new markets.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Built Environment

Key facts:

  • Performance technology company developing disruptive and scalable digital solutions for the global commercial real estate market
  • Headquartered in Glasgow, with a growing team based in the U.S.
  • BEIS-funded online Digital Energy Efficiency Platform (DEEP) empowers SMEs to implement energy efficiency measures
  • Developed a return-to-work protocol for building managers as populations emerge from lockdown

Building performance technology company Arbnco – developers of disruptive and scalable digital solutions for the global commercial real estate market – have unsurprisingly seen a number of projects being put on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis.

They’ve risen to the challenge however by developing a protocol for building managers to guide workplace re-entry post-lockdown that mitigates risk from indoor transmission pathways – and which forms the basis for their Change is in the Air campaign. And as popular support for a green and sustainable recovery from the pandemic continues to grow, Arbnco is already helping to deliver a healthy, low-carbon built environment.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation
Blue Fox Technology

Innovators in: Decision Making and Institutions

Key facts:

  • Develop and maintain hosted web-mapping software OpusMap
  • Used by local authorities to publish interactive Local Plan maps to support plan-making
  • COVID-19 has accelerated Call for Sites (CFS) service designed to make the CFS process more efficient, accurate and quicker

Even during the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions Blue Fox Technology continues to onboard new customers, develop front-end features for OpusMap, improve online engagement with stakeholders in the plan-making process, and drive cost down for end user services.

They are also continuing their work on providing a range of data and digital mapping support services, from data capture through to geographic information system outputs.

COVID-19 has accelerated their Call for Sites (CFS) service in readiness for a mid-July launch. This new online platform will improve efficiency, accuracy and speed of the CFS process for both developers and planning officers. They have also updated and simplified onboarding processes for new customers to their hosted software as a service (SaaS) offer during the COVID period.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation
The Future Fox

Innovators in: Decision Making and Institutions

Key facts:

  • Accelerate the development of smart, sustainable and people-focused cities
  • Created StreetBuilder to advance high-impact street environment changes with community support
  • Help councils and local authorities bring communities closer
  • Empower citizens with the information needed to make informed choices

The Future Fox helps planners engage with communities on ambitious housing, transport and infrastructure schemes.

Using citizen-centric and AI technology, their digital platform empowers citizens to engage meaningfully, at scale, and generates new, deep insight for responsive design. They work with Government, local authorities and the private sector to accelerate the development of smart, sustainable and people-focused places and were winners of the Connected Places Catapult 2019 Cityx Housing pitching competition.

Their Tactical Space collaboration platform’s free bank of tactical and temporary infrastructure measures empowers place adaptions in response to COVID-19. It’s global reach has catalysed car parking adjustments in Jilin, China, that were inspired by a scheme in London, UK. Early-bird partners include Phil Jones Associates and London School of Architecture. Whilst some projects have inevitably been delayed by the COVID-19 crisis, the company has continued to run expert webinars, whilst advancing their technology in collaboration with Google and Science and Technologies Facilities Council.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Built Environment

Key facts:

  • Multi-award-winning leader in unique underlay sustainable systems, improving health and wellbeing in the built environment and construction sector
  • Innovative flooring underlay and wall cladding solutions that enable tile reusability and circularity
  • Patented building materials systems for enabling tile easy disassembly, relocation, redesign and repairability for effective materials use and reuse
  • Preventing building materials unsustainable use and value lost, reducing waste and carbon emissions through the whole supply chain
  • Mission implementing ground-breaking innovations to close the loop for the tile industry
  • Transforming the built environment sector by enabling other business to become fully circular

ALDStone’s multi award-winning solutions for the built environment – offers new building material opportunities enabling tiles of almost any material becoming modular, being removed and re-used at other locations, showing clients how to sustainably upgrade in retrofitting existing homes as well as in new developments that fit-for-purpose for future generations – helping clients improving business and the living environment design for humanity from Europe to Japan and many other countries across the globe by introducing them to their novel circular systems, products, and service solutions.

Rising to the challenges of COVID-19, ALDStone continue to engage and meet new clients at various virtual industry events – their next event on 24th September in collaboration with Supply Chain Sustainability School is about understanding how servitisation can accelerate the industry’s move towards a more circular, service-based and ultimately more sustainable, low-carbon built environment. Last month presented with us about how their business is addressing the challenges and applying innovation during these unprecedented times at Connected Places Cataplut’s Connections Café event on 22 July.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Built Environment and Critical Infrastructure

Key facts:

  • A technology company that specialises in the built environment, making buildings and spaces better for all
  • Reduce the risk of early obsoletion by making existing in-building systems and new technology work seamlessly together
  • Focus on built environment experiences that allow for optimisation, natural evolution and scaling over time

Internationally award-winning creative technology contractor and Master Systems Integrator, Vanti design and engineer intelligent technological solutions, transforming buildings into spaces that support, enable, and empower people.

Vanti continues to support a wide variety of organisations through the pandemic situation – including Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust, BSH Appliances Home of Innovation, The Lighting Industry Association and Canary Wharf Contractors – where they continually test, maintain, and optimise the solution so it never stops working.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Built Environment and Critical Infrastructure

Key facts:

  • Creators of smart city and place infrastructure that allows everyone and everything to connect and interact
  • Harness data and information from these interactions to create insights and suggested outcomes
  • Create built environment systems that help cities and businesses run more efficiently
  • Ensuring clean, safe and attractive environments for citizens to live, work and play

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to implement technology-based solutions to support people working at home. Home working isn’t a solution for all businesses however, and with social distancing meaning far fewer people visiting the high street the impact on local economies is significant.

Connexin is working on a few new initiatives utilising their technology to make social distancing more sustainable and measurable. In particular, Connexin will be utilising CityOS, – a Smart Management platform used by councils to connect traditionally siloed datasets to produce a single view of key infrastructure, people and services – to their clients’ understand the needs of the most vulnerable, manage a multi-agency response to deliver the services people need, and help councils regenerate communities and local economies.

UK Pandemic; Post-Pandemic Recovery; UK SME Innovation

Innovators in: the Mobility and Critical Infrastructure

Key facts:

  • Vivacity Labs (known as Vivacity) was founded with the ambition to change the transport industry using their comprehensive data to drive real-time optimisation of the transport network.
  • Vivacity’s analysis has shown that numbers of interactions within 2m in city centres declined by 95% after the lockdown
  • More recently the data shows that only 54% of pedestrians have strictly followed the 2m guidance
  • Public and private sector interest in their data and analysis is such that Vavacity is likely to more than double its commercial revenues from £1.1m in 2019 to an anticipated £2.6m in 2020

Just one week into the COVID-19 lockdown award-winning Artificial Intelligence developer Vivacity unveiled a 24/7 mobility data capture tool to help the government monitor social distancing. Having worked with key stakeholders in government and across the transport industry for five years, they now found themselves at the forefront of enabling the government to accurately examine the efficacy of its social distancing response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Which is why in March 2020, just one week into the lockdown, Vivacity were in a position to roll out a social distancing tool that could track the mobility activities and behaviours of us all – pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes, cars, vans, HGVs and buses – anonymously and in real time on their digital maps.