DMU welcomes Leicestershire Innovation Awards finalists for pre-event celebration

Finalists, sponsors and organisers of this year’s Leicestershire Innovation Awards came together for a pre-awards celebration at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

Now in its sixth year, the annual event is one of the highlights in the county’s calendar and showcases pioneering businesses and projects that originate in Leicestershire and Rutland.

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Ahead of the awards ceremony, organisers came together at Leicester Gallery to celebrate a record number of entries, which saw nearly 100 entries received from local businesses, not-for-profit organisations, education institutions.

This year’s Innovation Awards will take place at Loughborough University’s Sports Park Pavilion 4, on Wednesday 20 March. 

DMU, which is sponsoring the event alongside Loughborough University and the University of Leicester, will be hoping for a successful night, as five finalists will be representing the university.

Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Business Innovation at DMU, Mike Kagioglou, said it was “music to his ears” to see projects from the university shortlisted for awards.

He said: “To have so many submissions for the Innovation Awards shows that the environment [in Leicester and Leicestershire] is right and to have five entries shortlisted from DMU was a pleasure for me. It shows that the university compares well against other applicants.

“The appetite for innovation has impressed me since joining DMU. So much good work is happening and one of the first things I wanted to do is make sure that all the innovation is visible.”

We caught up with the five finalists from DMU to find out more about their innovative projects.


East Midlands Chamber and DMU – Innovation in Education and Community

To help address the skills shortage across Leicestershire, DMU joined forces with the East Midlands Chamber to create an online database, which will provide a digital snapshot of the skills in the region and identify shortages.  

The initiative, known as Insight Unlocked, pulls together insights from existing data sources around job adverts, occupation projections and qualification levels.

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Harsh Shah, Data Analytics Manager at East Midlands Chamber

It’s hoped that local authorities and businesses will use it to attract investment and develop training in areas where the region is lacking knowledge and skills.

DMU alumnus and Data Analytics Manager at East Midlands Chamber, Harsh Shah, is working alongside the Chamber’s Director of Policy and Insight, Chris Hobson, and Professor David Rae, DMU’s Associate Dean for Research and Innovation.

Harsh said: “Being shortlisted for an Innovation Award recognises the hard work the team has put in. At the same time, it also allows other businesses to innovate, giving them ideas of how you can implement small things that can make a big impact. 

“The data we use comes from numerous sources and we identify what skills are in demand and try to understand the gaps. This can  help further education institutions to create a curriculum that suits the need of the area.

“The programme is changing quite a lot behind the scenes and more is coming.”

Simon Sansome, The Snowball Community – University Student Innovation and Innovation in Sport, Wellbeing and Accessibility

Simon is no stranger to award nominations and national recognition. His company, Snowball Community, has amassed nearly 100,000 followers online and in 2023, Simon was named as one of the top 10 most influential disabled people in the UK in last year’s Disability Power 100.

His app, Snowball, allows users to rate and review venues, restaurants, bars, blue badge parking spaces and more for how well they meet the needs of disabled visitors. He is now looking for more businesses to sign up to the membership scheme, which will score venues on their accessibility, similar to the green food hygiene stickers displayed on eateries across the country.

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DMU Alumnus Simon Sansome, founder of Snowball Community

Simon studied journalism at DMU and later enrolled in the university’s incubator programme, The Crucible, to build his business. Last year, he beat more than 1,500 entrepreneurs to win the Santander X UK awards and has just returned from Barcelona where he has secured third place – and more funding – in the Santander X Global Awards.

Speaking about the Innovation Awards nomination, Simon said: “It’s local, so it’s brilliant for me. I studied and graduated from DMU. I started the initial Facebook page while I was at DMU, the whole idea was to raise awareness of disabled access in Leicester. Now it’s grown into something more global.

“We’re expecting 100,000 venue reviews [on Snowball] this year and it’s going from strength to strength. More venues are signing up to our membership scheme, we’re taking on about 70 staff to cover the UK and visiting venues to give them an access rating, which they can promote on social media.

“Winning the award would be nice but for me, it’s not really important. I’m here to raise awareness of Snowball, speak to local colleges and universities that want to sign up for it, and meet people that can influence other people to improve their quality of life.”


Leicestershire Police and DMU – Innovation in Creative

Kay Radford and Dr Angela Davies of DMU’s Textiles and Materials Testing research group have been working with Leicestershire Police to create a new hijab for Muslim women working on the front line.

The team has created a two-piece hijab that joins down the neck and is held together by four magnets, allowing for quick release should a combat situation arise.

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Detective Constable Yassin Desai of Leicestershire Police and Kay Radford, Technical Instructor at DMU

It comes after the force approached DMU’s design team for help to create a consistent design for its female officers that allows for a comfortable fit but is still modest, for religious purposes, and strong enough to handle movement in the neck and mouth.

Kay said: “It’s important for the officers to be comfortable, modest and look professional. When we were approached, officers wearing the hijab had a single piece that came around the face and sat on the shoulder.

“We worked with two young hijab-wearing officers that we liaised with at a lot of the meetings and we took prototypes, which we tweaked based on their feedback. We have to cater the design so earpieces can be worn easily and support with their work. It had to be a two-piece hijab and we’ve created two sizes to fit different sized heads and faces.

“We have sent the designs to other forces in the country with a feedback form asking if it was comfortable, correct for their religion and, importantly, was it functional down the neck line, which is where it is fastened.”

The team is hoping the design can be extended to more forces and Muslim women across the emergency services, while working with local textiles companies to ensure it is sustainable.

Detective Constable Yassin Desai of Leicestershire Police’s Association of Muslim Police, said: “It’s really important for our Muslim officers who wear the hijab. Operationally, a standard hijab in Leicestershire is needed. A lot of research and development has gone into this product with academic backing. It looks professional, compliments our current police uniform and has relevant design, aesthetic drape and safety features.

“More importantly it will help attract other Muslim females to become police officers. It shows that Leicestershire Police is inclusive and accessible and recognises the need for religious headwear.”


Camira Fabrics and De Montfort University – Innovation in Creative

The Yorkshire-based textile company Camira Fabrics teamed up with DMU on a four-year government-funded project to produce a sustainable textile using stinging nettles.

Bast fibres, found in hemp, flex or nettles, are extracted from the plant and blended with wool to create a sustainable upholstery fabric, which is aptly named STING. This innovative material has natural fire-resistant properties, eliminating the use of potentially harmful and unsustainable chemicals that can be used to make other fabrics less flammable.

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Professor Jinsong Shen and Dr Edward Smith of DMU with Jodie Padgett and Emma Herst of Camira Fabrics

Flex, hemp and nettle fibres are recognised as a sustainable textile material due to the minimum water and pesticides requirements.

Jodie Padgett, Lead Innovator at Camira Fabrics, said: “Using bast fibres as an alternative to cotton has been around for hundreds of years but what makes our project innovative is the mixing with the wool.

Originally, we mixed the two together to see if it had any antimicrobial properties and the project has transformed from there. It’s now used in seating across universities, schools, hotels and more.

“This is our first-time being nominated and I think that highlights that innovation isn’t always a two-minute thing instead it can grow and grow as you find out new things.”

It’s hoped that the project’s success will help create a circular economy within the UK textile industry. By recycling the bast fibres in nettles, it will reduce the demand for cotton, save energy and water in processing, mitigating CO2 emissions.


Percy Emmett, The Crucible – Innovation Catalyst

Percy Emmett joined DMU in 2017 and, having helped conceptualise an entrepreneurship programme for DMU’s graduates, The Crucible, now works as its director as well as a senior lecturer.

Under his stewardship, The Crucible now boasts a team of talented entrepreneurs that bring their expertise to graduates looking to start their own business. Monthly masterclasses that cover business essentials including marketing, finance and intellectual property law are run by volunteers from the business community.

Since launching seven years ago, the programme has secured the Best Educational Project at the Niche Business Awards and helped DMU reach the final of last year’s Times Higher Education Awards for Outstanding Entrepreneurial University.

HEAL.Med, an award-winning not-for-profit social enterprise behind the Diabetes Education App, sustainable fashion innovator Eliza McCann and her company Noelle which won a lifestyle award from Muddy Stilettos last year, and fellow Leicester Innovation Award nominee, Snowball Community, are among the businesses to come through the incubator programme.

Percy, who could not attend on the night, said: “Through Crucible, we are not just shaping businesses; we are shaping futures, empowering individuals to realise their fullest potential and leave an indelible mark on the world of entrepreneurship.”

This year’s awards are sponsored by DMU, Loughborough University and the University of Leicester. For the first time, LLEP Business Gateway Growth Hub is leading the ceremony.

For a full shortlist of award entries, click here.

Posted on Monday 11 March 2024

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