Young Innovators Success Stories: Anna Watkins, Uncommon Alchemy, North West
Soon after Anna Watkins secured the Young Innovators Award she identified a key issue with her innovative idea to produce a sustainable alternative to leather from seaweed.
The Innovation Champion Anna was partnered with through Innovate UK EDGE’s business support programme shone a light on a critical functionality problem for the flagship product she was developing through her business Uncommon Alchemy. Together, they realised Anna’s current approach was unviable.
After a month of research and speaking with industry experts, Anna had forged a new way forward.
“The big milestone that came out of that was being pointed towards an alternative type of seaweed that could be processed differently to create a much more functional and aesthetically effective material,” she says.
“It meant beginning the development process again, but that moment was so important because it set me on the path I’m on now: towards an industrially scalable technology. Aside from that, I was just really proud of myself for persevering and starting over!”
Looking back, she says when she received the Young Innovators Award from Innovate UK and The Prince’s Trust, she “didn’t know how much” she didn’t know.
Fast forward 12 months, and in July 2021, she was recognised as Young Innovator of the Year at the Anjool Malde Trust awards.
Anna says, “Because I had such a big setback right at the start, I’d felt all along that I wasn’t making progress at the same rate and didn’t have any tangible outcomes yet, like sales or fully developed products. But winning gave me a huge confidence boost and helped me see that not all successes are tangible ones.”
Another highlight for Anna was presenting at the ChemUK Expo 2021 which, due to the previous COVID-19 restrictions, felt like a huge personal milestone and provided an opportunity to meet industry figures face-to-face.
“It was the first time I was able to put the samples of seaweed leather into people’s hands and see what they thought. It was great to present my work, and the feedback I got gave me lots of confidence that I’m headed in the right direction,” says Anna.
Although still at R&D stage, Anna is now proud to have a viable product and is much more aware of the technical and legal regulatory issues in her sector. The scale of her ambition, she says, has grown enormously.
“I started out wanting to make craft products myself, but now I see that seaweed leather has the potential to scale industrially and that I want to be a textile manufacturer,” Anna says.
“The scope of what I’m trying to achieve has widened so much, and I’m well on the way to that goal.”
The next stage for North West-based Uncommon Alchemy is to reach pilot plant production, so Anna’s focus for the coming year is to conduct research and test manufacturing methods, and then seek funding to move to the next stage.
“That would allow me to demonstrate feasibility at full-scale and to produce enough material to start collaborating properly with fashion brands and designers to produce the first commercially available products made with seaweed leather.”
She adds, “I also have a much better understanding of the sustainability challenges in my supply chain, so I’m planning to work on securing a fully traceable and sustainable supply chain by working with UK seaweed farmers.”
It has taken Anna a long time to get comfortable with spending the grant money awarded to her by Innovate UK but she has used it to purchase equipment that enabled quicker testing and professionalise aspects such as branding.
The mentorship provided by her Innovation Champion, a key pillar of the business support package organised for Anna by KTN, has played a huge part in boosting her confidence, and she now feels encouraged to bid for larger grant competitions.
“I’ve also found the cohort network really great – I didn’t know many other young entrepreneurs working on these types of businesses before. Talking to other Young Innovators in similar sectors to myself has been helpful because we often have very similar challenges and have been able to share resources,” Anna says.
The bigger picture
After a disheartening start, Anna is now looking forward with positivity, focus, and ambition.
“The scale of my ambition and my confidence have grown hugely since I secured the award. Now that I can see a bigger picture and have a much better grasp on the market and my place in it, I can see an exciting road ahead.”
She adds, “When I started the programme, I felt quite out of my depth. Lots of other people were already trading and doing really well, and I felt like my business was kind of a hobby that I didn’t know how to grow. But now, it actually feels like a job, like a real business.”
The Young Innovators Awards are an annual competition from Innovate UK that finds, supports and celebrates young people with great business ideas.