Okra Technologies at the double in Fast 50 as Deloitte honours women leaders | Business Weekly – Business Weekly


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Only one Cambridge company – Okra Technologies – made the 2022 Deloitte Tech Fast 50 rankings for the fastest growing technology companies in the UK. But what an impact it made on a real glory night for the business.

OKRA.ai – as the business is more commonly known – is a leading provider of AI-driven analytics for global life sciences and also won the inaugural Women in Leadership prize which recognises Fast 50 companies either led by a female CEO or which have a founding team comprised of at least 50 per cent women.

Okra is based at St John’s Innovation Centre and its founder and CEO Loubna Bouarfa received the Women in Leadership trophy at the Awards ceremony. The company was also placed ninth in the UK Fast 50 with a three-year growth rate of 4,227 per cent. 

Katherine Fish, Deloitte Director supporting fast growing companies & entrepreneurs was involved in the launch of this category.

She said: “We are passionate about celebrating women-led businesses and breaking down the barriers to female entrepreneurship. That’s why Kariel Parian and I launched the new Women in Leadership category in the Deloitte Fast 50 tech awards. 

“For every £1 of venture funding in the UK, only 1p goes to female founder teams – but £250 billion could be added to the UK economy if women started & scaled businesses at the same rate as men.

“We’ve been inspired by the work of The Rose Review, WVCE, BUY WOMEN BUILT and so many other trailblazers pushing for gender parity. Expanding our Fast 50 awards to recognise more women-led businesses is one way Deloitte can meaningfully play our part in creating change. There is still a long way to go but the tide is turning.”

In the Tech Fast 50, the magic Wonde, based in Newmarket, was top-rated East Anglia company in second place. It jumped three places from last time. Mobile games company Tripledot Studios of London came out on top.

The rankings were based on accounts lodged between 2019 and May 31 2022. Deloitte isn’t sharing revenue figures.

Wonde, a platform that provides tools to manage school data, had a growth rate of 31,762 per cent. Peter Dabrowa, Wonde’s CEO, hailed the successful launch of the company‘s sub-brand Evouchers to the US market via an EdTech conference in New Orleans. 

A happy accident with the printing of signage meant the company could double down on its voucher proposition when it proved successful with representatives from US schools.

Since launching in 2015, Wonde’s core proposition in the UK is its software which enables over 25,000 schools to manage, maintain and control their data and their relationships with third-party applications.

Evouchers was designed and built during the Covid pandemic to help schools identify children eligible for school meals and enable their parents to access supermarket vouchers during lockdowns, isolation or holidays.

Evouchers’ technology is built on the back of the existing Wonde infrastructure. It seems like vouchers will be the key to growth in the US and Australia – two new territories for the company. 

“Things evolve – you can go into new territories where you try new products and things aren’t quite what you expect. So you have to pivot quite quickly to make it work,” says Dabrowa.

In the last 12 months, Evouchers has started to work with housing associations in the UK to provide vouchers to tenants and is also working with local governments on projects to provide clothing to refugees. 

“The voucher piece alone could double in size quite easily; even in this country, there’s scope to provide new solutions to customers,” says Dabrowa.

With the launch of Evouchers and the acquisition of cyber security specialist Secure Schools in August, Wonde is building out a portfolio of tech-enabled brands.

To prepare for further growth and to support its international expansion, Wonde has been undergoing an internal restructuring to improve efficiencies and is launching a new unifying top company under which its portfolio of brands will sit. 

The reorganisation of the team is also needed to support the incredible growth in headcount the company has experienced. At the start of the pandemic, Wonde was around 30 people; now it has over 140 employees.

Founded in 2015, Cambridge-based OKRA.ai creates “intelligent AI brains”, for the life sciences and pharmaceutical industry. These systems extract, connect and enrich data to power different software products, each tailored to the different stages of the drug creation and commercialisation lifecycle. 

Its products include systems to assist with drug price prediction, medical affairs strategy, sentiment prediction, and sales and marketing optimisation.

Loubna Bouarfa started the company over seven years ago after working as a research data scientist at behavioural insights and fraud prevention company Featurespace. 

In 2018, motivated by her passion to deliver ethical and trustworthy AI, Bouarfa started a two-year stint as a high-level expert on artificial intelligence for the European Commission. 

“When advising the European Commission on AI, we agreed that AI systems are those that have a high degree of autonomy,” says Bouarfa. Her contributions to the group helped shape the European guidelines that were published in 2019.

She adds: “It’s important for women to be part of the new revolution of AI and technology. It’s also important to have women equally involved in creating the new systems that will make future decisions. It’s important for our world.”

Bouarfa says that the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted the way that pharmaceutical companies approach drug development and commercialisation.

“2020 was an inflection point for artificial intelligence, similar to the year 1990 was for the internet.” For OKRA.ai, the pandemic shifted commercial conversations from “what are the benefits?” to swift adoption and implementation. 

“COVID-19 has shown drug companies that you can run clinical trials in 10 months instead of 10 years,” says Bouarfa. “From an adoption perspective, it has been a catalyst.”

This has been a busy year for the business. In January, OKRA.ai announced the extension of its partnership with US multinational pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb to support its commercial teams with insight and automation. 

The company has also deployed its artificial intelligence models in a new development environment and studied the feasibility of expanding its pricing products into new markets including the US and Japan. 

OKRA.ai also achieved a 50: 50 gender split across the company (which has a headcount of over 30) including within the engineering team – a rare feature for a technology company.

Fast 50 companies generated a combined revenue of £992 million in 2021/22 and employ 16,315 people, with an average revenue growth of 4,568 per cent over a three-year period – a 36 per cent increase on last year’s total.

Each of this year’s top three come from a different sector: media and entertainment, software, and healthcare. Software remains the leading sector, accounting for 54 per cent of all winners.

London remains the home of the majority of the UK’s fastest growing technology startups, with 62 per cent of this year’s Fast 50 headquartered in the capital.

However, this year’s rankings see an increase in regional wins. In 2022, six of the top ten Fast 50 companies are based outside of London, including three of the top five. This is a significant shift from last year’s rankings, in which eight of the top ten were London-based businesses.

• It could be Deloitte’s turn to collect an Award next week. A Non-Executive Director programme it has been running in Cambridge in conjunction with AstraZeneca has been shortlisted for a coveted Scrip community award. Fran Cousins, Deloitte Life Sciences partner – and now Practice Senior Partner across its Cambridge, St Albans and Ipswich offices – has been largely instrumental in the initiative. 

A number of mustard-keen AstraZeneca staff have been given the skills to go out into the community as NED’s through the initiative, Deloitte says.

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