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Five retail-based startups head for 2016 Jlab incubator

Five of the 23 startups that pitched for a place on John Lewis’s 2016 startup programme will be spending the summer in the retailer’s Jlab accelerator

Five finalists have been chosen to attend the 2016 Jlab startup incubator programme over the summer, after 23 of the initial 280 applicants to the progamme pitched their ideas to a panel of judges.

John Lewis runs its startup incubator, dubbed Jlab, each year, with the purpose of finding and nurturing talented startups with solutions to the problems that the retail industry is facing.

The applications process for the third edition of Jlab opened in April 2016. This year’s programme received 280 applications, with 23 of them being invited to a pitching day, where five were awarded a mentorship and workspace at the lab over the summer.

At the end of the summer a winner will be chosen to receive funding for their project, although the benefits for the other participating startups don’t end there.

Paul Coby, IT director at John Lewis, said: “We’re looking for people who will really benefit from Jlab, because that’s what will be effective. It’s people who are at a stage when they can really benefit from understanding how retail works, understanding how online works, and also help with developing the product and bringing it to market.”

John Lewis has been known for innovating to keep up with customer demand, and the Jlab programme gives the retailer more opportunity to find small companies using technology in different ways.

Coby said that Jlab focuses on companies that need support in their early stages, and that those that don’t get through to the lab aren’t necessarily out of luck.

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“One of the things we may consider is if somebody has got a product that’s already there,” Coby said. “Maybe they don’t need to go through Jlab, maybe we can just talk to them as well about how we can market their product. Absolutely – if someone has got a great product, we always want to talk to them.”

Because of  John Lewis’s history in home design, innovation is considered to be part of the firm’s DNA, Coby said, adding that he hoped technology would be the next sector the John Lewis brand would be known for.

“Maybe in the past, people might not have thought of John Lewis in the startup space, which is why we do Jlab. We want people with great ideas, great designs, great concepts that want to talk to us,” Coby said.

“Hopefully, now we’re getting known for fashion as well. If we could be known for great technology design, that would be wonderful.”

The 2016 pitching day

In mid-June the 23 hopefuls descended on Hammersmith in London to pitch to a panel of industry experts. They each had a five-minute slot to explain their company’s focus and how they could work with John Lewis.

Coby said the session had featured a diverse range of startups, showcasing ideas on health tech, children’s toys and consumer products.

“Personally I find it great fun, and you feel for the pitchers,” Coby said. “They’ve got five minutes to explain sometimes a quite complex thing.

“You couldn’t have a wider variety than this year’s cohort. I was very impressed with the standard of pitching. I think people would say the pitchers were extremely well prepared. Different views coming to the table is what we hope to get.”

But as Stuart Marks, chairman of corporate accelerator management company L Marks, explained, having so many good candidates makes it difficult to judge the winners to move on to the lab.

Marks said there are many ways for startups to pitch for investment, especially in London, so Jlab and L Marks try to be more creative in their approach to choosing who to back.

“What we’re trying to do is to create something that is unique both to the startup and the corporate,” he said. “We’re quite unique in terms of being able to genuinely match young companies to big corporates and hopefully create an environment for them to do their business with some very positive outcomes.”

The startups sent to the lab

Five of the original startups that pitched to the Jlab judges won a workspace and mentorship in the John Lewis accelerator lab this summer.

On 4 July they begin a 12-week programme of mentoring, as well as getting access to up to £100,000 of investment.

This year’s participants are:

  • Robotical, from the Tech for Kids category, is focused on building educational walking robots, encouraging children to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) by introducing them to coding and 3D printing.
  • DigitalBridge, from the Effortless Shopping category, is prototyping an application that allows consumers to visualise how a retailer’s products will look in their home.
  • Ding Labs, from the Surprise Us category, has a smart doorbell system that allows users to talk to people on their doorstep through their smartphone.
  • Link Big, from the Effortless Shopping category. has a plug-in tool that allows consumers to buy products via their Instagram feed.
  • Wedding Planner, from the Simplify My Life category, offers an online service allowing couples to book all aspects of their wedding through a single platform.

Omni-channel pioneer

“Paul Coby and the team at Jlab have even prior to the lab been very much on the bleeding edge of innovation. They were one of the first genuine omni-channel retailers,” Marks said.

“They have been very much at the forefront and had the foresight to recognise with the first Jlab that there is a real benefit in doing these types of programme. I think what’s really exciting three years in is that Jlab has morphed into a proper innovation gene within John Lewis.”

The winner of this year’s Jlab will be decided on 23 September 2016.

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