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PhD student, who makes sustainable rope from British wool, named as one of top 50 Women in Innovation in the UK

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A PhD student from the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) who has made sustainable rope from British wool has won a coveted Women in Innovation award.

Kate Drury is one of just 50 winners, selected from more than 900 applications, in the annual Women in Innovation Awards, run by Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and announced today to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Kate, who is studying for a PhD in Wool at the RAU, will now receive a £50,000 grant, as well as one-to-one business coaching, and a suite of networking, role modelling, and training opportunities to help her to grow her fledgling business.

She said: “I am really humbled to have been chosen as one of the winners of this award and for my work to have been recognised in this way. It is a huge privilege to be named in this group of amazing British women.

“The percentage of women in new innovative companies in the UK at the moment is really small and these awards really help to encourage innovative women and get more women in senior roles in innovative companies. The validation from UKRI is really valued within the industry. For me, there is no better pat on the back!”

Kate’s company, Sustainable Rope Ltd, was set up 18 months ago and uses traceable wool from British farms, through the British Wool Auction, to make rope from 100% wool which is biodegradable and renewable meaning it offers a sustainable and environmentally sensitive alternative to traditional plastic rope, reducing micro plastic pollution.

The rope, which is made in a range of diameters from small lengths to full coils, is being trialled as a replacement for plastic rope to grow seaweed which itself soaks up carbon and nitrogen and has many positive sustainable uses, from fertiliser to food stuff. The rope is also being trialled for conservation uses and at a permaculture farm.

It has also been used to tie seaweed cuttings to rocks which have then almost immediately been populated by fish and other marine life, and Kate is looking into the possibility of using a wool yarn to make a fabric on which to grow seagrass which can then be rolled out like turf.

Kate, who grew up on the family farm in Northamptonshire, originally studied a BSc in Agriculture and Land Management, at what was then the Royal Agricultural College, in the mid-1990s before returning to the RAU in 2019 to do an MSc in Sustainable Food and Agriculture Policy in 2019 and then starting her PhD just last year.

She was elected as a Producer Board member for the English Central Region of British Wool in April 2021, the first woman to serve on the Board in the organisation’s 70-year history, and was also a joint winner of last year’s Innovation in Wool Award which netted her a £10,000 grant and mentoring.

Kate, who only uses wool from the British Wool Auction co-operative, is passionate about finding new outlets for British Wool. She added:

“I come from a family of fourth generation sheep famers so I guess it makes sense that I am now doing my PhD in wool! My father was involved with British Wool when I was growing up and I was a regional representative for British Wool for six years.

“While I was doing my Masters at the RAU someone asked me if it was possible to make rope from wool. I was very honest and said that I had no idea but that I would find out – and here I am! Wool offers durability and flexibility and the variety of uses for it means very little is wasted. It is really exciting – the possibilities are endless.

“Even though my company is less than two years old, I am already getting enquiries from all over the world and this recognition will really help me to be able to commercialise that research, conduct more trials, and enable my business to grow.”

As part of last year’s Wool Innovation Award, Kate had the opportunity to drive sheep over London Bridge which she did last September. She said:

“It was really great to see the sheep in the heart of the capital.”

The Women in Innovation awards, which are now in their sixth year, are a key part of Innovate UK’s commitment to boosting the number of women entrepreneurs and reflect the Government’s ambition to give more support to women innovators and business leaders.

This year’s competition drew a record number of 920 applications from women business leaders, reflecting the growing number of women-led businesses in the UK. All the winners are developing novel solutions to major social, environmental, and economic challenges.

Emily Nott, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Programmes at Innovate UK, said:

“Each year I am blown away by the brilliant ideas and talent we uncover through our Women in Innovation programme. Despite these challenging economic times, this year’s winners have shown great leadership, passion and resilience in driving their innovations forward.

“Innovate UK will now work alongside them to ensure they have the resources and support required to grow and scale their businesses, while encouraging a new generation of women to get involved in innovation, pursue their ambitions, and transform our economy and society.”

Indro Mukerjee, CEO of Innovate UK, added:

“The Innovate UK Women in Innovation programme is an important part of our many activities to make a real difference to the talent and skills pipeline for UK business innovation by inspiring, involving and investing in greater diversity. I warmly congratulate all the Women in Innovation Award winners and look forward to keeping in touch as they progress.”

Details on all 50 women innovators can be found here: Kate’s details can be found here

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