Are successful entrepreneurs born with it, or made through their circumstances? In David Newns’ case, it was a bit of both.
The son of a biscuit factory worker, growing up in a poor part of Blackpool, from an early age Newns had a goal to be financially independent. Now 36, Newns has founded and helmed two companies in the e-cigarette sector which sold for a combined £150m to FTSE 100 companies. He was one of the youngest-ever FTSE 100 executives in the UK, and, with his business partner he has registered more than 800 patents in the harm reduction and tech sectors – they are the 11th most prolific intellectual property filers in the UK. He is now spearheading a venture in wearable AI sports tech, as well as investing and advising promising tech start-ups from all over the world, while he splits his time between homes in Verbier, Ibiza and Cheshire.
An incredible trajectory born from his own determination.
Newns attended a rough state school where he saw a lot of deprivation and poverty. “Looking back it was pivotal as it allowed me to understand how a lot people lived,” he says over a Zoom call from London. Despite not having much, his parents worked incredibly hard to give him the best opportunities they could, buying him the technology – computers and devices – which from a young age he craved.
But it was the realisation that he was gay, at the age of 14, that set him on course for serial entrepreneurship. Newns, warm and instantly likeable, describes himself as a “sequence-oriented person” with a highly logical brain. He played through the possibility in his mind that his sexuality could be a problem for his parents and peers; he didn’t know anyone who was gay in his community. “I am always thinking, what is my Plan B? If no one accepted who I was and I was kicked out of home, what would I do? How can I have the resources to do what I wanted and be financially self-secure?”
He didn’t come out until four years later, after dropping out of college and taking a job with an IT company which he had interned for. Of course, his parents were completely understanding and he needn’t have worried. But by that time, Newns, a self-confessed “IT geek”, was becoming a bit of a star; he was working as a consultant, meeting small businesses, learning about their challenges, and ultimately lecturing on IT at the University of Salford.
“I was constantly driving myself out of my comfort zone, I was learning that you can do anything if you push yourself.” He moved to Lytham, “a posh part of Blackpool”. Looking for a new hobby, 22-year-old Newns enrolled himself on a flying course at Blackpool Airport. It was there in the clubhouse that he fatefully met Chris Lord, who would become a lifelong business partner.
Lord, 10 years his senior, was running his family business, a company which adapts cars for people in wheelchairs. After striking a rapport with Newns, he asked Newns to come and work with him. Together they transformed the company, taking it from a £1m turnover business, to £10m within three years, making it one of the largest companies in its field.
Lord and Newns were delighted to have found a business partner with complimentary skills and decided to co-found something together. “He is a natural innovator with an ability to solve problems, and just wants to develop ideas, whereas I execute and run the business,” says Newns. Together they flew to China to visit the Canton Fair in Guangdong, for inspiration. They browsed everything from tyre recycling plants to sex toys, but the e-cigarette stall that they stumbled across, gave Newns and Lord a lightbulb moment.
“Chris [Lord] was a smoker and at the time, vaping was unheard of in the UK. It was not even in discussion. We thought, can you imagine what an impact we would have on the billion smokers in the world if we had a less harmful alternative?”
It was at this point that Newns found his niche; “futuristic, meaningful innovation to reduce harm and have a massive positive impact.” He describes his vocation as ‘harm reduction’, a proactive approach to reducing the damage done by alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behaviors.
Lord and Newns launched CN Creative, one of the first e-cigarette makers in the UK. They won £2m of venture capital investment from Advent Life Sciences. With it they were able to hire some 200 clinical specialists and doctors to re-engineer a clinically-approved e-cigarette, the only one at the time in the UK. Four years after starting the company, they sold it to British American Tobacco for a rumoured £40m.
After spending a year working at BAT, Newns and Lord went on to set up another e-cigarette company called Nerudia, which was sold to Imperial Brands four years later, for £106m. In 2019 alone, his company was the country’s second most prolific patent-filer, inventing more innovations than any of the UK’s tech hotspots and indeed more than Dyson and ARM put together.
His third venture, Prevayl, is in a different space; health-tech sportswear. Prevayl sells upmarket sportswear with clinical-grade sensors which gathers enriched biometric data to provide personalised health and performance insights to the wearer. Prevayl’s garments have electrodes woven into the fabric, a sort of conductive thread to offer continuous, real-time, non-invasive monitoring. These transmit data to the battery-sized ‘puck’, which is the receiver and microprocessor. The fabric is soft and feels like a ‘a second skin’, says Newns, making the sensors invisible. With clinical grade electrocardiogram (ECG) and inertial movement unit, the puck can accurately detect the likes of arrhythmia.
The company won Start-up of the Year 2020 from British multinational BOC, while the company’s co-founding CEO Adam Crofts, who Newns mentors as its chairman, won Entrepreneur of the Year.
“I was looking at how can we harness human data to allow people to make positive choices,” Newns reflects. “This clothing can give clinical grade insights on people’s breathing, heart rate, mental stress and much more, to improve mental and physical health wellbeing and prevent health problems.”
Athleisure’s star is on the rise. The industry was valued at US$155.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach US$257.1 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research. But Newns feels the industry was ripe for disruption with many claims of inaccuracy in smartwatches and fitness trackers. Fitbit, for example has been hit with a series of class-action lawsuits including one alleging the heart rate monitor is inaccurate by a significant margin, and another claiming false advertising.
Clothes, as opposed to watches, adds Newns, can give much more abundant and accurate data. “The quality of data from clothes is in a different league to that from a watch,” says Newns. As a sign of things to come, Prevayl just appointed ex-Burberry marketing executive Nicola Peters. Prevayl is set to launch this summer in the UK.
Newns is now a father, having adopted two-year-old Ryley, (now six), with his husband Chris (a different Chris to his business partner). He splits his time between his home in Cheshire, summer in Ibiza and winter in Verbier, where they have recently renovated a stunning ski chalet. Ryley attends school in the Alps for half of the year, and the other half in the UK near Cheshire (“his teachers swap notes and it works.”)
Newns believes the most important thing as a serial entrepreneur is to surround yourself with sources of inspiration. “When I stripped it back, it’s all about putting yourself in places that allow yourself to think and have vision. What’s the best use of your money? To create time and space where you can visualise tomorrow.”
Newns now runs an advisory company called Contrado Capital, to help entrepreneurs sell their companies. “When we were trying to sell our first company, we could have done with a service like this,” he says. “When you’re running a business you’re so completely consumed by it. One of the values I can add as an advisor is being one step removed, I can provide a team with the outlook and connection to what is going on in the world,” he adds.
But one of the biggest thrills for him now, is finding and investing in disruptive start-ups in the harm reduction space. He has invested in a dozen start-ups since 2013, when he first funded SuperAwesome, a company which makes the Internet safer for children, which was just acquired by Epic Games – the company behind Fortnite. It is investing with purpose that most excites him, he says.
“How do you invest your wealth to create long term benefits for the world and humanity? That is what I want to do.”