The John Lewis Partnership has expanded its retail tech innovation programme, JLAB, to provide startup initiatives throughout the year.

Celebrating the fifth year since its launch, JLAB aims to offer three chances for startups and established businesses to participate in its new ‘Always on’ initiative. This will include three innovation programmes, starting with Health and Wellbeing.

jlab john lewis waitrose programme

The programmes will run in partnership with Waitrose, which joined JLAB in 2017 and True, Europe’s only retail and consumer private equity specialist. As an experienced food retailer, Waitrose will provide advice on helping customers to live a healthy lifestyle.

“We’ve always had a very open approach to the companies that were going to be most interested in JLAB, we’ve increasingly become more focused on the areas of challenge that we set but never said it needs to be an organisation that is at a stage of development or is targeting exactly this area of technology," Sarah Venning, JLAB's IT, strategy and architecture director told Techworld

“The second thing has been choosing organisations that are really keen to learn, that are still building their business and don’t feel that it’s totally nailed but are really open to learning from the partnership because we’re in this to learn.

“This is hugely important to us that we continue to both learn in terms of how to work with a much more agile ecosystem of small organisations, really increase our entrepreneurialism, learn about new technologies, new platform economics and things like augmented reality,” she added. 

JLAB is keen to explore the future of AR and VR in retail and hopes to embrace startups with emerging technologies, which will help customers shop differently.

Read next: The best retail startups in the UK

How finalists are selected

Applications are open till 25 May 2018 for businesses to pitch their ideas via the JLAB website and following this both John Lewis and True will select a group that will pitch in June.

Previously, JLAB has provided a 12-week accelerator programme which runs through summer for businesses to connect with mentors in provided office space. The winner is then awarded £100,000 at the end of the programme.

Passionate to create an environment for startups, JLAB decided to deliver its ‘Always on’ initiative to provide businesses with more opportunities.

“What we’ve also done in the past is we might have had companies that have applied through JLAB, but we kind of thought they’re really amazing but we don’t think that the JLAB process is right, so we’ve put them directly in touch with buying teams, or wherever the connection can be most effective.

“So we take quite an open approach and what we’ve done this year is, in some ways, open it up even more so that we’re not locked into this 12-week period which is how it’s always been in the past. We can now almost curate an innovation programme experience that’s right for the particular companies coming through,” Venning said.

One example of JLAB’s previous investments is WeFiFo, a startup which joined the accelerator programme in 2017. WeFiFo connects home cooks and professional chefs with diners across their local community.

Speaking to Techworld, Seni Glaister, CEO and founder at WeFiFo said: “When we first applied we weren’t convinced we had time to do it because it was a long programme and we just launched our business, we were already stretched and the reason we pitched was because of the brand.

“What these brands can do for us is give that authority to say, come and eat at the Waitrose Supper Club but they’re still doing the same thing to go and eat with strangers across sharing tables. So for us, it was this quality brand giving us that sort of authenticity of their backing, other than just being genuinely a joy to work with.”

Following a similar procedure, JLAB plans to shortlist a selection of startups from an expected long list of applications to select a number of organisations that fit into the Health and Wellbeing category.

“We don’t set too strict criteria. When we get from a long list down to the shortlist that we’ll actually work with, we do think about the balance of the different organisations because it’s quite helpful if you’ve got teams that can learn from each other. We’re also quite sensitive and not wanting competitors to be working really closely and feeling vulnerable in terms of their IP.

“We tend to involve the people who we think will have a really big stake in the long-term success of the startup, where they tend to continue to work with John Lewis and Waitrose we tend to get those involved in the shortlist process as well,” Venning added.