There’s a near-infinite number of pitch events and startup competitions for small technology companies in the UK. Many offer cash prizes, while others are designed to offer connections and exposure. But one series of pitch events stands out from all the others. [email protected] is the Duke of York’s pitch competition, which has been taking place at St James’s Palace since 2014.
The most recent [email protected] event, held on November 2, was attended by the Queen — a first for the event. 12 startups pitched to attendees including investors such as Tom Hulme from GV and Peter Jones from the television series “Dragon’s Den.” If any of the companies pitching go over their three-minute time limit then two members of the Queen’s Guard drown them out with a rendition of the “Countdown” theme tune played on trumpets.
On November 3, the evening after the sixth [email protected] event, Business Insider spoke to the Duke of York at Windsor Castle about his pitch events. He was hosting a dinner for Silicon Valley comes to the UK (SVC2UK), a not-for-profit project that brings together tech talent from the US and the UK. The Duke of York explained that he had considered becoming an investor in technology startups with his own venture capital fund, but ultimately decided against it.
“I felt that the angel investing world wasn’t able to reach where the venture capital world needed to meet,” he said. “There was a gap both in knowledge and in capacity and capability. The other aspect was that the venture capital world, for very good reasons, has gone up the value chain because the complications of managing that at a lower level is the same as it is managing it at the higher level, but actually you get greater benefit and greater return so it’s natural that they would creep up the value chain.”
The Duke of York said he examined the idea of creating his own fund, but “came to the conclusion that there were probably pretty good reasons why people weren’t in that area. Not least of which in my case it was a very poor use of time and effort.”
So after realising that running a VC fund wasn’t for him, the Duke of York decided to become what he refers to as an “accelerant”. “The consensus of opinion was that I should act as an accelerant to business and to these businesses rather than actually try and fund them,” he said. “There were plenty of other people who were capable of doing it but actually by amplifying them and by acting as an accelerant, they would get that sort of finance.”
The [email protected] events don’t just take place in London. There are bootcamps across the UK, too. “Pitch On Tour was designed as the first stage, as a method of being able to reach further into the hinterland and stay out of the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle,” the Duke of York said.
Not every startup that applies gets through to pitch at St James’ Palace, and the Duke of York explained that some companies can be helped directly without them even needing to pitch. “There are some within this 42 who we can act as an accelerant to without them having to pitch,” he said. “They have got very specific asks at the bootcamp that we can fulfil without them having to [pitch].”
Many of the startups that pitched at St James’ Palace on November 2 ended their three-minute talks with requests for connections to executives or investors.
Rockwell Shah, CEO of sleep startup Pzizz, pitched his company and met the Queen during the event. He told Business Insider that there aren’t any other pitch events like [email protected] “Being accepted gives you access to an unparalleled network of people and organisations that can help your business really take off,” he said. Shah said that his main aim in applying to [email protected] was getting more exposure for his sleep app, and he felt it was “very much mission accomplished.”
Wes Sugden-Brook, CEO of a hardware startup named Drenched which creates a volumising attachment for taps to reduce water consumption, was the only CEO who pitched in front of the Queen on November 2. He told Business Insider that it was an “unbelievable experience”. Originally he only planned to get through the regional events, but his company was one of the event’s three winners.
#pitchatpalace Entrepreneur of the Week is @DrenchedLtd, winner of #pitchatpalace 6.0! WATCH how to wash hands with 2 tblsp of water pic.twitter.com/Hx6R3X5X2d
— [email protected] (@pitchatpalace) November 4, 2016
The November 2 event included startups from several different fields, but [email protected] often holds more specific events. “You can do general until the cows come home but everybody gets bored,” the Duke of York said. “We narrow the focus down each time to a different sector. Now, we can add things to those sectors if we need to and we’ve been through design, we’ve been through internet of things, biotech was the last one.”
The [email protected] series of events is also being expanded internationally. This year pitch events are being held in Malaysia, Estonia, and Mexico. “We basically trial things in the UK and if they work, then we’ll enhance the global package,” the Duke of York said.
The event has grown from a fledgling pitch competition in a famous location to become more and more high-profile since its launch in April 2014. Now it’s livestreamed on Facebook and expanding around the world. “What started out as a nice little cuddly toy has become a voracious, man-eating lion in the corner,” the Duke of York said. “Now it’s no longer a startup, it’s a scaleup.”