Duke of York plays Cupid for young tech entrepreneurs

The Duke of York
Image caption The Duke of York says he is an entrepreneur

It is unlikely that Buckingham Palace often holds speed dating evenings, but a host of young people were there this week to find potential new partners.

All dressed in their best suits and frocks, and some a little nervous, they were aiming to impress.

But far from love being in the air, this was a serious entrepreneurship event organised by the Duke of York in the palace's resplendent Bow Room.

The 30 young adults in attendance, most in their early 20s, were all start-up technology entrepreneurs.

Current and former participants of a support programme called Entrepreneur First, they were there to pitch their companies, or start-up plans, to a group of business leaders and investors - and Prince Andrew himself.

Using the speed dating format of switching tables and chairs, the young entrepreneurs, who were in pairs, had 20 minutes with each of the business veterans and the duke.

Not someone renowned for being shy with his opinions, he listened closely to each pitch before asking probing questions and then offering detailed advice.

He told the BBC he was keen to host the event because it was "another step along the road" of helping to boost entrepreneurship in the UK.

Describing himself as "just a different kind of entrepreneur", in reference to his work in supporting and promoting business development and entrepreneurship in the UK, Prince Andrew says the country has to work harder to encourage more people to take the risk of setting up their own companies.

"[My advice is] just go out there and try it," he says.

Image caption Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford stress that entrants to Entrepreneur First do not need to have a business idea in mind already

The prince, whose main interest is in science and engineering, added that the UK needs to widen its focus from the financial services sector.

He said: "We need to support more entrepreneurship risk rather than financial services risk."

High-profile sponsors

Only in its second year of operation, Entrepreneur First, which focuses solely on technology start-ups, is the brainchild of former management consultants Alice Bentinck, 27, and Matt Clifford, 28.

It is open to college graduates, and they pick 30 people each year to join the programme, which runs from September to June. For this year's course they had 600 applicants.

"We put young, highly talented, ambitious people together, typically computer science graduates, and help them to build technology start-ups," says Ms Bentinck.

"It is all about the calibre of people. They don't have to have an established idea. Instead they are asked to work collaboratively, typically in pairs, to come up with ideas and then take them forward."

With sponsors including Microsoft, Nokia and accountancy group KPMG, Entrepreneur First certainly seems to be effective. It claims that, from its first crop of participants, 11 companies were formed, which now have a combined value of £22m.

Image caption Leo Anthias (centre) and Zefi Hennessy Holland (right) have already secured funding for their business from investors in the US Silicon Valley

Mr Clifford says: "We realised that the situation in the UK was in stark contract to the US, where seemingly every tech graduate from places like Stanford University and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] is starting up their own company.

"We wanted to help boost the number of tech start-ups in the UK by bringing such like-minded people together."

'Good working relationship'

Two young entrepreneurs who have formed a technology company together thanks to participating in Entrepreneur First are Leo Anthias and Zefi Hennessy Holland.

They are the founders of collaboration software business Kivo. Their technology allows multiple users to update digital documents in real time.

Mr Hennessy Holland says: "We didn't know each other before we joined Entrepreneur First. And in fact we only got together as business partners towards the end of the scheme when a friend [on the course] recommended Leo. From there we built up a good working relationship."

Now that funding has been secured from technology investors in California, Mr Hennessy Holland and Mr Anthias have big plans for their company.

"We couldn't have done it without Entrepreneur First," says Mr Anthias. "At colleges in the US like Stanford, everyone is into the start-up scene, but that is still lacking over here."

One of the business leaders at Buckingham Palace that all the young entrepreneurs definitely wished to impress was Debu Purkayastha, a senior figure from Google's new business development team.

Image caption Most start-up hubs are a little more basic than Buckingham Palace

While holding his cards close to his chest, he said Google was always keen "to work with and partner" exciting new technology start-ups.

But what about the advice that the prince offered the young entrepreneurs?

Niluka Dheep Satharasinghe, 27, founder of Sparrho, a website and email service that collates the latest news and developments in the world of science, says: "The prince listened intently and seemed genuinely interested."

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