This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.
Two months ago the Tech North team took Northern Stars onto the road for a tour around the North of England staging pitch competitions for digital startups in the cities of Sunderland, Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull and Manchester. (watch the video below!)
On hearing the feedback from the winners of each event and seeing the buzz on social media I knew Northern stars was leaving it’s mark. But it was on the final week that I began to fully appreciate the momentum that Northern Stars had built up when trying to book my ticket to the Grand Final, only to find they had completely sold out the day before.
When the big day eventually arrived so did a unique opportunity for tech entrepreneurs to innovate and invest. Luckily, thanks to the organisers I still managed to get into the UKFast venue along with the 23 shortlisted startups.
Complete with indoor Zen garden, tech reporters and a panel of special guests, it was easy to see the makings of a solid foundation on which to build an innovation ecosystem of real substance. Usually only accessible from my Twitter account, email and occasional meeting, I was now in the same room of a selected digital community, representing a movement of tech startups and entrepreneurs from across the North and further afield.
With what felt like a rare chance to connect, I realised that time was at a premium so I hastily went round as many people as I could. What struck me the most was how willing the founders and owners were to talk to each other. For every group I spoke to there were at least a couple of members from different companies speaking openly about their businesses. With ideas and cards being exchanged our entrepreneurs were now in their elements. I couldn’t help thinking about how much quicker companies can move forward under these conditions. One of the finalists, John Kershaw (M14 Industries) backs this up by saying: “Startups who know lots of people move a lot faster. People can solve your problems, they can connect you with people who you didn’t realise could help your business in whole new ways, and they can help guide you to success. Even a small network of peers really helps you out, and most often in totally unexpected ways.”
The Pitch Event Starts
However, competition was in the air. There was no denying that the main intention of all 23 startups was to be recognised by the leading figures in attendance as being the best. And what better way than to deliver a pitch that could persuade an expert panel of judges to vote you in as a winner?
From those I spoke to about this it was interesting to hear that for some it was their second or third time around pitching to groups, and for others they had lost count. The common ground being that they were ready to go and highly capable. An announcement went out for the audience to be seated and a full house welcomed onto the stage our host for the evening, Herb Kim (Executive Chairman of Tech North) who introduced the panel of expert judges, Bloomberg’s Chris Lowe and Seedcamp’s Dave Haynes, Startupbootcamp’s Andy Shannon, UKBAA’s Jenny Tooth and UKFast’s Jonathan Bowers.
Claire Braithwaite (Head of Tech North) then got the rest of the evening off to a flying start with a reminder that the Tech North movement was about catalysing, championing and supporting entrepreneurs adding “Where’s the Northern Powerhouse? It’s right here in this room at the Northern Stars event!”
The 3 minute countdown was set and the first startup took to the stage to pitch the audience. Each entrant was then questioned by the judges with a strong focus on figures. In terms of the startup’s bottom lines, they ranged from over a million in revenue to no revenue but regularly acquiring millions of hits. Company offerings included data as a service, optimisation for web forms, a music platform, a drone video service and a dating app to name a few * See all the Twitter highlights on Storify. With the initial number of 57 startups contending over the previous 7 events, and the shortlist at the Grand Final being 23, after 2 hours of pitching with questions & answers a well deserved break was called for refreshments and speculation on who the 10 winners could be. One of my own favourite areas of tech is using data to help predict the future – I had closely followed Northern Stars for two months and watched with great interest the final 23 pitch again, but trying to predict the winners was not an easy task by any standards.
With such a diverse group of startups it was clear that many had proven businesses models with the expertise to take their companies forwards into 2016. There was little doubt in my mind at least, that amongst our finalists were some strong companies who we’d be hearing of again in years to come. Those who I spoke to during the break all had different favourites making me question further, what is it that makes a Northern Star winner? As the audience and judges reassembled, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a deep sense of expectancy. Without further ado the top ten winners were announced and welcomed onto the stage to collect their trophies along with the heart felt applause of the audience marking the highlight of the Northern Stars journey. The usual rollercoaster experience of early stage startups had gained traction through the process of the Northern Stars tour with a sustained campaign of competitive events, networking and publicity. Many worthy entrants who will go on to do great things had come and gone, and now with the final winners on stage there was a shared moment of positivity, the type of which is rarely seen other than when there is a successful conclusion to a lot of hard work.
The 2015 Winners:
Airstoc – Founders Andre Ferreira, Giles Moore and Manu Matute. Based in Sheffield, Airstoc is the world’s first dedicated marketplace for the professional drone industry, connecting customers with operators. EvaluAgent – Director Jonny Branshaw. Based in Middlesbrough, EvaluAgent is a workforce optimization platform designed for multi-channel contact centres. Formisimo – Founders Tom New and Al Mackin. Based in Manchester, Formisimo is the Google Analytics for Web forms and checkouts, allowing their clients to analyse what users are doing and react to their actions. Geek Talent – Founder Dominic Murphy. Based in Sunderland, Geek Talent is a tech recruitment search engine that helps candidates navigate their way through their careers. Gnatta – CEO Jack Barmby. Based in Manchester, Gnatta provides businesses with a single interface to speak to the customers on a one to one basis enabling customer service to be handled at scale. IN-PART – Founder Patrick Speedie and Dr. Robin Knight. Based in Sheffield, IN-PART is a leading platform for catalysing university – industry collaborations. Leaf.fm – CEO Gilbert Corrales. Based in Newcastle, Leaf.fm is a music platform that delivers personalised streamed music for free. M14 Industries, Bristlr – Founder John Kershaw. Based in Manchester, M14 Industries have built on the success of their ‘Tinder for Beards’ app (connecting those with beards with people who stroke beards) and are now developing a new dating platform. Peak – Director Richard Potter. Based in Manchester, Peak create data analytics and intelligence for high performance companies. Receptive – Founders Hannah Chaplin and Dan Dukeson. Based in Sheffield, Receptive provide SaaS businesses to get more value from their feature requests.
In just a couple of days our Northern Stars winners will be at the TechCrunch Disrupt event in London. As one of the most recognised tech startup events in the world, this will be one of the best opportunities of 2015 for any new digital company to shine along with some of the most well-known names in the sector. If you are lucky enough to be there, make sure to stop by and say hello at the ‘We Are Tech North’ pavilion!
In addition, all startups that took part in the Northern Stars competition will be invited to join the Tech North Founders’ Network which will provide ongoing support and peer-mentoring to help them grow their business.
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