Rising Stars 3.0 judge Ed Prior: ‘Founders need to be agile now more than ever’

Kane Fulton, September 24, 2020 4 min read

Ed Prior is an investment banker for GP Bullhound, one of the leading technology advisory and investment firms. His expertise in raising capital and helping ambitious businesses scale and exit has made him a perfect fit to judge our Rising Stars competition for the past five years. Ed is once again returning for Rising Stars 3.0, revamped for 2020 with an online format designed to find the UK’s most exciting and innovative early-stage businesses. Apply today.

We picked Ed’s brain to find out why he’s returning as a judge, what makes a successful Rising Stars company, and how the pandemic has impacted this year’s competition.

How did you get involved with Rising Stars?

Ed Prior: Before Rising Stars there was Northern Stars, which I judged from when it launched back in 2016. That was a competition ran by Tech North and Tech City, which merged to become Tech Nation in 2018. It was quickly recognised as a very good competition with a successful format that was replicated with Rising Stars, expanding to cover the whole of the UK as opposed to just the North of England. I’ve been fortunate to be invited back each time, so I must be doing something right!

What keeps you returning to judge the competition?

Rising Stars is one of the best startup competitions available to founders and therefore it’s a really good opportunity to see the best and most exciting startups in the UK. As a judge, you get to see a really broad breadth of interesting businesses. It has a very rare format in that founders can enter the competition regardless of what region or sector they are from. I really enjoy seeing what tech entrepreneurs are creating and the challenges they are trying to solve.

How might Covid-19 impact Rising Stars?

Arguably, entrepreneurs have faced some of the most difficult circumstances over the past six months, as it hasn’t been a normal year for business across any sector or region. It’s rare that a single event has such a global effect. While not every company will be trying to combat Covid specific problems, there will be very few which have not been effected by the pandemic and therefore most will have had to react in one way or another. Some may have experienced exponential growth due to Covid, while others may have had their entire market ripped beneath their feet. In both of these circumstances founders will have needed to adapt and be agile. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the entrants this year will have had to pivot their entire business models over the past couple of months.

How different will founders find pitching over the internet compared to a live audience?

There will be a big difference. Pitching live is all about how you handle your nerves when presenting and making sure you don’t forget the key points on each slide. With it being online, this year’s competition is going to be more about the quality of the underlying business and demonstrating the fundamentals to the judges. Entrants from previous years have created a high bar!

In your experience, what makes a successful Rising Stars company?

If you look at the companies which have been involved in the finals of the competition over the past couple of years, it’s clear that they share some similarities. Key for Rising Stars is to have some sort of demonstrable traction – either revenue growth, customer wins or improving underlying key metrics. We get quite a few entries each year from businesses at concept stage, and even though they are promising they are a little too early in their development to gain enough marks with the judges. Another similarity is to have a clearly defined audience, or niche; consumer businesses know exactly who their product is targeting and how they are going achieve sales. For B2B companies they know where they fit in the value chain and what problem they are solving.

And what do you look for in a founder and their team?

Again looking at previous Rising Stars winners, they tend to have a clear purpose as to why they founded their startup and they are driven to succeed despite what anyone tells them. Many successful founders have experienced failure before which creates a steely resilience. Building the right team around them is super important whatever stage they’re at, so having the right support structure and network – business angels or a chairman or CFO that has been through the process before – is really important.

How does the judging process work?

The Rising Stars judging process is very transparent. It’s made clear to applicants from the outset that at every stage of the competition, judges are scoring on five criteria: value proposition; competitive advantage; current traction; experience of the team; and potential to scale. There are three stages of judging, and at each stage judging panels are made up of judges from across the UK’s tech ecosystems; they are from a variety of roles, including investors, entrepreneurs, community leaders, corporate leaders and accelerator leaders.

In the first stage of judging, applications are sent to a panel of around 40 judges across the UK. Each judge receives around 15 applications assigned at random, and all applications are scored by at least three judges to ensure fairness. The five highest scoring companies from each region are named ‘Rising Stars Regional Winners’ and progress to the next stage of the competition.

The second round of judging, the Rising Stars Semi-Finals, involves each regional winner pitching to a panel of judges. Founders are asked to deliver a three-minute pitch and then have a Q&A with the judges. All pitching will be done virtually this year, with founders receiving pitch training and coaching to help them prepare for the semis. The 20 highest scoring companies in the semis are named as UK Finalists.

The final round of judging decides the 10 overall UK Winners and will be largely done through a judges’ roundtable, with an opportunity for the finalists to have a short Q&A with them. My role in the process is as the independent adjudicator for the Semi-Finals and final judging roundtable; I’m there to ensure scoring is fair and the whole process is robust. Judges’ feedback is recorded and fed back to the companies in the competition as much as possible.

What previous winners have stood out in memory?

There have been a few! If I was to pick one which is topical at the moment, it would be Serelay from Rising Stars 1.0 who were combating fake news by allowing users to verify content and flag pictures or videos which had been digitally altered. At the time not much was known about so-called deepfakes, while today people are increasingly aware of the issues they create. Their business purpose was clear – they had the foresight to see that a world full of deepfakes wasn’t going to be good for anyone and the way that they were solving the problem by using AI and machine learning resonated well with the judges.

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