Prince has gathered some high-class dragons to fire up new entrepreneurs

My Week

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Flinging open the door of St James’s Palace on Monday evening, the Duke of York didn’t want his entrepreneurial guests to get too comfortable.

At Pitch@Palace, his initiative to match start-ups with mentors and investors, he started proceedings by emphasising that the palace had no green rooms – associated with resting up before a performance – only red rooms to provide the ambience for jangling nerves among those who were about to pitch.

They coped regardless of the decor, even though a bugle-playing guardsman was on hand to cut them off if they went over time.

Whatever is alleged to have gone on in Prince Andrew’s private life, Pitch seems to be working. There are other networking efforts, not least Brent Hoberman’s Founders Forum, but bringing the likes of BBC Trust chairman Rona Fairhead, PwC chief Ian Powell and Simon Fox of Trinity Mirror together to consider a crop of rising stars is royal convening power put to good effect.

The prince has already staged two Pitch events abroad to showcase domestic entrepreneurs to a wider audience. Now he is considering taking the event around the country. Edinburgh might work, but I think Manchester would be ideal. The only drawback is the lack of palaces, unless the city’s Palace Theatre can fit the bill.

We need our children to crack the code

Jukedeck was a worthy Pitch@Palace winner. Its software, which generates its own royalty-free music, could provide the ideal soundtrack for the hundreds of hours of web video uploaded to YouTube every second. Just don’t expect investment from the Musicians’ Union.

But it was Kuato Studios that caught my eye. A computer games veteran of Sega and Sony and an award-winning teacher have joined forces to create games such as Dino Tales and Hakitzu Elite, which teach computer coding to children as young as three.

Britain leads the world at one end of academia, generating 10 per cent of the world’s research output from just 1 per cent of the global population. Yet we have been slow to get going in the area of edtech (education technology), where start-ups are focused on improving classroom learning and drilling into test results. None of the firms that education giant Pearson has so far taken on its Catalyst accelerator programme have been from these shores, for example.

Of course, we don’t need the best new education ideas to be Made in Britain, but we do need coding to become commonplace if the shortage of scientists and engineers is to be addressed. It stands to reason that if the innovators in this space are sat in Seattle or Tel Aviv, Britain’s classroom scores will be left behind. I hope Kuato is the first of many to break through.

Smart thinking needed on smart meters

I interviewed Caroline Flint, the shadow Energy Secretary. We disagree on several things, such as state intervention in the retail energy market should Labour hold power after the general election on May 7. The model that British Gas and the rest of the big six providers use is failing at the moment, but freezing prices is a step too far in my book.

Where we hit some common ground was in the area of smart meters. The £11bn programme to install new meters in every home that will relay usage back to providers via a central communications system is starting to look like the Titanic floating towards an iceberg.

Ms Flint is a fan because incorrect billing is the single biggest cause of customer complaints, and smart meters should put an end to estimated bills. Her concern is if costs get out of hand.

The Institute of Directors is more strident, calling for the scheme, whose roll-out is highly unlikely to hit its completion target of 2020, to be halted, altered or scrapped. It points out that even though a European Union directive gave birth to the initiative, 11 countries have ruled out installing new electricity meters, with most citing cost. Certainly, savings for customers will be marginal.

One MP, Adam Afriyie, suggested that a small camera fixed on to an existing meter could record readings regularly, possibly combined with a smartphone app, at a fraction of the price. There is a good argument for turning smart meters into a voluntary scheme or limiting the programme to the largest energy users.

Staging a rethink might not be top of a to-do list for any new government. As someone who wrote plenty on the costly NHS IT malfunction at the hands of Accenture, iSoft and friends, I’d say if saving money is still on the agenda, it shouldn’t be far off the top.

Exit Mark Clare, after rebuilding from rubble

Hard hats off to Mark Clare, the chief executive leaving Barratt Developments after nine years in charge. Who would have thought he would be going out on a high after the near-death experience caused by his £2.2bn takeover of rival housebuilder Wilson Bowden just as the property market neared meltdown?

Barratt was left with debts of £1.6bn and had to sack staff, mothball projects and launch a £720m rights issue. After that drama, some bosses – assuming they managed to cling on to their jobs – might have headed for the exit at the earliest safe opportunity. For me, that was when Barratt restored the dividend in 2013 after a five-year gap.

Mr Clare was keen to hang on longer and thought the company gained character from going through the mill. He never built as many houses as the Government would have liked, but investors who took fright in the early days will hope his successor David Thomas can  emulate him.

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