Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Prince Andrew: Tech's royal kingmaker

Startups are getting access to one of the world's most powerful address books, thanks to Prince Andrew, Duke of York

Published: Apr 20, 2017 07:31:38 AM IST
Updated: Apr 19, 2017 05:57:33 PM IST

With his Pitch@Palace networking event, Prince Andrew is reinventing himself as a patron to a new generation of entrepreneurs
Image: Ian Scaramonga For Forbes

So what do you do?” Queen Elizabeth II asked pointedly, looking up at Michael Rolph, a 35-year-old software nerd, who stood in a line of entrepreneurs in one of the state rooms of St James’s Palace. The queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, stood nearby listening.

Nervously, Rolph replied that he ran a mobile app startup called Yoyo Wallet. And what, the queen asked, did Rolph think of the duke’s big new project, the one where startups like Yoyo came to the palace to pitch their ideas to some of the most powerful business leaders and investors in the country? Rolph explained that two years earlier, the duke’s programme had connected him to one of Britain’s top coffee chains, and on this December day they were announcing a partnership.

“What took you so long?” the queen quipped. Rolph couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, ma’am,” he said, “in the intervening two years we had to build our business.” The queen gave him a nod and moved on down the line.

This was the seventh and most recent Pitch@Palace, a semiannual series of networking events that the duke started three years ago. Each time, a dozen startups pitch their businesses to some 400 power brokers inside the crimson state rooms of St James’s, the 500-year-old palace built by Henry VIII that sits next door to Buckingham Palace. Surrounded by 17th-century paintings, the entrepreneurs expound on proprietary algorithms, mobile platforms and machine learning. It’s something of a Y Combinator meets Downton Abbey, where storied tradition and creative destruction embrace awkwardly in hopes of ushering in the future a tad more quickly.

The events pull in the CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies and leading fund managers and, on occasion, the duke’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, or his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson. The appearance of the queen in December was a first. During a pitch session that included a cybersecurity outfit and an Estonian maker of software for timber management, she sat in the front row on a golden throne-chair, her bouffant white hairdo standing out in a sea of dark suits.

In a day and age where every self-respecting mayor, governor and prime minister professes a love for entrepreneurship—and when scores sponsor startup incubators, accelerators and pitch contests—why would the world’s most celebrated royal family sit on the sidelines? After all, it has something of a built-in advantage. “Who gets an invite to a royal palace and says no?” one participant remarked afterward over roast beef canapés and champagne.

While the duke may be under no illusions that he’s going to discover the next Google, his royal network makes him a player—and a useful one. Pitch@Palace has helped 247 startups expand their businesses, with more than two-thirds going on to raise money and hire more staff. At an earlier confab, the British video-compression startup Magic Pony made the contacts that eventually led to its $150 million sale to Twitter in June.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, accompanied by his mother Queen Elizabeth II attends the opening of Pitch@Palace 6.0 at St James’s Palace last November
Image: John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images

On an afternoon in February, the duke, who is sixth in line to the throne and exhibits a touch of aristocratic eccentricity, sits in his study at Buckingham Palace. Leaning over a vast oak table, he describes Pitch@Palace with an analogy that’s as odd as it is devoid of tech buzzspeak: Fruitcake. His behind-the-scenes meetings with startup founders and the selection process are the cake itself, packed with raisins and nuts. Of the glitzy pitching event at the palace, he says, “That’s the marzipan,” before turning to his aides. “Would you agree?” One of them nods: “The way you describe it, sir, is exactly right. It’s the final piece.” The duke, 57, has been surrounded by aides and servants all his life. The plate of cookies on the table was brought in by a footman dressed in bright red livery and coat-tails. But the gilded lifestyle has increasingly required public service. He and older brother Prince Charles are among the most active royals in history, with Charles focussed on climate change and the armed forces, and the duke on entrepreneurship. A major difference between the two: Money. “Charles’s landed trust generates $26 million a year to spend as he likes,” says Robert Jobson, author of The Future Royal Family. In comparison, the duke earned £250,000 (about $300,000) annually, according to the last public records released in 2010.

Pitch@Palace could help Andrew reinvent himself after the controversial conclusion in 2011 to his decade-long, government-appointed stint as Britain’s special representative for trade and investment. The press long criticised his dallying with unsavoury contacts like Jeffrey Epstein, an American financier and convicted sex offender.

But this new role suits him. During a meeting with tech founders at the Trampery accelerator in East London in mid-February, he fixes each one with a stare and grills them. Afterward, back in his study, he says that he tried to figure out to whom he might best connect them. That’s his favourite part of the job. “Making sure they are successful,” he says. “That’s what the Royal Family is about.”

Like any startup worth its salt, Pitch@Palace has its own origin myth. In 2012, when the duke was still smarting from the loss of his trade-envoy role, he noticed where he might make himself useful. Small technology startups were struggling to get funding, as many VCs were chasing bigger, less risky companies. The duke considered setting up his own fund but realised that as an investor he wouldn’t have an impact on that many entrepreneurs. Then, at an exclusive tech conference in late 2013, he started chatting at the coffee bar with Tom Hulme, the British director of a networking group called IDEO. London was like a petri dish for growth, Hulme told him. “Maybe you could be the accelerant to make those reactions happen faster.” The duke’s eyes lit up. His gilded introductions to industry contacts to help startups scale are “risk-mitigation services”, he says.

Now, twice a year, the duke’s team organises three regional pitch events in the UK, followed by a boot camp that whittles 42 startups down to 12 to present at the final gathering in St James’s Palace.

During his formal pitch, Yoyo Wallet’s Rolph asked if anyone in the room could connect him with Gerry Ford, the founder of Britain’s third-largest coffee chain by number of locations. Within minutes, the coffee mogul’s phone was buzzing with more than a dozen email notifications Two years later, Rolph met the queen and announced his exclusive partnership with Ford’s Caffè Nero.

At least twice a year, just under two dozen executives from sponsors like Barclays, AstraZeneca and Inmarsat—who make up the programme’s board of directors and judges—gather at Buckingham Palace to peruse a spreadsheet of startups. The programme is successful, says Hulme, who now works as a partner for Google Ventures’ London office. Pitch@Palace events are planned later this year in the Middle East, China and Australia. And the US? “We’re going to try something different this year to see if it takes,” the duke says, without elaborating. And other royals, including Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and the Netherlands’ Crown Prince Constantijn, are keen on emulating the duke with their own startup programmes, Hulme says. Whereas government-backed initiatives, like ‘Tech City breakfasts’ at the prime minister’s office on Downing Street, often fizzle as new waves of civil servants replace their predecessors, royal families “can grow something meaningful over time,” Hulme says.

When he’s asked how long he’ll spearhead Pitch@Palace, the duke’s eyes pop out in mock surprise. “As long as it takes,” he says with a shrug. The storied monarchy, it seems, is intent on playing its part in shaping the future.  

(This story appears in the 12 May, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)