Start-ups pitch to Richard Branson at his family home

Accenture Technology Labs Staff
Sam Shead

Sam Shead

Sam Shead joined Techworld as a reporter in July 2013. He studied Geography with Science Communication at Royal Holloway University before completing a postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff University. Areas that he covers for Techworld include startups, entrepreneurship, wearables, mobile and telecoms.

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Billionaire Sir Richard Branson looked to spot the next big thing yesterday as he listened to start-ups pitch their business ideas to him at his family home in Oxfordshire.

Half a dozen entrepreneurs made 90-second pitches to Branson and a panel of high-profile judges, including Jack Wills co-founder Peter Williams, NotOnTheHighStreet founder Holly Tucker and Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins. The six finalists were chosen from over 400 applications.

Premium self-storage service Boxhug won the startup category and art marketplace miPic won the innovation category. The Startup Award is for businesses in their first 12 months of trading while the Innovation Award is for successfully trading small tech firms looking to grow their business further.

The two winners will receive £5,000 each, as well as mentoring and advice on legal, branding and marketing issues.

As the winner of the Innovation Award, miPic will also be offered free enrolment to Virgin's Accelerator Academy – a 12-week, high-growth training and mentoring programme for digital entrepreneurs. 

In the Twitter-based public vote, miPic tied with Audiowings, a set of wireless headphones that connect to platforms like Spotify via 3G or wi-fi and store music internally. 

Prior to the pitches, Branson said he was looking for "an idea that's going to make a real positive difference to people."

When asked which cities in the UK the best start-ups are coming from, Branson said: "I don't know but I'm sure you do."

Here’s a closer look at each of the finalists.

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Branson's country home

Journalists, entrepreneurs and members of the start-up community were invited to Richard Branson's family home in Oxfordshire. The residence includes the main family home (pictured) and several outbuildings.

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Esteemed panel

The judging panel consisted of several successful British entrepreneurs, including (from left to right): Holly Tucker, co-founder of online gift business, NotontheHighStreet; Nick Jenkins, founder of the personalised greeting card website Moonpig; Dina Toki-O, "digital influencer" and fashion Youtuber; Peter Williams, co-founder of "fabulously British" clothing outfitters Jack Wills, as well as Sir Richard Branson.

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Startup award entrant

Carl Thomas, 31, founder of Audiowings

Audiowings are designed to be premium headphones that wirelessly connect to platforms like Spotify via 3G.

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Startup award entrant

Lettija Lee, 30, founder PecoPoncho

PecoPoncho are disposable rain ponchos that can be "planted" in the ground after they've been worn. They are designed to be used at festivals, sporting events, days out, and for commuting.

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Startup award entrant

Igor Rubets, 36, founder of Boxhug

The Boxhug platform allows people to collect, store and return their belongings from their doorstep via an app. It is aimed primarily at home-owners, students and businesses.

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Happy with his hug

Boxhug's Igor leaves the stage after hugging each member of the judging panel.

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Innovation award entrant

Jamie Grant, 28, founder of Lines

Lines claims to be the first snowsports app that utilises motion sensors in smartphones.

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Innovation award entrant

Chris Thorpe, 45, former CTO for Moshi Monsters and founder of I Can Make

I Can Make is a business that sells educational content for people to make on 3D printers. The launch range will include 12 "kits", with Sir Richard Branson's Spaceship One among those on offer.

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Innovation award entrant

Carl Thomas, 30, CEO of miPic

miPic is a social platform for mobile artographers to share images and sell art to a global audience earning money for free.

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miPic selfie

When miPic was announced the winner of the Innovation award Carl took it upon himself to grab a selfie with the judging panel (excluding Peter Williams).

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Branson takes questions from journalists

At the end of the event, journalists quizzed Branson on the competition in a bid to find out if it was anything more than a Virgin PR stunt. The international businessman seemed to be genuinely interested in helping entrepreneurs grow and develop their ideas through the campaign but it's hard to ignore the limited prize money on the table when Branson is the sixth richest man in the UK and said to be worth $4.6 billion (£2.74 billion). When asked what he would spend the £5,000 prize money on if he was in the winner's shoes, he was quick to defend the relatively small sum, saying that it's possible to build an empire with a tiny amount of money.

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