OPINION25 March 2010

Dragons’ Den – Just a shame the money wasn't real

Given the potential of the Dragons’ Den session to descend into silliness, it turned out to be a showcase for some extremely sensible ideas.

In the last session of the conference yesterday, four sets of would-be entrepreneurs sought backing for a new research venture from a panel of ‘dragon’ financiers.

Given the potential of the Dragons’ Den session to descend into silliness, it turned out to be a showcase for some extremely sensible ideas.

The dragons (who were only offering toy money, and had been briefed to be more ‘soup dragon’ than ‘fire-breathing dragon’) came in the form of investors Oliver Rothschild and Karl Chapman, and research agency founders John Kearon, Andy Dexter and Chloe Fowler.

First up to seek funding were Anthony Rowbottom of Insight Research and Phil Steggals of Kadence, pitching a company that would conduct research via smartphone apps, incorporating eye-tracking and geo-tagging.

The dragons were cautious on this one. Chloe Fowler wanted to know who would pay for such a thing. Karl Chapman wanted to know how much Rowbottom and Steggals would be paying themselves. Andy Dexter just wanted to know how much they’d be paying him. “Our revenue in the third year is £10 million,” said Steggals. “Is it,” replied Dexter coldly. Still, he ended up offering £100,000 for 51%, so a good result.

The next contestant was Will Goodhand of BrainJuicer, who pitched an agency called DigiViduality, which would use ‘demographic replicators’ to create artificial ‘bots’ simulating the lives, activities and concerns of a particular target group. BrainJuicer is in fact already doing this – although not, as far as we know, in exchange for cash, which draws into question Goodhand’s valuation of the business at about three quarters of a million.

Goodhand was nothing if not enthusiastic, but with an idea that sounded like a rejected Doctor Who script, a more sober approach might have been wise to win the dragons over.

Oliver Rothschild congratulated him on “a very exciting and novel presentation” and then fell silent again without mentioning money. Karl Chapman said, “I thought it was a fantastic presentation. I haven’t got a clue what you were talking about. But I’ll give you £200,000 for 10% of your lifelong earnings as a comedian.”

Ironically then, Goodhand’s days in the research industry may be numbered.

The next idea was rather more down-to-earth. Abi Hill from Spring and Julian Cox from Tuned In proposed setting up a market research social enterprise: taking on school leavers and unemployed young people “to do youth-on-youth research on an ad hoc basis”.

After asking for £100,000 for 10%, they got the best result of the day: an offer of £100,000 for 0%. “I think it’s a really good social initiative,” said Andy Dexter. “I consider it a charitable donation.” He then added nervously, “Obviously this is not in real life…”

The final proposal came from Heena Jethwa of SPSS, whose idea for a research firm based on covert surveillance struck the dragons as being a bit creepy. The name, Gestalt Research International Network (producing the sinister acronym Grin), did nothing to help. “This is a front for either the CIA or GCHQ,” said John Kearon. Oliver Rothschild, meanwhile, saw a business opportunity, but not the one Jethwa had been hoping for. “I’d like to invest in the software that takes away all the information that you have and allows the public to have not so much intrusion on their privates lives and behaviour,” he said.

In the end, the host Nathan Evans concluded that, as the dragons weren’t really going to give away their children’s inheritance to any of the would-be entrepreneurs, “everybody’s a winner”. Which is lovely, but it’s a shame that the dragons didn’t have proper money to get some of these oddball start-ups off the ground.

All the same, it was nice for Research 2010 to finish with what might turn out to be a prescient glimpse of the future of research, or just a bunch of daft ideas that we’ll all have forgotten about in a couple of months time. Either one is a very worthwhile way of spending the last hour of the conference.