Investment fairs bring together entrepreneurs with a bright idea and potential backers with time and money to spare. The atmosphere is as electric as an episode of Dragons' Den, with life-changing sums of money available for the lucky few. Jeremy Hazlehurst reports.
It's 11 in the morning, I'm sitting in a Masonic hall and a man is telling me about salmon. Apparently, the reason they can swim up waterfalls is because their flesh is packed with an antioxidant called astaxanthin. I too might become lithe, sprightly and as muscular as an Alaskan sockeye, he suggests, if I ingested a load of it. My new friend rattles a pill-pot filled with little black capsules. Each of these, he says, contains an algae so rich in astaxanthin that it is equivalent to eight ounces of salmon. He then shows me pictures of the lab in New Zealand where he grows this wonder plant, a scarily futuristic room where people in white overalls amble past row after row of bags filled with neon-bright green goo. It looks like the sort of place where aliens would hatch in a sci-fi film, and you half expect a claw to burst out of a bag and savage a passing employee. It's all pretty impressive, and if only I had pounds 100,000 sitting about doing nothing, I might be tempted to invest in it.
On the other hand, if I had pounds 150,000 I might well sink it into 'James Bond's original tailor', the Mayfair company that made the suits that transformed Sean Connery from a body-builder into a credible superspy, and which a chap in a smart three-piece and a pair of funky specs is now trying to turn into a global brand.
Then again, a quarter of a million would get me a share in an automated trading platform that promises to predict the foreign exchange markets, a revolutionary new gizmo for cleaning the hulls of boats, or the Philippines' first premium rum. A bit more and I could be a proud shareholder in a company developing a new diagnostic test for Alzheimer's or a manhole cover with a revolutionary electronic bolting system. Decisions, decisions.
These sometimes weird and possibly wonderful firms were among the 50 or so that were touting for money at the most recent investment fair held by Beer & Partners, a matchmaker that introduces businesses looking for money to wealthy investors. If your views of angel investing are formed by Dragons' Den, then a B&P day is a good corrective. There was absolutely no sign of Duncan Bannatyne or Theo Paphitis doodling in pads and smirking. Nobody was crumpling their nose and scowling a la Deborah Meaden. And, rather than being in a warehouse with exposed brick walls, this took place in a rather more old-fashioned place, a big, soft-carpeted room with Formica tables, where photographs of Worshipful Masters in ermine-trimmed regalia peered down from the walls, and there were stained glass windows representing the counties of England. (A huge, golden image of Stonehenge glowed fluorescently every time the sun came out, symbolising either rock-solid longevity or utter uselessness.)
If the fair was anything to go by, the reality of angel investing is certainly more sober than Bannatyne et al would have you believe. I didn't see a single person thump his fist on a table, leap to his feet and bellow: 'I'm in, dammit!' The way it works is that, instead of entrepreneurs standing up and pitching their ideas, they sit behind desks with a pile of business cards, laptops and gadgets, hoping that potential investors will swing by for a chat and then offer them oodles of cash. Oddly, this is not boring. You soon realise that this event, for all its lack of extroverted moguls, also has the magic ingredient that makes Dragons' Den compelling: there's hundreds of millions of quid sloshing around the room and a life-changing moment is just a 'yes' away.
Apparently, this format works. Beer & Partners started in 1991 and since then the company has helped funnel pounds 120m from investors to clients. …