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Inside Davos: A global Dragon’s Den where entrepreneurs try to land a billionaire

 (ES Composte)
(ES Composte)

When a simple tonic water costs just shy of a tenner, you know the world’s economic elite are coming to town. For small business owners in the Swiss resort town of Davos, the arrival of the World Economic Forum and its entourage is a cash cow, with bells on. It helps to lubricate the well-oiled wheels of Switzerland’s economy which is keeping the safe-haven Swiss Franc so strong.

Hordes of carpenters and painters are employed to transform many of the town’s boutiques into an elaborate, global trade show. However, they still have to queue up at the Co-op to buy their dinner, steering well clear of the scorchingly expensive restaurants that remain.

At my traditional alpine hotel, menus were quietly updated with fresh inserts the day before the conference started, revealing a dramatic hike in the already hefty prices. I stuck to a regular order of simple soup, the cheapest dish on offer.

Store owners are offered eye-watering sums to move out, lock, stock and barrel, to make way for global brands who set up shop for the five-day event. From Uber to DP World, the main street is a wall of familiar logos, with Manchester United taking a prime spot, perhaps hoping to catch the eye of another billionaire bidder or two.

While the WEF talks loftily about finding solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, from climate change to the cost-of-living crisis, for many attending, Davos is really just a big networking event.

Keeping open every channel of communication between world leaders and business bosses is clearly important at a time of war and geo-political fragmentation. While we can’t expect much concrete action to come from the jet set attending the elite talking shop, there is huge opportunity to be seized at the fringes of the forum.

Davos in January is like a global Dragon’s Den, with start-ups desperately searching for new partners or rounds of funding to help their sapling ideas grow. The pavements may be iced up, but the streets are still paved with gold-plated opportunities.

The potential prize could be a lot bigger than getting a slice of investment from Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden. At Davos, entrepreneurs are hoping to rub shoulders with the globe’s wealthiest billionaires, and clinging to the dream that one will swoop in as an angel investor. The era of ultra-cheap money may have crunched to an abrupt end, but there is still plenty of capital sloshing around the streets of Davos and investors are looking for the next tech innovation, in sectors still ripe for disruption.

So, these founders and business owners attend every event they can, trying to drum up interest. From the Columbian educator, developing hologram tutors to transform lessons in the developing world, to the supply chain innovator using blockchain to improve transparency and the former university baseball player expanding his successful coffee shop chain which supports and incentivises poor students to make sure they get to finish college.

You’ll often find them staying in the cheaper accommodation, further down the mountain, but these entrepreneurs are braving the high prices, sipping on water and nibbling a sandwich, for a chance of meeting the perfect match amid the ultra-wealthy suitors in the snow.

Susannah Streeter is Senior Investment Analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown