Grid Finder CEO Thomas Stapley-Bunten: “Creative UK’s equity investment was essentially a catalyst for our acquisition.”

Back to top

Grid Finder CEO Thomas Stapley-Bunten: “Creative UK’s equity investment was essentially a catalyst for our acquisition.” As regional fund portfolio goes from strength to strength, we catch-up with Tom to chat though their recent acquisition, his passion for the North East and goals for the future.   

2024 has only just begun but it’s already seen big things for esports start-up Grid Finder. In January, the Newcastle-based company revealed that it had been acquired by America motorsports supergroup RAFA Racing Club in a multi-million-pound deal inked less than a year after it received backing from our own North of Tyne Culture and Creative Investment Programme. The development marks a continued growth spurt for a company whose evolution has been as rapid as the racing scene it so expertly caters to.

Formed in late 2020, Grid Finder’s origins lay in a lockdown hobby adopted by its founder and CEO Thomas Stapley-Bunten. A former Naval officer whose work hit dry land during the pandemic, his newfound free time was spent playing the motorsports video games that had once only been a luxury during rare moments of downtime at sea. However, what began as a fun way to pass the hours quickly developed into something much more interesting.

“I noticed that there were thousands of communities of people playing racing games online together in organised championships and leagues but there was no one place where you could go to find them all and track your progress across multiple leagues,” explains Stapley-Bunten. Inspired, he built his own resource on the website builder Wix, inadvertently creating a rough-and-ready proof of concept in the process. “We got a bit of press from sim racing news outlets that thought it was a good idea,” he adds. “I realised that there was a business to be had here but it would require investment.”

With little knowledge of how to transform his idea into a company, Stapley-Bunten started attending SME events and workshops in his Newcastle home. “I went to the local accelerator course run by an organisation called Ignite and it was at that event where I met my first full-time co-founder, Nikhil Patel,” he continues. “He was really excited about Grid Finder. We chatted all night and a guy in the group of people we were networking with ended up leading our first pre-seed investment round of £200,000. He was an angel investor just listening to our conversation who thought it was a good idea. Everything kind of spiralled from there.”

By early 2023, Grid Finder had established itself as a one-stop resource used by racing enthusiasts to connect across gaming platforms like PlayStation, XBOX and PC and their most popular titles like Forza, Gran Turismo and F1. They were also well underway with their latest seed funding round, receiving a £100,000 equity investment through Creative UK’s North of Tyne Culture and Creative Investment Programme which provides tailored support specifically for freelancers and businesses based in North Tyneside, Northumberland and Newcastle.

Together with Kevin Beales, the angel investor they’d met by chance at Ignite’s event, Stapley-Bunten and his team were close to closing the round when a previous backer made them a surprise offer. “RAFA Racing served up this curveball,” remembers Stapley-Bunten. “They’ve already got a physical racing club, worldwide racing teams and they were trying to build a social network for real motorsports and online racing. They told us that Grid Finder was perfectly aligned with the rest of the RAFA portfolio and asked if we’d be open to acquisition.” After a negotiation process, the decision was made official just before the year was through. “That was in September last year and we closed the deal at quarter to four on Friday, 22 December – 15 minutes before the banks shut for Christmas,” smiles Stapley-Bunten.

RAFA’s support will allow Grid Finder to focus on doing what they do best: growing their sim racing community and equipping it with even more features that speak directly to their users’ interests. It’s the beginning of a new era for the company and one that couldn’t have been achieved so quickly without tailored support and investment.

“I think Creative UK’s equity investment was essentially a catalyst for the remainder of the seed round and ultimately the acquisition itself,” says Stapley-Bunten, who applied for Creative UK support after Investment Manager Rahul Misra visited Newcastle to talk with creative start-ups. “Creative UK is seen as an institutional investor so other investors assume a level of due diligence has already been done,” he continues. “Institutional investors always have more resources and time to assess the risk of a given investment so if you have one on board then it’s a huge positive signal to other investors.”

As an advocate for establishing Newcastle as a hub for creative excellence, Stapley-Bunten was impressed with the on-the-ground support offered by Creative UK. The fact that the application process was refreshingly painless was also a bonus. “Newcastle isn’t close to London so the fact that they visited to provide support in person rather than doing it on Zoom went a long way,” he says. “I didn’t have to write reams of documentation either. They took what we had and interpreted it in their own way. A lot of investment firms want essay question answers which take a huge amount of time. This was very straightforward.”

Under the RAFA umbrella, Stapley-Bunten is now looking forward to investing in the creative community that he’s proud to call home. “Newcastle has always been in the shadow of London and Manchester but there’s so much going on here,” he tells us. “It’s definitely a growing scene that’s very strong. We punch above our weight and I’m glad our story is helping to shine a spotlight on Newcastle.”

As for what he feels the sector needs to reach new heights: “More adventurous, high-risk investors,” suggests the CEO. “It needs SEIS funds and more angel networks that are high-risk.” Following Grid Finder’s recent achievements, Stapley-Bunten is now able to lead by example. “I’m now fortunate enough to see it from the other side and have started making angel investments in local start-ups in Newcastle,” he tells us. “One of the things I’m most pleased about is the fact we can create more jobs in Newcastle because the city has given us so much. It’ll be great to provide some value back.”

In the meantime though, Grid Finder’s future is looking bright. “Now we get to scale and grow the company. We can take more risks, hire more developers and grow the team,” says Stapley-Bunten. “RAFA racing club sponsors loads of huge racing series, which open the door to different kinds of activations that we could do on our platform with them. We’re essentially going to be charging down towards our goal of making Grid Finder the largest and best online racing platform in the world, backed by one of the largest motorsports groups in the world,” he smiles. “It’s kind of a dream scenario.”

Find out more about the North of Tyne Investment Fund and see if you’re eligible.

Related news