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How Barclays is backing the tech boom: a day in the life of Eagle Labs

The Guardian, 22 Aug 2017

In the heart of Cambridge, an old branch of Barclays is playing host to some of the most innovative startups and scaleups in the UK. So how did the bank find itself at the cutting edge of Britain’s entrepreneurial community?

“We started Raspberry Pi in a garage,” Jack Lang, one of the co-founders of the foundation that makes the tiny low-cost computers, tells a small group of ambitious entrepreneurs gathered on a warm Thursday morning in July. “We’d heard of people like Clive Sinclair, but we didn’t get the chance to hear him tell us the mistakes he made or the problems he solved. We’d have been better off in a place like this …” he gestures around the room. “Although I do think it’s a bit ridiculous that they’ve taken out all the ceiling tiles.”

Lang is talking about Barclays’ Eagle Lab incubator, launched last year to help local entrepreneurs grow their fledgling businesses from two- or three-person teams into companies with 20 or 30 staff and a healthy cashflow, or backing from a venture capitalist (VC).

Perched on the top floor of an old student branch near the river Cam and a hefty stone’s throw from the city’s cluster of colleges, this bank-led incubator feels like a cross between a hipster work space, a Silicon Valley campus and a laid-back graduate student college.

Lang himself is effectively part of the team – he’s one of a group of mentors and lecturers from Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, explains Benjamin Storey, head of Eagle Labs Cambridge. “There’s no such thing as a typical day for any startup in this Lab,” says Storey. But every week there’s someone like Lang helping out.

“Judge [Business School] does a seminar here every Thursday morning and the mentor stays for the afternoon for one-on-one sessions,” he says, as we sit round a table in the canteen, complete with coffee machine and a fridge stocked with free beer. “They also offer our members free quarterly accelerate weekends for early-stage startups. But we also connect people here with funders, accountants, solicitors, HR experts … my job is to understand their business to see how we can help them scale.”

For Wavelength Law, the mentors have been invaluable. Founded by two commercial lawyers who spotted inefficiencies in the way the legal profession was using technology, Wavelength was one of the first companies to join Barclays’ Cambridge Eagle Lab back in 2016. The firm now offers advice and implementation skills to new and established legal firms.

“I remember one session with a mentor where we were trying to explain our business,” says Wavelength’s co-founder Drew Winlaw. “He banged on the table and said: ‘I don’t understand what you’re trying to do!’ He made us think more carefully and helped us work on how to generate value for an organisation – and then capture some of that value for ourselves. We moved in with two people, now we’re up to nine and growing purely organically. It’s still evolving and the mentors – different people with different backgrounds – are helping with that.”

There are currently 32 businesses across almost as many industries based at this Lab – including the UK HQ of Galmed Pharmaceuticals, a Tel Aviv pharma startup; Yagro, the Amazon of agri-tech; the Cambridge Coding Academy; and – until recently graduated – autonomous vehicle AI scaleup FiveAI.

The idea for Eagle Labs, explains Storey, started as a way to repurpose underused spaces. The first Lab opened as a maker space in a nearby Cambridge branch in December 2015, with this first incubator launching in April 2016. There are now 12 Eagle Labs across the country with three more in the pipeline and a target of 20 by the end of the year.

Members can hot-desk one day a week, take a 24/7 annual resident membership or hire one of five private offices – and deals are competitive, with free meeting rooms, mentor sessions, and auditorium hire part of the package. The real value, however, says Storey, is the connections Barclays and the community in and around the Lab can offer.

“We don’t take equity, but we do try and connect members with angels and VCs in their sectors. For me, this is a chance to do something totally different. We’ve got nine doctors and eight MBAs in here – an insane amount of knowledge – but my success isn’t judged on the people who are here or the numbers that come in. It’s on the number of businesses that leave – on the people who outgrow us.

As if to prove his point, Ben Peters, co-founder of FiveAI, is sitting at an empty desk tapping away at his laptop. His company moved out yesterday – having outgrown their 10-person table space – but he’s briefly retreated back here to get some work done.

“It’s been easy to grow from two people to 12 people here because everything is done for us – the desk, the coffee machine … it sounds trivial, but we’re just moving into a new office and there’s been a week’s debate about which coffee machine we buy and who’s going to clean it,” he grimaces and looks around wistfully.

“This office takes all that friction away. You’ve got other people thinking about all those details, which allowed us to create our own culture. Now, as we move, it turns out that sort of thing is a major part of running a company.”

He’ll also miss the network of companies Eagle Labs offers: “When you’re a small company, it’s pretty lonely,” he says. “Unless you’ve got other companies to talk to … specifically other companies that are going through the same growth pains. That provides huge relief and can be very helpful. The Wavelength guys, for instance, have been hot on the drone market laws – and those laws are being used as basis for regulating autonomous vehicles, so their information helped us win a government grant to trial autonomous cars in south London in 2019.”

FiveAI is one of two Eagle Lab-incubated companies founded by serial entrepreneurs – one of Peters’ co-founders is Stan Boland, who has sold various high-potential businesses he’s been involved in for a grand total of just over $1bn. Their recent desk neighbours, AI decision-making platform Prowler, was co-founded by Vishal Chatrath, part of the team who sold speech recognition AI Vocal IQ to Apple for a reported $50m. Prowler’s year at Eagle Labs saw them grow from a three-person team to a staff of 24.

That’s a source of inspiration for Yagro CEO and co-founder Gareth Davies, whose years on the VC side taught him to respect serial entrepreneurs’ choices. Yagro’s three founders launched their purchasing platform for farmers after a round of seed financing last August – the team has grown to eight and is still expanding, prompting Davies to add a six-man private office to the eight desks out on the floor … “although when I asked which of the guys wanted to move into this private office nobody does,” he shrugs. “They all want to stay out there.”

He was initially wary of moving into a Barclays branch – worried he’d have bankers constantly trying to sell him loans or pensions. “But Barclays gets it right … they don’t ram Barclays services down my throat and they give us really sound, unexpected business development support – like introducing us to Prince Charles,” he grins. “The Prince is a keen farmer, we showed him the platform and he loved it. That wouldn’t have happened without Barclays connections.”

“It’s all about building the cluster – not just in this building but around it,” says Storey as we pack up and leave. “We need to build up the ecosystem. Other local work spaces aren’t competitors – we’re in constant contact to find the right place for local talent … so companies not right for Eagle Labs may be right for others nearby. Entrepreneurs need to feel they’re working with people who have common ambition – and here we look for businesses that want to progress, scale and grow. It’s as simple as that.”

 

For more entrepreneurial stories from Barclays, please visit the Guardian

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