Taking Wing? Barclay Bank’s Eagle Labs Scores £12.9 Million To Grow Britain’s Tech Ecosystem
Things are moving rather quickly. In late January – as covered in my last blog – Britain’s Department For Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that £12.9 million in government funding was going to Barclays Eagle Labs in a move intended to speed the growth of Britain’s technology startup and scaleup sector. That spelt the end of the road for Tech Nation, the publicly-funded body set up a decade ago to nurture the innovation economy.
Now – following a recalibration of government – a new ministry has been established. As the name suggests, the Science, Innovation and Technology Department will oversee the hoped-for emergence of the U.K. as a “science superpower.”
So it’s all change. And in the absence of Tech Nation, Barclays Eagle Labs is expected to play an important role in helping startups and scaleups to grow.
So what will this mean in practice? Well, first and foremost what we’re seeing is a move from public to private sector support for innovation. Tech Nation was 75% reliant on government funding and could not continue its work without it. Eagle Labs, on the other hand, is a private-sector initiative created by Barclays Bank. It doesn’t owe its existence to public money. However, it will use the grant cash to expand its activities.
If you run an innovation economy business in the U.K., you perhaps don’t care very much whether the accelerator program you’ve applied for is funded by the state or by a corporation. What you probably would like to know is whether or not Eagle Labs can help you. What does the organization intend to do with its money? To find out, I spoke to Hannah Bernard, Head of Business Banking at Barclays, and David Gowans, Head of Industry at Eagle labs.
A Physical Ecosystem
To understand where the project is going, it’s necessary to look at what Eagle Labs is doing today. “We have a physical ecosystem,” says Bernard. “We also have a virtual network.”
The physical infrastructure is comprised of around 30 Eagle Lab hubs. They are located all over the UK, not just in well-established technology clusters. Essentially, these hubs provide not only workspace but also equipment that can be used by local entrepreneurs at a community level.
Many of them were built out of old Barclays branches that became redundant as more and more banking went online. Some were established in a collaboration with local authorities and universities. The equipment on offer – such as 3D printers – was initially chosen to benefit industries that were socially and economically important. Today, Eagle labs provides services and support for entrepreneurs across a range of sectors. Entrepreneurs who don’t want to rent space in the hubs can use the virtual network to access help and connect with mentors.
In addition, Eagle Labs operates accelerators, incubators and educational programs. Diversity is an important theme. David Gowans cites a scaleup program for Black founders as an example. There are also programs focused on funding readiness and breaking into international markets. “We aim to deliver programs with best-in-class partners and mentors,” says Gowans.
As Gowans sees it, Barclays is well-placed to connect businesses from different sectors. for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and technologies. “An example would be healthcare and gaming,” he says, citing the example of Thymia, a startup company that uses video games to make mental health assessments. Eagle labs has put the company in touch with specialists from the creative sector.
“We can act as a convener,” says Bernard. “We spot a problem and make connections with other industries that can help.”
There is also scope to forge verticle links. Gowans points to “Bridge” programs connecting startups with large companies. “The big companies put problems that the startups may be able to solve,” he says.
All this is already up and running. So the question is, how will the £12 million in grant money be used?
The emphasis will be on regional growth. The goal of policymakers is a nationwide tech-driven boost to the economy. The thinking is this. If successful startup and scaleup culture is embedded across the country as a whole, the British economy – which is feeling slightly beleaguered at the moment – could benefit from the creation of 678,000 new jobs by 2025, with the value of the sector boosted by £41.5 billion.
It’s an agenda that ties in neatly with Eagle Labs’ existing nationwide infrastructure. “80 percent of our businesses will not be based in London,” says Bernard.
It seems that the organization has been awarded the grant funding based on its track record to date, rather than being handed a set of instructions from the government. “The DCMS didn’t dictate to us,” says Bernard. The remit was to build the technology sector and we told them what we thought we could deliver.” The plan now is to use the funding to expand and develop existing programs.
While the remit given to Eagle Labs in many ways echoes the work done by Tech Nation in terms of developing the sector in all regions, the mode of delivery will undoubtedly be different. There are also some gaps. For instance, Eagle Labs won’t be taking on the administration of the fast track Tech Visa scheme – designed to attract talent from abroad – which has been handled by Tech Nation.
We’ll have to see it all plays out in the coming months and years.