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1 February, 2018 - 10:54 By Kate Sweeney

Eagle Labs banks on growing the ‘Acorns’ of the future

Well into its fourth century of trading, Barclays has always been known as a bank for innovation, even though the type of innovation it has backed has become increasingly advanced and sophisticated in recent times.

It was Barclays that loaned Acorn Computers a life-saving £1 million when it might have foundered fatally long before the end-game.

Thanks to Barclays’ foresight at the time, Acorn was able to stay sufficiently strong to give birth to a then little known business called Arm RISC Machine – then Advanced RISC Machines and then ARM.

Now rebranded as Arm but still Cambridge’s leading technology icon, the business was spun out of Acorn to become the world’s leading superchip architect and fetched $32 billion from Japanese corporation SoftBank in an eye-watering acquisition in 2016.

From tiny acorns indeed! Barclays helped turn Cambridge’s version into a technological oak in a forest of customers deriving their prosperity from  innovation in many and varied forms.

Fast forward to 2017 and Barclays showed its own powers of creativity by establishing the first Barclays Eagle Lab at the Chesterton Road branch in Cambridge from where that famous Acorn loan was made in the late 1970s.

Barclays’ vision was a game-changer in its own right. With High Street lenders closing branches at a record rate – almost 1,000 went again in the UK last year – Barclays took a longer view.

Why not create an incubator for startup businesses in a substantial part of the branch premises where the fledgling enterprises could take space and also tap into support services and strategic expertise under the same roof? Residents would be able to network with soulmates and take advantage of so many opportunities for collaboration and subsequent growth.

The eagle landed at Barclays – the Eagle Lab to be exact – and has soared to great heights, giving a home to some superb Cambridge startups while they found their feet.

FiveAI, the autonomous vehicles trailblazer and, which is developing the world’s first principled AI decision-making platform, grew in quickfire fashion at the Eagle Lab before scaling into larger facilities elsewhere in the science & technology cluster.

Several other young companies are following a similar path; a number of these have agreed to be a featured in a new series on the Eagle Lab in Business Weekly in forthcoming issues.

Barclays was equally innovative in its choice of director for the Eagle Lab venture, asking Benjamin Storey to take charge.

Storey has worked his way through the banking infrastructure in various customer-facing and relationship roles, onto associate director status from 2013, then ecosystem manager with Barclays Corporate Banking before his appointment to steer the Eagle Lab initiative in April 2016. 

In his high flying career he has handled accounts and relationships for businesses turning over anything from £50 million to £500m and worked at Canary Wharf as well as in Cambridge.

Aware of Barclays’ rich history, Storey set about building for the future with the Eagle Lab initiative. The bank now has a network of such facilities across the UK but Cambridge is regarded not just as the pioneer but also the most advanced and successful to date.

As well as its office element, the Eagle Lab offers a separate fabrication space equipped with the latest in 3D printing and making technology. Facilities and advisory services are open to companies right across the business spectrum and not simply for Barclays customers.

Storey says: “The banking industry has seen a shift to offering branch services online recently. Rather than allow decent physical facilities to be under-utilised we took a look at the current business landscape locally, the vibrant startup scene and the different technologies now being exploited and felt the building lent itself to a facility where innovative businesses could flourish.

“We envisaged the Eagle Lab as a stimulating environment where entrepreneurs could engage with peers, use advanced materials and technology and have access to our best brains – experienced people, many of whom who have helped to take companies from startup stage to international success.

“We initiated a programme of sympathetic refurbishments to produce a flexible mix of offices, meeting areas and creative spaces and since opening our doors have seen a wide variety of companies taking space at Chesterton Road.

“Our portfolio of members reflects the way Cambridge is developing as a centre for cutting edge science & technology. Our companies can grow here to a healthy stage and then scale easily into larger facilities elsewhere having found their feet with us.

“They are unencumbered by lengthy and expensive leases and while there is no obligation to be a Barclays customer, the wealth of experience among our managers and directors on hand means we can help tenants with contacts and connections as they expand internationally.

“We have 14 Eagle Labs open in the UK at present, soon to be 15, and the plan is to swell the portfolio. Cambridge was the first and has created a really good community of companies in a relatively short space of time.”

Benjamin Storey

Demonstrating its outreach, the Eagle Lab has also developed collaborations with a range of academic and trade influencers such as Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and the Government’s Department for International Trade to the broader benefit of its resident businesses.

Taken as a whole, the Eagle Lab is predicated on a new and transformational business model, helping embryonic companies build to last, all the while embracing that most precious of commodities – unbridled innovation.

• Photographs copyright of Laura Lewis.

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