Where Eagles Dare – Why a Big UK Bank Ditched the Startup Ecosystem Business
When UK banks embraced the digital age, they left behind a tremendous amount of physical real estate. In towns and villages, branches were closed and properties sold and reassigned. Today there may be a store, office building, or wellness center where your local bank was.
Then again, you might find that your local bank has turned into a coworking space for fast growing tech companies.
Like all other major UK retail banking groups, Barclays has reduced its physical presence and some “underutilized” properties have been turned into “Eagle Laboratories, Providing office space, equipment and a range of support services to small businesses across the country.
To date, there are 28 Eagle Labs. Some were created by Barclays from their own properties and others were developed in collaboration with universities and local authorities. When I spoke to Eagle Labs director Jon Hope, I was eager to find out why a banking giant has devoted resources and time to building a network of “business ecosystems.”
One thing leads to another
As Hope explains, the Eagle Labs evolved from another Barclays initiative known as Digital eagles – essentially a community project where bank staff were deployed to provide free digital education.
With digital skills on the agenda, the bank has become aware of Fab Labs, a network of facilities established by MIT. Focused on manufacturing and manufacturing, Fab Labs provide students and entrepreneurs with access to space and equipment. “We wanted to replicate this in our underused spaces,” says Hope.
The Eagle Labs project began by equipping its first spaces with tools such as 3D printers, but today its mission goes beyond providing facilities to manufacturers. There’s some manufacturing gear on hand, but the focus is more broadly on empowering a wide range of tech startups. And as it stands, sectors covered include energy, law, agriculture, health, and esports. “We started with an industry agnostic view,” says Hope. But we tend to focus on areas that are socially or economically important.
The hubs themselves are located in cities – large and medium – in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and you will also find an Eagle Lab in the Channel Islands. “We did the first four or five on our own,” says Hope. “Then we started getting inquiries from local councils and universities, so we started to settle down with partners.
More than a workspace
Hope points out that Eagle Labs is intended to be more than an office rental / co-working space provider.
“We have expert mentorship available and we also offer programmatic support,” Hope says.
In practice, this means that members can take advantage of programs such as accelerators and incubators. To date, Eagle Labs has offered 11 educational and development programs, including one on Fundraising Readiness that has attracted over 400 participants. As it stands, two new acceleration programs – one for women entrepreneurs and the other for students are open for applications.
Hope points out that virtual membership is available for entrepreneurs who wish to access various support services – including mentoring – or use equipment, without renting space.
With incubation and acceleration as part of the mix, Eagle Labs seeks to forge what Hope describes as “bonds of trust” between startups and companies working across industries. Hope cites the Bridge program, which is designed not only to connect large companies and early minnows, but also to foster an understanding of individual requirements, cultures, and deadlines.
Potential members must meet certain criteria. “If you want to be a member, we’ll meet with you to talk about what you’re doing. You have to have scalable ideas, but maybe more importantly, you have to show a willingness to be part of the community, ”says Hope.
There is no bank obligation with Barclays, but banks are banks and the company offers a financial package suitable for entrepreneurs.
Eagle Labs joins a growing ecosystem of Business Support Centers, ranging from single-unit businesses to businesses that offer space and support in multiple cities. Barclays’ reach and its relationships with local government, academia and large corporations have enabled it to launch a nationwide initiative that reflects the growth of startup culture not only in clusters such as London, Oxford and Cambridge, but in a wide range of cities. As such, it may well be a useful resource for startups looking to locate in UK regions while still being able to tap into broader support structures.