Matt Pulzer visits the Barclays Eagle Lab business incubator in Brighton and meets Body Rocket, a high-tech cycling start-up.
Let’s start with two, seemingly unrelated questions. First, in a world of online banking and PayPal, what should banks do with surplus branches? And second, how do you help start-ups move from a brilliant concept to a real business?
According to Barclays, the answer – or at least one answer – is to turn redundant branches into business incubators.
The aim is to support local start-ups as they evolve from first concept to a wealth-generating, job-creating business with real prospects, but which, in the critical early phase faces a shortfall of experience, finance, customers, business knowhow or even something as mundane as broadband-equipped office space.
The result is Eagle Labs, and I met with Brian Sharkey, the Eagle Lab manager in Brighton at the former Preston Circus branch of Barclays bank to learn more about the initiative.
We’re in a former Barclays Bank branch in central Brighton – what has Barclays created here?
Brian Sharkey: This is an Eagle Lab; it is a place to help create businesses and for businesses to innovate, a co-working space plus private offices and meeting rooms. We also have a maker space, a workshop where innovators can come in with an idea and rapidly produce prototypes on site. (Where possible, we also welcome the whole community to come and create new ideas using our 3D printers or laser cutters.)
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You say ‘create businesses’, but it looks very tech focused, would it be correct to say this is not for people who want to start a bakery – is it primarily for engineering, technology and manufacturing ideas?
Yes, those are the types of businesses that we think will benefit the most from Eagle Lab. We want rapidly growing businesses or businesses with ideas; ones that we hope will one day employ lots of local people rather than lifestyle start-ups, although those are welcome to some of our events.
We want to be welcoming and supportive, but it is not like setting up an account and we cannot just take anyone. Space is limited and there is an entry interview because we want to be sure that the support we can offer is appropriate and will genuinely help.
How many Eagle Labs have been set up and are they all based in former bank branches?
There are a dozen Eagle Labs around the UK and another four to six opening later this year – but we have no plans to stop there, so hopefully we’ll see even more in the future.
For further information about Eagle Labs, visit: labs.uk.barclays
If you fancy a virtual visit to the Brighton Eagle Lab then there is a Google tour of all three floors available here.
Eagle Labs are not all based in branches, but the original idea was to utilise underused branch space.
Some of the other labs are based above old branches or in old Barclays offices, and now we’re starting to team up with third parties, which means there are Eagle Labs in libraries, universities and other large corporate premises. Basically, wherever we can find the best place.
This branch is a piece of prime real estate, I imagine you’re not working for free and I can see some expensive equipment – who’s paying for it?
Barclays cover the initial costs, but all the businesses that work from here rent desks from us to help cover our operating expenses. The businesses that are here permanently are paying £210 per month including VAT.
We provide a business address, computers and broadband, and all our businesses can use the workshop. However, if they need extra prototyping support then we may ask them to cover some additional costs.
How would you summarise the Eagle Labs approach to supporting start-ups?
There are three things we are trying to do with Eagle Labs. First, accelerate UK business – we aim to support start-ups in whatever way we can. They don’t have to bank with Barclays or have any affiliation with the bank, we just want to help them with business plans, office and maker space and any other business-oriented support they might need.
Second, collaborative innovation – we will connect all these businesses with whomever we can. Naturally, as a bank, we have lots of connections, we can open doors, introduce them to the specialists they might need to meet, arrange finance or initiate contact with angel investors.
Third, digital empowerment – we want to help with the tech side of support, which could be 3D printers, laser cutters or even virtual reality equipment. In other words, helping the start-up community and local businesses with the latest digital ideas and innovations.
At the moment, we have 38 people in 22 businesses, and the majority of them are working here full-time. We recognise that this is not a nine-to-five operation, and we’re open from 6am to 9pm, five days a week, and access at the weekend is also possible.
Do you have any connection with the Sussex Innovation Centre up the road at the University of Sussex?
Yes indeed – we have worked with them to help some of our businesses. Eagle Lab can definitely be a springboard to move up to SINC (see: bit.ly/2wrenoV) and similar organisations. SINC do come and visit us to keep in contact with our end of the local start-up community.
Tailor-made for start-ups
In many ways an old bank is a perfect location for an operation like Eagle Labs. Remove the standard cashier area and lobby furniture and you have a large open room that is perfect for a co-working space.
The buildings are inherently secure, generally well positioned and most have an assortment of smaller rooms for private offices and meeting rooms. Brian showed me round the large basement, which still has its huge, beautifully made steel safe doors.
One old vault, with its metre-thick walls and ceilings makes an excellent sound-proofed conference room, and a smaller room has been converted into a photography studio, complete with green screen and virtual reality area.
It’s not always obvious until it happens, but places like Eagle Lab are fantastic for good old-fashioned networking and serendipitous meetings.
I was looking for an innovative Brighton start-up story to accompany this piece and as soon as I finished interviewing Brian I met Eric DeGolier and Thomas Irps, who were visiting the Brighton Eagle Lab to discuss using their facilities for their technology start-up, Body Rocket.
Eric is originally from Wisconsin, he did his masters degree at Brunel University and has been in the UK for 10 years. Thomas is a final-year engineering PhD student at the University of Sussex.
Both are keen cyclists and talented engineers, and they hit upon an idea for tapping into the growing market in refining and tweaking the performance of serious cyclists – from the top end of the amateur market right up to elite teams and competitors.
Body Rocket is a system of hardware and software that measures the aerodynamic drag of a rider. The aerodynamics of a cyclist’s body represents 70% of what is slowing them down, so any improvement, even a small one, is important, so important that it can mean the difference between winning and losing.
And it’s worth remembering that the bicycle has already been ultra-optimised. A cyclist could buy the very best bicycle available and they wouldn’t have even touched 70% of the problem of improving performance.
Cyclists or teams with large budgets can go to wind tunnels for performance tuning. Their (static) bicycle is fixed to sensors that measure drag, and the resulting data is used to optimise a rider’s position and posture.
It is a tried and tested system that works well, but it is expensive, time-consuming and largely beyond the budget of most cyclists and competitors
Furthermore, each cyclist’s body is unique and individual. You can’t send one cyclist into a wind tunnel and hope to optimise everyone else. Each rider needs his or her own aerodynamic profile. Testing a full team can cost upwards of £40,000, and so this kind of rider optimisation has remained largely the plaything of the cycling elite with access to multimillion pound budgets.
Meeting the demand
Over the last few years it has been recognised that there is pent-up demand for this kind of aerodynamic optimisation service for serious, but not necessarily super-rich cyclists.
The Body Rocket duo realised that much the same data could be generated using lightweight, compact load cells mounted on the three key ‘touch points’ where a cyclist connects with a bicycle – the seat, the pedals and handlebars.
If you can measure the forces at these key points in real time and with precision then it is possible to directly infer the aerodynamic forces acting on the cyclist, with no expensive wind tunnel needed.
Hardware is hard
I sat down with Eric and Thomas at the Brighton Eagle Lab and asked them to explain their design and progress to date.
Eric: So far, we’ve designed a proprietary load-cell-equipped stem, seat post and pair of pedals, plus the all-important software to create a successful prototype. And, in the spirit of modern wearable tech, the equipment is all wirelessly connected and battery powered.
A small anemometer probe measures wind speed and direction at the front of the bike, and even the inclination of the bike is sensed to take account of the ups and downs of real roads. Our system works and has been successfully benchmarked against a traditional wind tunnel system.
Thomas: We designed and assembled much of the equipment ourselves – even down to reflowing the circuit boards and assembling the load cells. We learnt a lot of things the hard way and would have brought in extra expertise if we’d known just how hard hardware can be!
Eric: Body Rocket production is slated for Britain. We want to take advantage of the high value low-volume manufacturing resources available here – the kind you find in the Formula One and aerospace industrial base of Britain.
Our production requirements are incompatible with a ‘low-cost Chinese manufacturing business model’ – we are dealing with some pretty sensitive electronics and trying to outsource that would be a nightmare. In fact it would probably end up costing more than doing it here.
Making the load cells is a challenge, but we have worked with a British university and with aerospace manufacturers who are used to the kind of precision engineering we require.
Last, but not least, from a customer point of view cycling is huge in Britain, so we are definitely in the right place not just for production but also from a market entry point of view.
Eric and Thomas told me they aim to sell their first Body Rocket system within a year and I hope to revisit their exciting project and follow their progress.
I came away from the Brighton Eagle Lab impressed with its energy, optimism and focus. If they can help nurture start-ups of the quality and vision of Body Rocket then it will be a real service to innovative British manufacturing, and of course the wider economy.
Not every acorn I saw in the Lab will turn into a mighty oak, but many a great business – think Hewlett Packard, Google, Facebook and Apple – did start with just one or two innovators desperately looking for help and support.
It would be a tragedy if British entrepreneurs fell by the wayside for lack of such support, and Eagle Lab is well placed to help prevent that.