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27 March 2018 | By Joe Marshall Interview

Supporting Northern Ireland's SMEs

As Barclays Eagle Lab in Belfast approaches its first birthday, we ask Adrian Doran, Head of Corporate Banking for Barclays Northern Ireland, how the project has benefitted the local economy

In the two years since its inception, the Barclays Eagle Labs project has been supporting SMEs throughout the UK. To date, fifteen Eagle Labs have opened, providing space, mainly for small start-ups, where they can connect and collaborate with other businesses.

One year ago, the first Eagle Lab in Northern Ireland was set-up in Ormeau Baths, a restored Victorian bathhouse in the heart of Belfast. It offers 150 desk spaces with onsite banking support from Barclays, including advice on how to navigate some of the tricky legal and financial aspects of business which most start-ups do not always have access to.

Q. So Adrian, why did Barclays set up an Eagle Lab in Belfast, and why now?
A. Belfast is changing as a city and as an economy. From a corporate citizenship point of view, we wanted to help both.

Northern Ireland is an SME economy – we have very few significantly large businesses. We are brilliant at producing start-ups, but not so great at scaling them. We see lots of interesting companies that just need a hand to grow.

There is also a business case for Barclays doing this. Our market position in Northern Ireland is slightly different from England and Wales – we are not one of the big four banks and we have only been established here for 20 years. Barclays is very prominent in large company banking, but less known in the SME sector. The Eagle Lab makes a statement that we are serious about working with SMEs and using our expertise to help them scale-up their business.

Q. What type of businesses are using the Eagle Labs?
A. There is a wide range, though most are technology businesses of one kind or another. Currently there are software developers, companies involved in drones and medical technology, and some that are starting with just a prototype and now taking their first office space. These businesses fit very well with our market strategy to grow our own SME business, as well as with the way the wider economy is going.

The concept of the Barclays Eagle Lab is that a company comes in and is here for as long as they need – it could be six months, it could be two years. In one short year we have already seen some of our Belfast tenants outgrow the space and are now ready for their own offices.  In a strange way, success is when they leave us.

Q. What kind of success have you seen over the past year?
A. One great example is a local company called Neurovalens, which has developed a device that combines neuroscience and technology to help people lose weight. It recently won an award at the world-renowned Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. From a small start-up with two people a year ago, it now employs more than 15 people and will likely outgrow the Ormeau Baths space soon.

The site itself at Ormeau Baths has also been chosen for the government-backed Ignite Programme, a high growth accelerator scheme. It is now seen as a centre of excellence for high growth businesses who want to base themselves somewhere that is a cool place to work, but where they can ultimately learn from like-minded businesses with similar challenges and opportunities.

Q. Talking of learning, what lessons have you learnt in the first year?
A. It sounds basic but very small start-up companies have completely different needs to larger companies. They are typically resource constrained, so we need to make their lives easier and we have a banker on site to help them with the simple things, such as opening a bank account, or applying for a credit card.

Q. What are your ambitions for the Eagle Lab?
A. Always to attract new, exciting businesses to the Barclays Eagle Lab network, then help them through the initial start-up process and into the scale-up phase, so that they eventually outgrow the Eagle Lab. If we have the same bunch of businesses in the Eagle Lab year in, year out, then we will have failed.

Another big ambition is to help Northern Ireland transform its economy. The most striking example of this is the fact that the old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast now hosts the Centre for Secure Information Technology. This is essentially the UK’s cyber security centre of excellence and that tells you everything you need to know about where the Northern Ireland economy is going.

Q. You are the strategic partner of the CBI Northern Ireland Annual Dinner. What is your message to other CBI members when it comes to supporting entrepreneurialism and the Northern Ireland economy?
A. There is more we can do as a business community to help our young people. Barclays has developed a programme called LifeSkills which is all about employability training for young people from disadvantaged communities. The nut that still needs cracking in Northern Ireland is how to reach young people who might be failing at school. How do we help them get the skills that they need to get a job?

When you take a young person into your office for the first time, whether for work experience or as an apprentice, their eyes light up. You are showing them a new opportunity. And that is something we can all do more of.

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