Building beacons in the digital foundry
The room is heaving with twenty or thirty mainly sweat-shirted individuals, heads bent over laptops and some speaking in a peculiar coding language against the metronomic ping-pong of a nearby game of table tennis.
Welcome to the busy working lounge and playroom at Codebase in Edinburgh where the latest batch of young and eager would-be entrepreneurs are hammering out the ideas that they hope will turn into the next big thing.
Into this digital foundry, Stephen Coleman welcomes a political delegation for the opening of the the first Eagle Lab, a workshop for testing prototype devices and processes backed by Barclays bank.
After Economy Secretary Keith Brown has performed the official opening honours, Coleman retreats to a back room where a row of electronic devices hang on the walls like pictures at an exhibition.
Codebase is headquartered in what has been described as one of Edinburgh’s least loved buildings, an 11-storey 1960s office block beneath the Castle rock that probably ought not to have been built. Various attempts to have it demolished have failed, and some actually like it.
Coleman is happy here. “It’s a vast, brutalist, monolithic building, but I love it,” he says, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “I’m just amazed that it was empty for a decade.”
His admiration for Argyle House comes with an admission that he was raised in a modern concrete environment. “I grew up in Cumbernauld. That brutalist aesthetic is something I quite like. But, to be frank, this is a very useable space.”
Codebase has certainly made use of it. He and his brother Jamie negotiated “a good deal” for what is now Britain’s biggest technology incubator.
“We were able to get a good internet connection and coffee, which is really what start-ups need,” he says.
Since leasing an initial three floors it has expanded to five and now provides a base for 600 individuals working with 102 companies.
‘Bristol is the next outpost’
“It’s the most we have had,” says Coleman, now CEO, who began his own tech-based career as an animator in the life science sector. Jamie used his biology background to help him, and so a partnership began which has carried on into the incubator world.
They may be business partners but they also cut a different cloth. While Jamie struts the floors in his three-piece suit and brogues (“The suit separates me from the guys working in the various companies here,” he said in a previous interview), Stephen is comfortable in jeans and casual jumper. Whatever else binds or separates them, the partnership is clearly working.
Their test-bed was TechCube at Summerhall, near the Meadows which they quickly outgrew. As the Codebase project evolved they launched the Turing Festival, a tech-feast that has attracted big names from the sector.
A couple of years ago they welcomed the CodeClan skills academy into Argyle House and last year launched a satellite Codebase in Stirling.
It has helped steer the Accelerated Digital Ventures platform, funded by institutional investment partners – British Business Bank, Legal & General and Woodford Investment Management.
Coleman says plans to take the project to other cities is now under way with Bristol the first in partnership with Barclays which now has 14 or 15 Eagle labs, depending on who you ask.
“It will be the next step,” he says. “Barclays has chosen Codebase to deliver mentorship at all its Eagle Labs across the UK.”
He says Codebase has grown by five times but new venues will focus on what makes the sector unique to each area, rather than replicate the Edinburgh facility. “We never want to be a cookie cutter (a baking tool, rather than a tech term).”
Bristol is high on the list because it is third behind London and Edinburgh in the league table of originating digital software products.
He attributes much of Edinburgh’s growth as a technology hub to Skyscanner, the flight search engine company which was eventually sold to Chinese company C-trip.
“Skyscanner has been the beacon and has been crucial for the growth of technology in Edinburgh,” he says.
“It just ignited the sector because it made a statement about where it wanted to take the business. It has been very transparent and has helped other start-ups.
“It created a ‘circling the wagons’ moment with other startups protecting each other. That’s when we realised it was an interesting place to do this.”
Birthplace: Glasgow (grew up in Cumbernauld)
Education: Abertay University (computer arts)
Career: Always freelanced, now CEO at Codebase
Any other interests?
I play drums
If you could meet three people for a chat around the table, who would they be?
They are all musicians…
Tom Waits, American singer and songwrter, to figure out how his mind works
Elvin Jones, American jazz drummer, who is just phenomenal
Bjork, the Icelandic singer, because I like people who push the boundaries