Branching Out: Lessons From Barclays’ Evolution From Bank To Start-Up Incubator

By Jane Kennedy, Chief Business Officer, Discovery Park


I recently had the pleasure of chairing a fireside chat with Steven Roberts, Chief Scientific Advisor at Barclays UK. This conversation had key lessons about our digital world, and the overriding importance of community.

Opening the 2023 HealthTech Integrates congress, Steven spoke about starting his career at Barclays in ‘digital transformation’ at a time when everyone went into a bank to manage their money. Steven realised the direction of travel and was the person convincing more senior colleagues that digital technology was coming and here to stay.

Fast forward, and technology has indeed changed the way we operate. Many of us bank online and don’t need to visit a branch. Engagement with communities was still key for Barclays, so Steven focused on new ways to get people to visit and use Barclays’ physical spaces. Originally, he piloted ‘maker spaces’, a start-up friendly environment with facilities for companies to rapidly prototype. This prototyping concept didn’t catch on as anticipated, but interestingly, entrepreneurs and start-ups loved the culture of the space, choosing to come and work there. From this observation, the Barclays Eagle Labs were born, now serving as the UK’s biggest co-working and incubator network for start-ups and scale-ups. These labs combine many different verticals, offering expert advice, growth programmes, and crucially, a community, which is essential when being a founder can be a lonely place.

There are lessons for start-ups and scale-ups from Steven’s experience of founding Barclays Eagle Labs. If something doesn’t work initially, don’t despair. Just keep experimenting, listening to the feedback and staying humble. Don’t be afraid to change course, or recognise when something isn’t happening the way you expected. Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of community and network.

We’re very lucky to be the only science park in the UK with a Barclays Eagle Lab, part of a total network of 33 spaces across the country. I see the impact of our lab on the community at Discovery Park, bringing together innovators as a force for good.

It’s inspiring to hear stories of early digital pioneers like Steven. We know the traditional life sciences sector is changing and developing at pace, with 67% of life sciences companies already collaborating with tech software partnerships or expecting to do so in the near future.

Alongside the Barclays Eagle Lab, I see the role of Discovery Park as matchmaker, creating serendipity to bring together like-minded companies and individuals to turn great ideas into great businesses. Splitting my time between the South East and Scotland, I alway strive to make connections far and wide, building a community which stretches right across the UK.

Knowledge sharing also flows both ways. While early stage companies may need advice, support or funding, they’re also a hotbed of fresh thinking and new ideas. More established companies have the resources, but often aren’t as nimble to try new approaches. The perfect community would also include all sectors and organisations, including academia and Government.

Powerful things happen when we build diverse and engaged communities. We’re proud that Discovery Park is a prime example of this, constantly branching out to include new sectors and companies. Whatever the stage of your organisation, our community is here to help.

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