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Interview: Jamie Coleman, Codebase

‘Bond baddie’ suited to a starring role in technology

Jamie ColemanJamie Coleman is not difficult to pick out in the crowd. For a start there is the distinctive moustache and beard that gives him his self-styled “James Bond baddie” appearance. He is also the only man working at Codebase, the technology incubator, who is wearing a suit.

He smiles a Bond baddie sort of smile as he flicks fluff from his grey double-breasted jacket and strides towards his office in his equally distinctive brown brogues.

“The suit separates me from the guys working in the various companies here,” he says, enigmatically. A quick look around makes it clear that almost without exception the 400 or so tekkies bent over their PCs in each of the centre’s rabbit warren of business units are wearing regulation chinos, hoodies and trainers.

Coleman guides me into his room where I expect him to settle into a large swivel chair and begin stroking a white cat. It occupies a corner of Argyle House, towering over King’s Stables Yard below and has a perfect view of Edinburgh Castle.

He looks disdainfully down at the delapidated former council workshops recently acquired for a hotel and artisan workshops and suggests that something more ambitious could occupy what has to be one of the prime pieces of real estate in Europe.

Argyle House, an eleven-storey 1960s block just off the historic Grassmarket is regarded as one of the capital’s architectural baddies. “We have a great view of one of Scotland’s finest buildings from one of its worst,” he jokes.

Many want it demolished, while its supporters believe it should be saved as an example of its period. Somehow, it suits Coleman who seems to revel in its conspicuous brutality. Like himself, it does not blend easily with those around him. He has leased three floors and has plans to lease six as the building, already the biggest technology incubator in Britain, edges towards becoming the biggest in Europe.

In truth, his menacing looks and “separation” from those around him threatens to deceive. He is full of admiration for the scores of talented individuals slowly filling the floorspace at Codebase.

Argyle House may be unloved, but it is now home to more than 50 businesses that have are involved in a range of pioneering technologies from financial transactions to biotechnology.

“A lot of what we have here is potentially transformational and some of these companies will make millions,” says Coleman.

He takes visitors on “tours”, not only deeply knowledgeable about what each company does but enthused by them.

Coleman, 39, whose own career includes spells in life sciences and drug discovery, is the landlord and self-appointed mentor at Codebase and sees his role as guiding and encouraging those who have a genuine chance of success. He screens those who apply for a tenancy and moves on those who fail to come up to scratch.

“I am the bouncer who stops idiots getting in the door,” he says. “There is a weeding out process and while I can’t predict the future I can spot something that is bad.”

His background is a curious mix of tough guy and intellectual. At school his ambition was to be a professional boxer, while his first job was as a librarian. His claim to fame was having dinner with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Codebase, which began life as TechCube across the city at Summerhall, is a passion, but one which he treats with an uncompromising reality.

“The best thing that can happen here is that a company makes a fortune, flies away, IPOs [floats] and comes back to reinvest the money. The next best thing is they fail miserably and their staff start their own company knowing they have learned some skills.”

He plans to open satellite incubators in Aberdeen and Glasgow this year. “I have my eyes on a number of companies [potential occupants] that are very interesting,” he says.

He believes, however, that despite progress at Codebase, the Scottish technology sector is being held back by a public sector spending environment that does not properly support risk.

In fund-speak, there is plenty of boot-strapping, angel and seed capital around to support companies needing up to £500,000. Beyond that there is a gap up to the multi-million pound funding for the bigger projects. It’s what is known as the Valley of Death.

“We are utterly missing out on funding above £500,000,” he says.

It is why he plans to launch a venture fund of his own, as he told Daily Business last month. He says the Scottish or UK governments need to follow the Irish who have attracted public sector money into a new breed of venture capital funds that take on the risk of investing in growth companies. Dublin alone has more than 50, while there are only two based in Scotland.

“There is a chronic lack of private equity in Scotland. We are creating companies, but how many more could we build? I get a lot of calls from Ireland asking companies to go over there where they have the money to invest.

“I want to raise a fund, this year. With £10m you could build 180 companies, with a 3% management fee at £50,000 a pop. Of those, you might get four Skyscanners (the flight comparison site that recently became Scotland’s first £1 billion technology company).

“We have built the biggest technology incubator with four staff and we could build big companies here in Scotland.”

>> Coleman plans £10m fund 

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