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Business interview: Devon Walshe, deputy director of TechCube

Devon Walshe and Olly Treadway of TechCube. Picture: Neil Hanna

Devon Walshe and Olly Treadway of TechCube. Picture: Neil Hanna

 

THERE is a remarkable transformation going on at the former Royal Dick school of veterinary studies in Edinburgh.

A warren of corridors and courtyards, as well as a grand central stairway at the main entrance, the Dick Vet has been renamed Summerhall. Those in the know were there last year when it made its debut as a Fringe Festival venue, and its reputation in the arts scene under the auspices of Rupert Thomson and Richard Demarco has been well established. However, there is another side to the activity going on at Summerhall, aimed at a different audience altogether.

Taking shape is TechCube, a block providing inexpensive and flexible office space aimed at the young technology companies. In particular, it is for those emerging from Edinburgh’s “Silicon Bridges” – an “ecosystem” of tech talent and burgeoning young companies which runs from Amazon’s operation at Waverley Gate, along by the university’s school of informatics and ending at TechCube.

It is the brainchild of Olly Treadway, a serial entrepreneur who came to Edinburgh and liked what he saw.

Having founded and since parted ways with a 3D architectural firm, Cityscape, he clapped his eyes on Summerhall and envisioned TechCube.

Devon Walshe, the deputy director of TechCube, says: “This is an exciting new part of the whole Summerhall thing – it is independent, but complimentary. We are a child of the nascent tech community in Edinburgh. Below the level of companies that are already set up, there is a huge community of people learning how to build product, get investment and run a business. That is something that needs to be focused on more – that is where it is all happening.”

It is this community which has been involved in its development. The project started with Treadway and his team, mainly Walshe, who had a building but no budget.

So they went to Techmeetup, a regular event hosted by Informatics Ventures, and recruited about 70 volunteers, who started in March meeting at the building on weekends, tearing down walls and removing decades of veterinary detritus.

And while there are professional builders in during the week since May bringing it up to spec, this is DIY development, by and for the people it is aimed at supporting.

“The process of TechCube is a rolling one where we are experimenting and prototyping. We are basically figuring out what works for the community and the whole point is it is community focused,” observes Walshe.

“We are working with them – we are not saying ‘this is what we will provide, and you are going to love it’.

“We ran these ‘help build TechCube’ weekends. The community came in and they bought into it and they started asking details such as ‘what is the rent going to be like’.

“We had an idea of what we wanted but we listened to the community and what they wanted and integrated it into the project.”

Incubators are nothing new, but this has a certain flavour of a new, techno-geek centred model that is being tried and tested in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Cambridge and New York.

Walshe adds: “There’s nothing like this in Scotland.”

The creation of TechCube could not have happened without Robert McDowell, who acquired the Dick Vet from the university last year. It is McDowell, a banking risk consultant, who is backing the refurbishment of the whole of Summerhall.

Walshe says: “He [Treadway] came up from London to start a company here. He was very excited about everything. He texted Robert, saying: ‘I’ve got this amazing community here, with amazing energy, can we set up a tech incubator in the tower?’. One word reply: ‘yes’.”

Already a few companies have decided to move in. Walshe, who is also publisher of a newspaper for students and young people, the Journal, has taken space. But the first major tenant has also been confirmed. Fanduel, a fantasy gaming company based at the university, will be taking an entire floor at the end of the month.

Lesley Eccles, a co-founder of Fanduel, is enthusiastic about the project: “It’s fabulous – we’re very excited about moving in.

“We spent a long time looking at alternative venues, and it really was the obvious choice for us in the end.”

A typical “bootstrap” operation, tenant rent will cover the cost of the building. Demand is high. Walshe says: “All through this process we have had an increasing barrage of people wanting to come in. We got to the point a few weeks ago where we found we are having to turn away people we like now because they don’t really fit the model, which is really hard. But as soon as the building is done we will be able to get it up to full capacity almost immediately.”

There are plans for a cafe, as well as a suite of desks and computers available by subscription for freelancers and one-man/woman-bands which might eventually move upstairs.

Plans are to introduce an “accelerator” which provides an intensive support phase, culminating in a pitch to investors and some seed capital funding.

The concept, again, has been tried and tested – in Silicon Valley there is Y Combinator, which has launched digital tech companies you may have heard of such as Reddit, and many others less familiar.

“The tech community is not hugely happy with the funding situation,” adds Walshe. “There is a tendency for people to go to London to find investors. It is upsetting.

“The investment environment there is definitely more favourable to start-ups. But there’s also no unified tech community there. And it is a little more cut-throat and competitive.

“As a result, you don’t get as nice a feeling as in Edinburgh, where people are more supportive. If you can develop an investment community here there are big funds that do make investments, in oil and gas or biotech, but it is in a risk-averse environment. It is not so suited to seed investment for young companies with great ideas trying to tackle big problems.”

60-SECOND CV

Born: Vancouver, Canada, 1 February, 1984.

Education: MA in international relations, University of Edinburgh.

First job: Clay pigeon trap setter.

Ambition while at school: Astronaut.

Car: In my dreams – BMW 6 Series.

Kindle or book? Book.

Music: Recently Nicolas Jaar, Beach House, Deetron, Benoit & Sergio, Guti,

Seth Troxler and John Talabot ...

Can’t live without? Air.

Claim to fame: Travelling around the world without flying.

Favourite place: Hunza Valley, Pakistan.

What makes you angry? Greed and unnecessary suffering.

Best thing about your job: Getting to learn from people.

 

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