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Monday Interview: Firm’s Brainnwave idea is to keep business simple

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 24 seconds

Steve Coates quoted a popular romantic comedy from the 1990s to describe how he courted his co-founder of Edinburgh tech firm Brainnwave.

Recalling his pitch to Graham Jones, whom Mr Coates was hoping to lure as chief technology officer, Mr Jones delighted his suitor by responding with a famous line from Jerry Maguire.

While romance was in the air when the character played by Renee Zellweger declared “You had me at hello,” to Tom Cruise’s titular Maguire, the joy felt by Mr Coates and then colleague Don Baker was relief at finding a key piece in a corporate jigsaw. Mr Jones is a software engineer whose CV included a spell developing a data management system for Bloomberg.

“Graham always jokes that “you had me at hello! You did the whole Jerry Maguire thing!” Mr Coates laughs. “I just caught him at the right time, and I explained the vision and the idea of the business. He just said: “I’m in.”

At that stage, Mr Coates was fresh from successfully developing a social enterprise, which involved creating a circular economy from corporate IT waste. He describes Brainnwave as a data specialist which helps companies “simplify data outputs to find insights”.

“Typically our customers are awash with data, whether it be satellite data, financial data or market data – there is data everywhere,” he said.

“What we are about is simplifying that to get some business action out of it.”

Brainnwave came about when, after running his ICT Refurbishment social enterprise, Mr Coates found himself on the “radar of some pretty big investors”, who were keen to know what he planned next. At that point he was introduced to Don Baker, who had been working for the US Intelligence Agency.

“Very quickly this challenge of data emerged as a concept,” Mr Coates recalled. “Don had seen a lot in the Agency about the power that can come from having access to the right data at the right time for the right people.

“I had spent my career at Boston Consulting Group advising clients on analysis that we did using lots of data. We saw that world was changing.

“We very quickly brought in a chief technology officer who became our co-founder, Graham, who was based in Australia at the time.”

The company has now successfully staged three investment rounds, raising $5 million in total. Investment has come from venture capitalists, family offices and the University of Edinburgh, though Mr Coates and Mr Jones are the biggest shareholders. Mr Baker has since returned to his native US.

While Brainnwave’s technology can be employed in a range of arenas, and was previously used in a UNICEF project to direct aid to Somali refugees in Kenya, its major focus is currently on oil and gas. Its current customers include Aggreko, which Brainnwave is helping to identify leads for a product to convert gas flaring into useable energy. Gas flaring is used on oil rigs to burn off “stranded gas” but Mr Coates said it is a “huge environmental issue”, equating to putting around 990 million cars on the road every year.

“They (Aggreko) have a product which the World Bank love, and it converts that gas into power,” he explained.

“What we do, with our technology, is take a live satellite feed. It takes night-time imagery and it identifies where in the world the gas is flaring.

“You can also identify what the volume of gas is, and over what period of time.”

The Brainnwave platform, which is called Ossian, can then be overlaid so that the customer can identify which operators are flaring the gas, ultimately providing sales leads.

While the firm’s focus is currently “oil gas heavy”, Mr Coates has been exploring how Ossian can work in the social housing sector, in particular by helping vulnerable people manage their income.

He said: “We are now looking at how data science can help inform outcomes for people; understanding when there might be issues and proactively acting on those before they become an issue.

Brainnwave currently has 14 staff, with Mr Coates expecting to add to the headcount in the next 12 to 18 months as he plans are laid to “scale up” the business.

He is buoyed by the talent he has been able to attract in Scotland, with trailblazers such as Skyscanner and FanDuel having created a rich talent “eco-system”.

But he worries about the effect Brexit will have on staff recruitment.

Stating that Brexit could be the “biggest mistake of our generation”, he has already seen colleagues return to France and Greece because of the uncertainty. But he enthuses about the role being played by the Scottish Government in promoting Scotland as a place to live and work in data science and technology. “With the universities we have, for a small country we punch well above our weight,” Mr Coates said. “It is great to be part of that story.”

Q What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

A For leisure, it is Australia. I met my wife there. For business, Russia and Norway. Moscow is like no other city I have been to. It is a city that has changed so quickly and always feels on the edge of danger. The scenery you fly over in Norway is incredible and Oslo is beautiful – they have Tesla cars as taxis.

Q When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

A Chef, my nan was Italian. Food has always played an important role in bring our family together.

Q What was your biggest break in business?

A Getting my first £1 million investment into Brainnwave

Q What was your worst moment in business?

A Emptying my personal savings account to pay the staff wages in my first social enterprise and not knowing if we would have enough to pay all the bills.

Q Who do you most admire and why?

A Gib Bulloch, he was my first manager when I joined Accenture out of university. He helped me understand the importance of business in society and gave me a good “moral compass”. He built a social enterprise within Accenture working with global charities and continues to inspire me.

Q What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

A A Column Of Fire by Ken Follet. The Chemical Brothers

Q The last film you saw?

Ant Man And The Wasp.

Originally written by Scott Wright and published in the Herald on 6th May 2019.

Posted on May 9th 2019 in Press & PR

  • I have always been a visual thinker and Brainnwave’s Ossian platform enables me to see things that were previously buried deep within reports; this helps me to react quickly to the business environment and make decisions with confidence.

    Brian Chalmers – Strategy and Development Director – Wood plc

  • I have been championing, for some time now, the need to bring digital innovation from other industries into the housing sector.

    We are excited to be working with Brainnwave to apply their data intelligence technology to the housing sector. Their innovative approach to data and analytics, developing deep insights about our customers, has never been done before and will help us provide the best possible customer experience.

    Doug Silverstone – Head of Data & Analytics – MTVH

  • Brainnwave are helping change the way we do business.

    The platform Brainnwave are developing is using data analytics to provide us with the insights that we cannot access today due to the complexity of the questions we need to answer. This will be a game changer for our global business.

    Stéphane le Corre – Strategy & Commercial Development Director – Aggreko

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  • Brainnwave has been instrumental in helping UNICEF understand how people move so we can coordinate relief assistance in a much better, more targeted way and can assist the population where the need is greatest.

    Natalia Adler – Data, Research and Policy Planning Specialist – UNICEF

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  • Brainnwave achieved more in 2 months with 4 analysts than a tier 1 consultancy achieved in 6 months with 6 people.

    Shawn Pace – Global Sourcing Director – Goodyear

  • Brainnwave are a great team to work with. They put a focus on working collaboratively with us and they make sure that they’ve always understood what we need.

    Their solution has already saved a lot of time through the automation of organising, updating and sharing some of our day to day data (such as fuel prices) across the organisation.

    Noreen Howat – Senior Strategy Manager – Aggreko

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  • Brainnwave are a great example of how companies can deliver complex data science projects by leveraging their network, partnering with academia and by building the ecosystem of data experts.

    The Data Lab has been a partner with Brainnwave for several years and they have contributed greatly to the data driven innovation agenda for Scotland and have leveraged opportunities to build and grow their data talent and expand their capabilities significantly in both data science and artificial intelligence.

    Gillian Docherty – CEO – The Data Lab

  • We are delighted to be working with our Partner, Brainnwave, on their new product, Geo Spatial Web Services. Brainnwave’s new product provides efficient access to our geospatial data providing users with the ability to analyse the data and generate strategic insights to aid their business.

    Stefan Wells – Head of Partners – Ordnance Survey