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.