Interviews

Ormeau Baths and the co-working revolution

  • Claire Dowds and Lisa Bailie discuss starting a co-working space for start-ups in the heart of Belfast.

    The rise of co-working spaces and flexible offices has been one of the biggest business trends of the year, with the market estimated to be growing by over 50% year-on-year.

    These alternatives to traditional office space have become popular globally, offering everything from hotdesking facilities for solo entrepreneurs in need of a place to work to private offices for larger teams.

    Situated in a historic Victorian bathhouse, the Ormeau Baths innovation space in Belfast is a prime example of the value flexible offices can bring to a city. The space was re-imagined two years ago as an ambitious co-working space for digital innovation and disruptive tech companies and has serviced the local tech scene ever since.

    The building has been many things throughout its lifetime, from a communal bathhouse to a public swimming pool, and even an art gallery where creatives could display their work. As co-founder Steve Pette succinctly put it, “Ormeau Baths has been bringing together the community since 1888 - we are still doing that.”

    What does Ormeau Baths offer?

    The Ormeau Baths building offers Belfast's digitally disruptive tech start-ups affordable desk space in a modern working environment situated in a prime location in Belfast city centre. It offers hotdesking seats for those who need a remote office, dedicated desks for small teams to make their own, and private offices for larger teams scaling up that need a private space. It’s a managed space with keycard security access, high-speed internet access, office amenities such as printers, and event and meeting spaces. 

    Ormeau Baths was recently recognised by Wired UK as one of the top 10 co-working spaces in the UK and is well placed as the co-working revolution continues in start-up hubs throughout the country. With key partners such as Barlays Eagle Labs, the space has seen its share of success stories emerge and secure investment.

    Claire Dowds

    We caught up with Ormeau Baths General Manager Claire Dowds to find out what makes this co-working space tick and how it all got started.

    “Having lived a rollercoaster life within the start-up world over the last 20 years with my husband Mark, we moved home in 2016 and joined a few others to help set up the Ormeau Baths,” she explained.

    Claire has been deeply involved in Ormeau Baths since the beginning and stepped into the General Manager role in Jan of this year. “The great thing about this role is that no two days are ever the same,” she explained, adding “I love to find solutions and am not afraid of chaos, so this role is perfect fit for me. “ 

    Creating a space in which such a huge variety of tech start-ups co-exist is no small feat, but Ormeau Baths has now grown to house over 80 separate start-ups from across the tech spectrum and host hundreds of tech community events. “Community is central to everything that we do here at the Baths and so I begin and end my day with that in mind,” Claire told me. “Being curious about what our members need and who they would benefit from being connected to is a question I am constantly asking myself. It is exciting to see and hear all of the new ideas and companies that are emerging in Belfast.”

    The Ormeau Baths building now hosts Invest NI's Ignite NI start-up accelerator, and this year was expanded with a brand new west wing for NI Screen's Pixel Mill game development lab and the Digital Catapult Immersive Lab. “Since opening the doors in June 2017, we have doubled in size and continue to see exciting new home grown companies and those who are setting up their development teams here in Belfast going from strength to strength,” Claire explained. “Ormeau Baths' future looks like more community development, more home grown programs and potential expansion to other spaces.”

    Lisa Bailie

    Barclays Eagle Labs has been partnered with Ormeau Baths throughout its two year journey, and one of the main driving forces behind that partnership is Lisa Bailie.

    “Having worked for Barclays for 17 years doing various roles from Personal Banker to Branch Manager  I decided I needed a change from traditional Banking and went to work for the Business team,” Lisa told me in an interview, explaining that she was in her current role for just about three months when Barlcays Eagle Labs partnered with Ormeau Baths. “This was a very different environment from what I was used to but one that I absolutely loved so I decided to apply for the full time position and the rest is history as they say.” 

    The events space at Ormeau Baths has been very important for Eagle Labs and the local tech scene in general, with over a hundred events each year taking place at the venue. “Events have been a huge part of Eagle Labs and we see it as a way of bringing the NI tech community together in one place,” Lisa explained. “The event space has brought everyone from across the NI Eco-system into one place to share insights, foster collaborative opportunities and showcase how good the NI tech scene is scaling.”

    The past two years have seen some impressive start-ups pass through the Ormeau Baths lab and go on to get significant investment. Lisa pointed to early resident Neurovalens as a model of success with its Modius medical device. “Neurovalens/Modius have to be the first company that comes to mind as they were one of our first residents when we moved into the baths, they started with 3 staff and by the time they moved out they were packed into an office like sardines.  It has been exciting watching their journey as they continue to scale and grow.” Other firms that have started life in the innovation space and gone on to find investment success or create jobs include LoyalBe and Pitchbooking.

    A message to the Belfast start-up scene

    As Ormeau Baths passes its second year anniversary and continues to thrive in the rapidly growing co-working market, it’s important to recognise the hard work and persistence of those on the ground making it work. "Ormeau Baths was started by a group of entrepreneurs and further supported by various members of the NI Diaspora from launch, coupled with Barclays Eagle lab,” explained co-founder Steve Pette, and it’s been a labour of love for those involved ever since.

    “You have to be willing to be in it for the long haul,” Lisa suggested, adding that “Things just don’t happen overnight and you need to be prepared for change.“ With recent expansions including the Pixel Mill game development incubator and digital catapult immersive lab, Ormeau Baths seems set to continue to be a place where high-growth start-ups can find their feet. Claire left us with one simple message for the Belfast start-up scene:  “We have a home for you!”

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