Digital pioneer Brian Donnelly has traded Silicon Valley for Birmingham Science Park Aston as the base for his new firm, Synapse

A digital pioneer who has traded Silicon Valley for Birmingham is on course for job-boosting growth – and believes in many ways it is easier to create a successful firm here.

Brian Donnelly moved to the Californian digital hub in the late 1990s and ended up growing Constellar into a £75 million enterprise, which was sold to IBM.

Now, he has chosen Birmingham Science Park Aston as the base for his new firm, Synapse, which uses cloud computing to integrate spreadsheets, and is targeting a £25 million turnover and 60 staff in less than five years.

All 20 members of staff hold stock in the company, which is commonplace in Silicon Valley.

However, Mr Donnelly believes in some ways it is easier to form a start-up in central Birmingham, with tens of thousands of companies and a ready workforce on his doorstep.

He said: “The thing about London is there are something like 800,000 offices but only 17,000 people living in the actual centre. Everyone working there has to take an hour-and-a-half to get in.

“It is a similar thing in Silicon Valley – there are no customers there – but there are thousands of businesses, all using spreadsheets, in Birmingham city centre. There are 60,000 new graduates a year in Birmingham and a lot in computer science and a lot who can get to work within eight minutes.”

Mr Donnelly founded SQL Group in the UK, which was rebranded as Constellar and moved to Silicon Valley after securing venture capital funding.

The business went on to raise almost £32 million, grew to employ 160 people, and was worth £75 million-plus.

He explained: “I was building and running a business in London, which went from a one-man consulting business to about 30.

“I wanted to raise more funding and ended up speaking to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

“I flew out on the Monday and they’d offered me three million dollars by the Thursday. They wanted me to live and work there, so I said I’d be there by Monday.

“I thought we’d never spend $3 million but we did, in seven months, and went from 30 people to 150 and a business doing 51 million dollars.

“We ended up building it up to 125 million dollars and selling it to IBM.”

Synapse currently has a workforce of 20 and is on course to turn over about £1.2 million this year but with investment Mr Donnelly wants to see that grow to £25 million in less than five years.

The business secured £100,000 funding from the Birmingham Post Growth Fund and a further £250,000 Innovate, formerly the Technology Strategy Board.

One of Synapse’s first customers was a large British bank that was going through a complex merger and needed to integrate thousands of spreadsheets.

He said the strength of the business was that people tended to revert to Excel spreadsheets, which they have used for years, and Synapse allows them to be used and linked for access across multinational companies.

He said: “It’s like a second wives’ club – people go back to their spreadsheets because they know what they are doing with them, but when you have two, five, ten people using them it can get difficult.

“We are pretty much the only company saying ‘carry on using your spreadsheets’, and using connection to the cloud you can have thousands of people tapping away at the same time. It isn’t selling software, we are saying we can take the problem away.”

He added: “The staff numbers in Birmingham will grow. We expect there to be 60 in a couple of years and it mushrooms from then.

“Birmingham is the city of 1,000 trades and we think we can do it all from here. In the old days you would need a dozen offices all over the world. We will have a west coast office but that is about it – it will all be about Birmingham.”


Published: Birmingham Post: 11 Nov 14