Callum Coombes, Safepoint
The Technological Generation
“There is no doubt that digital technology and the means to access it has revolutionised the way we do everything and has become a pivotal aspect of our lives, both personally and professionally. But what is more amazing is how quickly it has made that impact.”
Tech entrepreneur and software engineer, Callum Coombes was born four months ahead of the launch of dial-up Internet in April 1991. So, he is part of a generation that has grown up to rely heavily on technology for everything, from education and learning, to how they work and spend their leisure time.
“It was only 28 years ago that 94 percent of the population didn’t have access to a basic mobile phone and 99 percent didn’t have access to the Internet. Now, less than three decades later and the Internet has become a basic human right for so many. We can’t get by without our mobile phone; we’ve come such a long way in such a short amount of time.”
Nearly all of Callum’s relatives on his mother, Sheena’s, side come from Tuddenham St Mary near Mildenhall, but with a father who was in the RAF, Callum spent a lot of his early childhood moving around airbases.
“In the RAF my dad, Kevin, erected and maintained antennas and aerials. One of his postings was to Gibraltar and I spent a fair amount of my younger years there. I went to primary school and learnt to swim in the Territory.
“We then moved and lived on the RAF bases at Henlow and North Luffenham before my family settled in Tuddenham St Mary in Suffolk. I was eight and started at Tuddenham Primary School, which was just across the road from where I lived.
“I spent all my time with mates, playing football, riding bikes and generally loitering around the village. I can remember at the bottom of my garden was a large grassy patch of ground. My mum’s dad, Grandad Gordon ran a farm with my Uncle Stephen 100 yards down the road from us and he would bring up a load of old pallets from the farmyard, which we would then use to build some very awesome dens.
A troublesome teenager
“Looking back at my teens, I would describe myself as angry. Perhaps this was a delayed reaction to my parents splitting up which had happened a couple of years previously, or perhaps it was just because I was a teenager. But I became a bit of a tearaway and would take my anger out on things in the house. For instance, if the Internet wasn’t fast enough, I would throw the computer across the room.
“With Mum finding me more difficult to control, I ended up moving to my grandparents’ farm and that was where I stayed for most of my teen years. Grandad and Uncle Stephen wouldn’t put up with my bad behaviour, and perhaps, because they were male, that meant that I ended up doing what I was told. They didn’t talk about things, they just dealt with it.
“For instance, I had the next-door bedroom to my uncle, and he was always asking me to stop playing computer games late at night as I made too much noise. I ignored him, so one evening he came into my room and without saying a word, he cut the internet cable and then went back to bed.”
In his teens Callum, along with his mates at Mildenhall Upper School, were getting into computer gaming in a big way.
“We played pretty standard shooting games like Counter-Strike, linked up online sitting in our own bedrooms in Brandon, Red Lodge and Mildenhall, wearing headphones with a microphone talking to each other.
“One of the things at this time which was really awful was the speed of the Internet. If a new game came out, I would literally have to wait days for it to download.”
However, maybe a sign of things to come was that Callum got involved in building his own PC.
“All my friends were doing it, so I wanted to. I’d been saving up some money from doing part-time jobs and Mum found someone who could build a PC to my specification. This opened a whole new gateway for me, as I could now join the friendship groups that were playing the latest games; something I hadn’t been able to do before.”
One thing Callum wasn’t particularly good at when growing up and that was focusing on schoolwork and taking things seriously.
“I was always messing around and I never revised. Yet, I sailed through my GCSEs getting grade C in most subjects.”
On leaving school, Callum went to West Suffolk College to study Graphic Design, but he didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do.
“When discussing career options at school, I had a vague idea that I would like to do something that would enable me to design CGI, but once I got to West Suffolk I only lasted a term before dropping out as I was craving something more practical.”
There then followed very brief stints working at the local Little Chef and Tuddenham Mill, before Callum took a job helping assist a local landscape gardener, Dale Pellatt.
“Previous to this job, Dale had been an Engineer in the Army. And, after spending six months hearing all his brilliant stories, I saw it as the perfect route to escape on an adventure.”
Joining the Army
Callum visited his local Army Careers Office and went on to do a few tests and did quite well.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do within the Army, and I’d whittled it down to two roles: Forward Observer or an Avionics Technician. I’m incredibly thankful I was persuaded to do the latter by an Army recruiter, as one of the key responsibilities that the Army list for a forward observer is to ‘Get behind enemy lines’!
“My first step to Avionics Technician was Electronics Technician, but I couldn’t start basic training until I had passed the selection tests; one of which was a physical, where I had to be able to run a mile and a half in 10 minutes 30 seconds max. So, I enlisted the help of my dad to train me. It was tough, but I did it.”
“This was one of the first times in my life, I had taken responsibility for something, as it was totally under my control to get myself fit enough to pass the selection test.”
“Dad was really supportive, but mum understandably was apprehensive of me joining the Army as I was only 17. Yet, I knew it would not only teach me to do something, but also give me a chance to travel the world and that appealed to my sense of adventure.”
Within six months from making the decision to enlist, Callum started Basic Training in early 2009 at Bassingbourn in Hertfordshire. He then went onto to complete his Phase 2 Training at Arborfield Garrison in Berkshire, where he did two years at The Defence School of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering.
“After the two years, I was a qualified Avionics Technician within the Army and had a couple of NVQs under my belt.
“Towards the end of my training I was posted – not that far away from home – to Wattisham in Mid-Suffolk, where all the Army’s Apache attack helicopters are housed. As my Phase 2 Training had concentrated on Lynx, I had to stay on for a couple of weeks at Arborfield as that was where the training facility for Apaches was based.”
For the next five years, as part of The Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Callum was responsible for maintaining and repairing the Army’s aircraft including Lynx, Gazelle, Apache, as well as the Hermes Unmanned Aerial Systems.
“During my time, I was lucky enough to get out to some amazing places and do some amazing things. For instance, in 2011, I took part in Exercise Crimson Eagle which was based in the desert in Southern California and Arizona, where my claim to fame is that I was responsible for repairing Prince Harry’s Apache, as he was out there on the latest stage of his training.”
“Working on helicopters and signing them off as good to fly, held a lot of responsibility. If I didn’t get it right, it could have a devastating impact. It was high pressure and a very serious job as the pilots couldn’t do what they do without you.”
“My time in the military was absolutely formative for me, it completely altered how I think.
“But ultimately, I realised that it would take a couple of years to gain promotion, then I would have to wait a further five years to do more training. I was happy to do the training, but I wasn’t a fan of waiting seven years for the chance. So, after four years, I decided I wanted to move onto something else.”
Moving back to Civvy Street
“Mid 2012, I started to explore the options that were open to me, to get me back to civilian life.
“After returning from California in 2012, I had started to play around with software in my spare time. There wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but it was just something that attracted me as I wanted to find out more about the technology that went on behind the avionics.
“I liked having a go at new things, so I picked up some books and started to have a little play and the more I discovered, the more I realised that this was really interesting. I was reigniting my original interest in CGI and all my free time was taken up self-teaching myself to produce 3D graphic models and dabbling in writing software.”
Callum was able to call on the advice of an army training officer, who told him that publicly funded higher education (PFHE) packages were available to personnel that wanted to retrain.
“During my time in the Army, I had earnt training credits and these could be spent on courses or retraining for civilian qualifications. As I was coming up for four years, I discovered there might be a way that they would pay for a whole degree course at university.
“My manager was incredibly useful in helping me speak to the right people, as the Army wanted me to do a further couple of years due to lock-in agreements I had from my previous training. He helped me build a case to get them to support me with going to the University of East Anglia (UEA) to study for a BSc in Computer Graphics, which was a software engineering degree with a bias towards graphics.
“However, while all this was going on, I was carrying on as though it had all been OK’d, preparing myself to get into uni. I knew that to get on the degree course, I would have to re-sit my GCSE in Maths and achieve a B grade or above, so I hired a private tutor and self-taught myself and achieved an A* in two months.”
Once Callum had achieved the pre-requisites that he needed, he re-put his case to the Army. He managed to get them to agree that if he was accepted by the UEA and could meet the criteria to get the PFHE, that they would let him leave a little earlier. To further strengthen his case, he also volunteered for a six-month tour at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
“A pre-requisite of getting on the tour though was to go to Israel and undertake the training I needed to be able to repair the Hermes 450 surveillance drones that I would be working on in Afghan.
“I remember that I had my interview with the UEA over the telephone, whilst I was on an airfield in the absolute middle of nowhere in Israel, and the signal was really poor. I kept losing them and I wasn’t confident that what I said was getting through to them, but a couple of weeks later, they notified me that I had passed and had been accepted on the degree course.
“So, I started at UEA in September 2013 with a full bursary, which was great as I was effectively getting paid to study.”
Due to his self-teaching around programming and modelling, things were a lot smoother for Callum at university. And very early into the course, he switched to a computer science degree as it was more general and he felt that would give him more options when entering the workplace.
“UEA was a complete change of pace as I had only recently returned from Afghanistan. I poured my heart and soul into the course, winning awards for every year of study and graduating with a Starred First as the highest scoring student of my year.”
With his head full of ideas on how he would get a job with a big corporation like Microsoft, Callum did a couple of internships with software companies in Thetford and Downham Market.
“I spent a lot of my final year applying for positions and going to interviews. Due to my background in avionics, most of the interviews were with companies involved in the defence or aviation sector, but I finally accepted a Graduate Software Engineer position at Lockheed Martin based in Bedfordshire.
“The environment there was incredibly bureaucratic and very slow moving. Interestingly, when I arrived there, they didn’t have a lot of software projects going on, so, pretty quickly, I got dejected and I started to self-teach myself mobile technology and writing software to make apps.
“I was doing side projects building apps in the evening and at weekends, and this became more exciting than the day job.”
It was at this time that Callum first started to take entrepreneurialism seriously. So, he quit his full-time job at Lockheed Martin and moved into a co-working office, Whitespace, based at St James Mill in Norwich, to try and start a business.
“I was in the same office space where SyncNorwich, whose mission is to promote and enable local tech business growth, held all its events. There were lots of things going on to do with tech and there was a real buzz. Continuing to self-teach myself, I spent a year trying various ideas and making my own apps. I wasn’t making any money and I was living off my savings, but it was cool, and I loved the creativity of it.”
The birth of Safepoint
Then in November 2017, Callum decided to enter Sync the City, an annual competition run by SyncNorwich, which brings together budding entrepreneurs and expert mentors to build and launch a digital start-up business in 54 Hours.
“Software engineers, businesspeople, and marketers enter the competition. Ideas are put forward and then, if accepted, a team is formed to work it up into a business, which is then pitched to expert judges in front of an audience at the final.
“My idea came from a friend through a somewhat serendipitous conversation a few days before Sync the City. He worked for a utility company and was telling me how they had an app for lone workers which they could use to check in and out when working away from the office. However, the app looked outdated and cumbersome, so no-one used it. So, our idea was to improve on the app, revitalise and re-invent it, making it more fun and attractive to use, so it would be used more widely.
“We were selected to go forward to the final 12, and our team which was made up of James Rogers, who studied computer science with me at university, old school mates from Mildenhall Upper School, David Pooley and Matthew Rumbelow, Ryan Smee, Matthew’s older brother and Nichita Misin, who I first met at Sync the City, got to work.”
“We did the presentation and we were absolutely delighted when we won the competition.”
“Over the next couple of months, there were several gatherings to get things done more officially. We were also advised to find a name for the app that could be trademarked, so over an evening eating pizza, Safepoint was born and we launched the new name.”
However, around this time, Callum ran out of money and had to return to a proper job. So, he went to work for SQN in Diss as a Mobile App Developer.
“I worked part of my time in their office and the rest of the time based at home, which was in Bowthorpe. It was like being an entrepreneur but in an existing business, and it was perfect for giving me the opportunity to not only study things that were required for SQN, but also for Safepoint, so it had perfect crossover.
“The penny really dropped after winning the competition and then coming across story after story of completely preventable fatalities. We were also contacted by several businesses which was pretty strong validation of a need.
“Businesses with lone workers subscribe to Safepoint and it enables someone out in the field, such as an estate agent, farmer or surveyor, to activate the app when arriving at jobs. It then monitors their location, how long they’ve been there etc, and if the user doesn’t check back in as safe, triggers an alarm. There is a real need for the app, as there are many circumstances where tragedy has occurred out on site, but no-one has any idea that their colleague is in trouble until it’s too late.”
Callum stayed at SQN for 12 months, but during that time, he and the team spent almost every evening and weekend building Safepoint.
“We’ve built the platform three times over now and it’s been an incredibly long slog with 20 months of work before putting it properly in the customers’ hands, but we have now raised investment and our subscriber numbers are increasing.
“Although there’s a small team of us working from the Enterprise Centre at Norwich Research Park, our responsibility is to, not only make sure the app is working 24/7 and that there is no downtime, but also to ensure that it ticks all the right boxes for health, safety and compliance in the businesses we sell it to.
“One thing I have realised about running a business and that is, it’s all consuming. You are pulled in so many different directions, by so many people. I have four ‘to do’ lists, as I fulfil four roles within the business; sales, finance, BD and marketing.
“We learn as we go along and most of what we pick up, comes from networking with the local business community and talking to people. However, a lot of it feels as though we’re fumbling around in the dark!
“Yet, it would have been a lot more challenging to get where we are if we hadn’t had the programmes and funding support from the UEA.
“Our plans for Safepoint are to develop it so that it can support health and safety in a wider business format; helping with everything from risk assessments to accident tracking and reporting.
“I think the coolest thing for the future is that Safepoint will be able to provide you with insights that can genuinely help improve people’s lives. It’ll be able to tell you that you have a large proportion of staff injuring themselves in Cornwall on a Friday afternoon and you can then find out why and fix it!”