Patents

Tech City: Inside London's digital start-up hothouse

How entrepreneurs in a corner of East London are gearing up to compete with Silicon Valley...

Q: Why did the East London hipster burn his mouth?
A: He ate the pizza before it was cool.

Silicon Roundabout

The area around Silicon Roundabout in East London plays home to tens of digital start-upsPhoto: Clive Darr

For many Londoners, the east of the capital - the area around Shoreditch and Hoxton - is associated with a tribe of hipper-than-thou kids wearing shoes with no socks, glasses with no glass in them, and riding bikes with no gears.

It used to be a grubby part of London, and as cheap rents attracted an art, fashion and digital community, start-ups moved to the area. The tail wagged the dog, the galleries, the bigger businesses and technology heavyweights followed.

Nowadays, the area around Silicon Roundabout still plays home to tens of digital start-ups, working in disciplines including design, mobile apps, social media, analytics, consultancy and more. However, it has of late been joined by some more long-standing technology companies - including BT, Cisco, Firebox, Intel and Twitter (through Tweetdeck). Even Google recently took out a lease on a property in the area - along with a handful of professional services firms aiming to serve the growing digital community.

This recent influx is in some part down to the government spotting a bandwagon rumbling past and jumping aboard. PM David Cameron last year announced a government-backed investment programme to encourage established and start-up tech companies to set up there, with the aim of establishing a technology hub - known as The East London Tech City - in the area from Shoreditch and Old Street to the Olympic Park.

And along with encouraging the big names to open offshoots in the area, the Tech City announcement brought promises of financial and intellectual property advice for start-ups and links with local universities, boosting the area's credibility further.

Everything has changed

Digital production company Somethin' Else has been in the Tech City area for some 20 years, long before it became known as Tech City.

"It's impossible to say how much it's changed - it's a completely different area, every single thing is different," Somethin' Else's chief creative officer Paul Bennun told silicon.com.

Prime Minister David Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron announced the Tech City initiative in 2010Photo: Tim Ferguson/silicon.com

According to Eric Van Der Kleij, CEO of the Tech City Investment Organisation, the number of start-ups in the area has spiked since the government's involvement: "It has more than doubled in less than eight months," he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview earlier this year.

Many of the East London tech companies have been around since before Tech City was a glint in a politician's eye, established by individuals who liked the area's feel and didn't want to travel too far to work.

Entrepreneurs and digital types moved in, set up their businesses from their bedrooms, ran them from coffee shops and, when they found the company growing to such a size an office was necessary - well, why look too far from home?

Julian Erhardt, business development manager of ustwo - a user interface design company that's been housed in Tech City since 2004 - summed up the pull of the area as: "Work here, live...

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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