David Cameron, the British prime minister, returned to Shoreditch in East London on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of his Tech City initiative.
As we wrote today, the government’s attention has been well received by local entrepreneurs, even if there is more work to do to fulfil the original vision of a European Silicon Valley that stretches from Old Street’s “Silicon Roundabout” to the Olympic park in Stratford.
At the White Bear Yard start-up incubator in east London, Mr Cameron chatted about the tech skills shortage with Alexandra Chong, founder of Luluvise (above), a private social network for young women, and with Felix Leuschner, founder of Stylistpick, an online fashion club, about ecommerce models. He then went on to the Trampery, one of the more stylish shared workspaces in Shoreditch.
The government believes there are now more than 600* tech and digital media companies in east London, up from a few dozen three years ago when the “Silicon Roundabout” phrase was first coined. Their locations are now plotted on a Tech City map, built by local companies Trampoline Systems and Playgen.
Accompanying the Tech City map is an iPhone and Android app, built by Mobile Roadie, lists events at the TechHub, MiniBar and London Hackspace venues, alongside the latest local tweets and policy initiatives.
Coming in the next version of The Tech City app already includes an augmented reality function, powered by Autonomy’s Aurasma technology, triggered by pointing the camera at company logos, buildings or other objects.
In another geek-pleasing move, chipmaker Qualcomm announced that it is bringing 50 electric cars and a trial of its wireless charging system to the area early next year. These may be made available for short-term loans, along the lines of the Barclays-sponsored cycle-sharing scheme, as well as opening up the backend systems to local entrepreneurs to build additional services around.
Other large companies backing Tech City include Intel, which will be making available to London start-ups its high-performance computing cluster, and Cisco, which unveiled a “National Virtual Incubator” to link up UK research centres online and through videoconferencing.
Virgin Media is taking steps towards solving a common complaint of Silicon Roundabout denizens: slow, expensive and inflexible broadband packages. Virgin is bringing a 1Gb-per-second connection to THECUBE, another start-up incubator in the area, which it will be able to re-sell on a monthly basis, rather than the usual 12-18 month contracts.
Several US tech companies, including Airbnb, Groupon and Yelp, have set up shop in east London in the past year, even if Google, Facebook and Twitter are keeping their main UK offices in the West End.
“As a government, we are determined to continue doing everything we can to help support and accelerate this growth,” Mr Cameron said in a statement. “We have already taken action such as introducing the Entrepreneurs Visa and tax breaks like the Enterprise Investment Scheme. We are also looking at new ways we can protect Intellectual Property. But we are not done yet – we’re looking forward to continuing our work with the community in Tech City to further support them to grow.”
The prime minister may have looked like he was “going through the motions” as he did the rounds but his short chats were surprisingly insightful, said Noam Sohachevsky, product director at Picklive, an online fantasy-football game based at White Bear Yard, which also hosted Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, last month.
“The digital duke and now Cameron can only benefit the start-up/investment scene in general,” Mr Sohachevsky said. “Statistics suggest we’ll have loads of failed start-ups in the next year or two but we’ll also have a bunch of experienced entrepreneurs about too. They’ll be well-equipped to try again and have better chances of success.”
However, Picklive itself has seen little tangible benefits from the Tech City scheme, Mr Sohachevsky added. “It creates some buzz, but ultimately a company like ours needs customers, and David Cameron can’t help us with that problem.”
Listen to Eileen Burbidge, one of the three founders of White Bear Yard and its associated investment fund, Passion Capital, talking about Mr Cameron and the Tech City initiative:
*UPDATE: According to a new study by Duedil, a free online database of UK company information, and TechHub, there are closer to 200 “hard core” tech companies in London, excluding digital marketing or creative ad agencies (likely to be a contentious distinction, given the many such firms in the area). The EC1 postcode around Old St and Farringdon is responsible for 76 per cent of all growth in new companies around London in the last year, Duedil found, with social networking and game, software and app development the hottest sectors.
Photos by Noam Sohachevsky and Tim Bradshaw