How Campus Became The Heart Of Tech City

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With the help of partners Seedcamp, TechHub, Central Working, Coadec and Start-up Weekend as well as accelerators like Springboard (now Techstars), Bethnal Green Ventures, and Entrepreneur First, Campus London has become the heart of Tech City, hosting weekly mentoring programs, speaker series and many networking events for the start-up community that keep the meeting rooms and stairways humming late into the night and throughout the weekend. Expect even more activity during April as Campus London celebrates its one-year anniversary. Read on to learn how Campus came about, what it has achieved and what’s next.

Tom Whicher, Rinesh Amin and  Perran Pengelly, three young colleagues who spent their time advising businesses, discovered — to their horror — that inefficiencies in the system mean that one in ten hospital appointments scheduled through Britain’s National Health Service are missed, costing the government-run health program £1.2 billion a year.

The three quit their day jobs at a small UK consultancy in July and formed DrDoctor, raising £15,000 of funding from Bethnal Green Ventures to create an online appointment service that aims to reduce the number of people that drop out, saving a typical hospital up to £2 million per year. “The health care market needs disrupting and we felt we could do that,” says Whicher. The company is now trialing its service with Heatherwood and Wexham Park Hospitals near Slough and expects to have some 25,000 people using the service by end of May.

DrDoctor’s founders are among thousands of entrepreneurs who have made the pilgrimage to a Google-owned co-working space not far from the intersection of Tabernacle and Worship Streets in Shoreditch in the past 12 months. Some liken the building — known as Campus London — to “a church of innovation.”

It is no accident that the building on Bonhill Street was christened last March 29th by George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hope is that if Campus lives up to its pledge to “fill this town with start-ups” it can offer some salvation to the UK, which has already lost its AAA rating from one agency and is poised to lose it from another — due to high government debt levels and weak growth.

Google has come under fire from London Mayor Boris Johnson for not paying its share of taxes in the UK, but some argue that by aiding and abetting a large number of start-ups via Campus, the U.S. search engine giant could potentially bring greater, longer-term benefits to the British economy.

The number of Internet-focused companies based in Tech City is mushrooming. With Mind Candy, a fast-growing gaming company, moving directly across the street from Campus and Barclays sponsoring a space next door, Bonhill Street is teeming with tech talent while Tech City as a whole is now home to more than 50 incubators and accelerators (see the map on page 17).

The hope is that the best of the start-ups will become much bigger businesses and go global — and public — from London, helping to stimulate the local economy.

Aggregating start-ups in one location — and making it easier for them to connect with mentors, big corporates and investors — is expected to speed up the process. “When smart people come together, great things can happen,” Rohan Silva, Senior Policy Advisor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, said in an interview with Informilo. Silva said he considers his role in convincing Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Nikesh Arora (the former head of Google Europe and Google’s current senior vice president and chief business officer) to agree to invest in Campus as “my proudest achievement in government.

While networking is an important part of what happens at Campus it is also a place where things get done. “You can bet if there is a technology product that someone wants there is probably a start-up at Campus working to make it happen,” says Damien Allison, one of several ex-Google employees who have banded together to launch their own start-up from Central Working in the Campus basement.

DrDoctor found its technical talent in the same basement café, says Whicher. He and his co-founders spent quite a bit of time there in the company’s earliest days because Campus provided Bethnal Green Ventures, its investor, with office space for three months. It’s all part of a plan to rotate various accelerator programs through Campus’s third-floor office space. Springboard, another London incubator, was also housed on Campus for a time.

The rotation — combined with Google’s commitment to keep the basement café as an open space that is free for entrepreneurs — means there is constantly new blood in the building, boosting the serendipity factor.

DrDoctor was helped by experts in UX design that the founders met over coffee at Central Working. “They gave us a load of useful advice,” says Whicher. While visiting other offices on the third floor the trio met an expert on conversion rates who was there to meet with another start-up. They hired him — on the spot — to do freelance work for them. The co-founders also took advantage of Google Office Hours. The program matches founders with a Googler for 30-minute one-on-one meetings most Fridays, covering topics such as recruiting, marketing, advertising, and monetization. For DrDoctor “it was a chance to have our ideas validated and ask questions about delivering services at scale and understanding some of the challenges,” says Whicher.

There are other, intangible benefits connected with calling Campus home. “Being based on Campus adds a certain cachet,” says Whicher. “When we told people we were based there they were very interested in meeting us. Everyone wants to see the place.”

Since Campus offers a meeting point for large numbers of start-ups‚ its proponents argue that there is more chance of making meaningful encounters on Campus than on Sand Hill Road or even the legendary Buck’s Restaurant in Silicon Valley, where PayPal, Netscape and Yahoo founders famously first met with VCs to raised funding.

Some 10,000 entrepreneurs are members of Campus London and a significant number of investors regularly traipse through the building. Visitors downed 90,000 cups of coffee during its first 12 months of operation, according to a recent Google survey, and shook hands an estimated 50,000 times.

Although most of the companies started on Campus are still very early stage, some are succeeding in raising big seed rounds, at least by European standards. Import.io announced a $600,000 seed round in late March and, at press time, Adbrain, which is just six months old, was on track to raise $1 million.

In addition to having the chance to meet investors, hire developers and other tech talent, get free legal and policy advice, and rub shoulders with and seek advice from Google execs, start-ups can also meet famous entrepreneurs from both Silicon Valley and London who regularly drop in on Campus. For example, on March 27th Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales spoke before a packed audience in a ground-floor conference room; Lastminute.com founder Brent Hobermann is scheduled to speak in April. These events are open to anyone, whether they are based on Campus or not.

An Open Source Building

Google has taken great pains to make the building a neutral space — tellingly naming it Campus London rather than stamping its own brand on the place. It has tried hard to have that spirit seep into the very walls. Campus Manager Eze Vidra’s oft-repeated mantra is: “if there was an equivalent between real estate and software, Campus would be an open source building, where we, Google, created a platform and we work with great partners and the community to power the ecosystem.”

This is more than a marketing slogan. “Campus has become a genuine community hub that is seen as being inclusive rather than a Google space,” says Jason Goodman, CEO of Albion, a creative agency located in nearby Tea House that caters to entrepreneurs and “intrapreneurs.”

Albion’s Goodman came to Campus on a recent afternoon to attend an event co-organized by the World Federation of Advertisers and Hoxton Mix, which offers office space, co-working, desk rental and virtual offices in London’s Silicon Roundabout. The event attracted some 15 chief marketing officers from big brands. While there the CMOs were pitched by start-ups, took a tour of Campus with Google’s Vidra, and listened to presentations by event organizers 3 Beards and Ben Southworth, deputy CEO of the Tech City Investment Organization (an ex-member of the 3 Beards).

The mix of people who turn up at Campus events often leads to fortuitous encounters. Consider the example of Mantas Varnagiris, a senior Android Developer at Quipper, a global Atomico-backed mobile learning company based on Old Street. Varnagiris recently attended a Design in Action workshop at Campus, where designers and engineers gather and team to develop apps. During the workshop, Varnagiris met a student majoring in astrophysics. “We created a great product together in the workshop with a strong emphasis on Android design,” he says. “I was so impressed by his work that, after the workshop, I invited Flavio to join Quipper as a design intern.”

As for Varnagiris, he says he expects to be back on Campus again soon. “I know there are many other exciting events like this at Campus — focusing on design, engineering, business, networking and of course simply having fun,” he says. “It’s a great place to meet and interact with lots of highly talented people and learn new skills. ”

How Campus Came About

Creating a place in London for entrepreneurs to meet and interact was exactly what the government had in mind when it organized a trip to Silicon Valley in 2010 to try to get some commitment from big American companies to invest in Tech City, says Silva, who traveled there with then-Olympic Games Chief Andrew Altman and Jeremy Hunt, who is now Britain’s Health Secretary. Silva used his contacts to get a meeting for the three with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Nikesh Arora, Google’s Chief Business Officer. “I pitched Eric on East London and he said, ‘wait a minute; we don’t put Google in a business park in the middle of nowhere,’” says Silva. “I told him this was very different, a new tech cluster that was growing organically. We agreed on a high-level commitment and shook hands on it.” The baton was then passed to Google UK, “who have been so creative and in tune with what the community needs,” says Silva.

“Ultimately this was a by-product of multi-level policy conversations with Number 10 and a number of large corporates — of which Google was simply one,” says Anil Hansjee, then head of corporate development EMEA for Google. (Hansjee left Google in June 2011 and is now an active angel investor in London.) “Hats off to David Cameron and Rohan Silva for the genesis of what Campus and Tech City are today.”

Google’s Schmidt deserves credit too, says Hansjee, for seeing the unfulfilled potential in London and acting swiftly. Schmidt was surprised that the notion of an ecosystem wasn’t present in a hub like London. “There was no place where university students, corporates, VCs and start-ups could meet so the thinking was maybe we just need to create the Starbucks effect by creating a place where people could come and feel comfortable and have a coffee,” says Hansjee.

The climate and timing were right locally, he says. Matt Brittin had taken over as head of Google UK “and was a big fan of exposure of entrepreneurs and liked the idea of finding a campus that could be a meeting place for them as well as a place for Google employees to hang out and supply mentorship,” says Hansjee.

Turning Campus London into a reality came out of a 20% project, says Hansjee. “Myself and Sarah Hunter in UK Policy and Comms initiated it and got the approvals done internally and set up how it should work independent from Google branding and as a mixed-purpose use with volunteers from Google coming to help start-ups and with Seedcamp and TechHub running the start-up interaction and space,” he says. “We did the early concept discussion with them.”

Alongside Hunter, Obi Felten, Google’s former Director of Consumer Marketing, was put in charge of finding the location, while Google’s facilities division did the lease deal.

When Hansjee left Google the project needed a senior sponsor, so it was given to EMEA head of engineering Nelson Mattos, who appointed Eze Vidra to run it. Debu Purkayastha, one of Hansjee’s team members, worked on Campus’s early partnerships but most of the leg work needed to get partners on board was done by Campus Manager Vidra and Anastasia Leng, who has since left Google to launch a start-up.

Google was the first large tech company to establish a presence in East London. Since then, others have followed suit, with Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, and Yammer setting up operations in the capital.

Google was able to move swiftly when approached by the government because “it has been in the UK for over 10 years, with a large presence that now includes three offices and engineering teams, and so we had enough people to support a massive infrastructure project like Campus,” says Vidra. “It is the first one set up by Google anywhere in the world, and until recently the only one. On January 31st we launched Campus Tel Aviv.”

The success of Campus London comes down to the execution, rather than the approvals and planning, and “Eze has clearly succeeded in creating a community,” says Hansjee. “The challenge going forward is how do you take an entrepreneur on a journey and improve their experience throughout and connect them to partners in a more systematic way?”

Assisting The Serendipity

Vidra is on the case. On a recent day on Campus he invited all of the Campus Twenty Percenters (see box) to meet with him over sandwiches on the fifth floor. The objective was to spend an hour brainstorming about Campus’s objectives and how it should evolve. The team filled a whole white wall with ideas.

A “confession booth” that allows entrepreneurs to film and upload their start-up stories onto YouTube is coming soon, as are a new mobile testing lab; an education program designed especially for entrepreneurs; and more programs connecting start-ups with corporates.

“We’re always trying to come up with ways to assist the serendipity,” says Vidra. Start-ups like DrDoctor say Campus’s efforts to date are helping their fledging businesses thrive. It is still too soon to tell, though, whether Campus can do the same for the ailing British economy.

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