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About this programme by Peter Day
I’ve cycled through the area now known as Silicon Roundabout for more than 30 years now, without noticing anything ever so special about it.
Some worn out buildings just north of the banking opulence of the City of London, some interesting bars and restaurants and a flourish of small and intriguing art galleries. Edgy nightlife yes, but high technology?
Well, seems it was happening without my noticing. To me the Old Street Roundabout was a huge cyclists’ crossroads where bike couriers used to gather in hoards on Friday nights outside the now defunct Foundry bar, awaiting development (alas) as an “art hotel”.
But I had not gone up the dingy stairs of these rather battered buildings to find out what was happening on the upper floors.
Shoreditch and the area around it in East London used to be a furniture making centre 100 years ago. Then city ancillary services moved in: warehouses, financial printers, and delivery people.
There was good cheap space 15 years ago for the entrepreneurs seeking to make quick fortunes out of the dot-com revolution that went pop in 2000. The pop left empty space that was ideal for the new breed of web 2.0 pioneers a few years later.
And now dozens, no, maybe hundreds of little companies are in pursuit of the Next Big Thing in computing, up clunky lifts and grubby stairs.
The spaces they occupy have a distinct resemblance to the famous South of Market street area in San Francisco, home to so many Silicon Valley start-ups in the 1990s. (The magazine Wired is still based there.)
Two years ago we made an In Business centred on University Avenue in Palo Alto California, the small town close to the intellectual powerhouse of Stanford University. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tbhny
We zoomed in on one particular building, 165 University Avenue. I walked down the main street in Palo Alto with an Iranian born entrepreneur and property owner called Saeed Amidi.
His family had fled the Iranian revolution and started a carpet shop in University Avenue that they still run. He started a little business empire of his own, leasing 165, and eventually outgrowing it.
So he rented it out to other tenants. And the place seemed to attract start-ups who turned out to have famous futures. Saeed Amidi calls it “the lucky building”.
The mouse specialists Logitech were early tenants. Then came the online payments people PayPal and the mobile phone developer Danger.
Google moved in when they outgrew the garage space they started out in. I can still remember the Google sign stuck to the 165 window.
They were all only short-term lodgers, because the office space will not house more than about 60 people, and Silicon Valley start-ups grow fast. Or fail fast.
The occupants when we went round two years ago were a little company called Milo, run by a (then) 23-year-old called Jack Abraham. Milo was set up to give bricks and mortar stores an Internet immediacy by persuading big US retailing chains to allow the company access to their inventory and price data.
Consumers with an immediate purchase in mind could use Milo to get a quote from a local shop on price and availability straight away, before picking the goods up an hour or so later at the physical store.
In 2009, Jack Abraham was thrilled to be sitting in the same space that the Google founders were in only a few years before.
And, being a lucky guy in a lucky building, he did not have to wait long to make his first fortune. Last December, the Internet auction site eBay paid $75-million for Milo … and hired Jack to help it redefine retailing all over again.
That is the kind of runaway success story that people talk about in Silicon Valley USA: access to space, ideas, investment, hungry recruits. Things happen fast.
Saeed Amidi has tried to institutionalise the luck of the 165 University Avenue at a larger building a few miles away called Plug and Play, where dozens of start-ups huddle in easily-rented space with would-be investors dropping in to see what’s going on, and a constant buzz of competition and cooperation.
Now that sort of feeling is being replicated in London in places such as TechHub right on Silicon Roundabout, where you can rent a desk space for £250 a month, surrounded by other heads glued to computer screens, all starting businesses.
In fact, Silicon Roundabout is not what inhabitants really want it to be called … it sounds a bit derivative. Everywhere I go in the world governments are trying to encourage silicon somethings: in Warsaw, in Sofia, in Berlin, in Paris, somewhere in Russia, to say nothing of Silicon Fen Cambridge and Silicon Glen in Scotland.
London’s tech entrepreneurs seem to have been heartened when the Prime Minister visited what they like to call Tech City last November and announced a blueprint for a technology hub extending as far as the Olympic Village in Stratford several miles away, with pledges from one or two big US firms such as Intel and Google to start research centres there.
It sounds like the sort of encouragement that governments proclaim all over the world when trying to get to grips with the anarchic development of new technology businesses.
I just hope that the daylight of too much attention does not make the inhabitants of Tech City too confident that the future of British business has already arrived in and around Old Street roundabout.
There is certainly a lot happening. But there is also a lot more to be done.
Contributors to this programme:
Eric Van Der Kleij
Entrepreneur-in-residence, Tech City UK
Founder Sharkius Games
Co-founder Clearer Partners
Co-founder Jawbone, State.it
Michael Acton Smith
Founder Mind Candy
Head of Product, Last.fm
Insights into the business world with Peter Day - featuring content from his Radio 4 In Business...