November 6, 2011 8:37 pm

‘Urban campuses’ fire London’s tech hotbed

East London’s technology entrepreneurs are flocking to a new crop of co-working offices and community spaces, fuelling the government’s ambitions to create an innovation cluster in Shoreditch.

The latest due to take its place in “East London Tech City” is General Assembly, an “urban campus” from New York that combines hot-desking and meeting places with an educational programme, offering evening classes and courses in subjects such as iPhone-app development, search-engine optimisation and product management.

“Institutions like schools and organisations are not teaching students to thrive in the 21st century workforce,” said Adam Pritzker, one of General Assembly’s four co-founders. “That is the gap we are seeking to fill.”

After meeting UK government officials earlier this year, General Assembly plans to set up a 20,000 sq ft base in Clerkenwell, east London, in spring 2012 after receiving investment from Yuri Milner, the Russian tech investor whose DST Global fund has backed Facebook, Groupon and Spotify.

The move marks a renewed commitment from Mr Milner to London’s tech scene after several years focusing his attention on Silicon Valley.

“I’ve seen first-hand how General Assembly has bolstered the technology and entrepreneurial community in New York, and I believe that its community and education-oriented approach is exactly what London needs to produce the next generation of world-class entrepreneurs,” said Mr Milner, who is making a further, undisclosed investment in GA London after participating in September’s $4.5m (£2.8m) funding round.

GA joins a fast-growing group of east London workspaces that sit somewhere between members’ club, lecture theatre, pub and office, including the Trampery, TechHub, the Hoxton Mix and London Hackspace.

Google is refurbishing a seven-storey office near Old Street to create a “launchpad” for local start-ups.

“People always talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropping out [of university]. The reality is they all thought of those ideas in college,” said Mr Pritzker.

“That environment of intense collaboration and camaraderie and community within the setting of a more formal educational environment creates a kind of alchemy. That is what we seek to do.”

By providing places to hold talks and parties, these spaces help to foster the community of hundreds of young companies and entrepreneurs that are gathering in and around London’s “Silicon Roundabout”. For start-ups with just a handful of employees, they also provide much-needed short-term rents for cheap deskspace at a time when commercial property prices in the area are rising fast.

“There have been many many good consequences from the government starting to pay attention to this part of town,” said Charles Armstrong, who opened the first Trampery in Shoreditch in 2009.

“There’s also been one negative aspect which is that suddenly, because large corporations such as Google are coming into the property market, for the first time in 20 years there’s been a serious disruption in rents.”

He said commercial property prices in Shoreditch had leapt from about £20 per square foot to £30 or even £40 – comparable to levels in the City.

Mr Milner was introduced to General Assembly after he met David Cameron at Number 10, as part of the government’s effort to woo large tech firms and investors to London.

The prime minister said General Assembly, alongside east London’s other tech workspaces, would provide “a significant boost for entrepreneurship and innovation in the area”.

“General Assembly is one of the world’s most dynamic technology communities and digital education providers, and their presence in London will help more British entrepreneurs access the skills and support they need to grow into world-beaters,” Mr Cameron said. 

This week will see Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, visiting Number 10 to discuss technology, innovation and new rules and regulations such as the evolution of British libel law. Twitter has opened new offices in London and Dublin in recent months.

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