UK tech hub start-ups take on Silicon

In many ways, Jane ni Dhulchaointigh is just like the many other ambitious entrepreneurs operating close to the gyratory system connecting Hackney, Shoreditch and the City of London – which, since dotcom start-ups first gravitated there in the late 1990s, has become known as Silicon Roundabout.

Her company, FormFormForm, which she founded in a former button factory two years ago, now has customers in 119 countries. “Our ambitions for the business are high,” she says. “We will become a $1bn company within 10 years.”

At present, the company has annual sales of £1m, and a full-time staff of 28.

But unlike many of her technology industry peers, Ms ni Dhulchaointigh’s venture involves making something you can hold.

Sugru, which was invented while Ms ni Dhulchaointigh completed her master’s degree at the Royal College of Art, is a plasticine-like material that sets into a rubbery solid shape. This makes it ideal for DIY repairs or improvements to products such as camera grips and speaker cables.

Before the advent of the internet, Sugru would have struggled to find a market. But Ms ni Dhulchaointigh’s company has fostered an online network of Sugru fans across the world, who share their Sugru experiments on YouTube and Facebook – which in turn inspires others to try out the product.

Ms ni Dhulchaointigh’s dream is for Sugru to become a household name, like Blu-tac or Sellotape. In 2010, Time Magazine ranked Sugru above the iPad in its list of the year’s best inventions.

“We’re a technology company but we are very much manufacturers, and we are material scientists as well,” she says. “I guess we are an online brand that develops new materials and manufactures them.”

FormFormForm is not alone in trying to bring about a manufacturing revival in east London.

Moo.com is an online stationery business that uses the web to sell to customers across the world. When the company was created seven years ago, it outsourced its production. But last year, founder Richard Moross moved into a former print works in Shoreditch and brought everything in house – using the latest ink-jet printing technology.

“It is about being connected to your craft,” he explains. “It is great for customers when they come here to see the printers, and it is great for employees.”

Moo.com employs 125 people, and recorded sales of £12.8m last year.

The digitisatision of content that was previously stored on paper, vinyl and CDs has made owning something tangible more special, Mr Moross argues. “There is an assumption that technology will make life as we have known it redundant, but I think that is ridiculous. I bought a Kindle but I still like reading a book in the bath.”

Next door to Moo.com is Makielab, a much younger company that uses the hot new technology of 3D printing to make personalised dolls to order. These Makie dolls are assembled on site and clothed with outfits sewn in a corner of the workshop, by a staff of 10. Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com, became chairman of the company in September.

Alice Taylor, Makielab’s founder, admits she set up in Shoreditch partly because she lived in the area already. However, she adds that she likes the idea of reviving the art of making things in an area that, in the 19th century, was part of the workshop of the world.

“This is the second industrial revolution,” she says. “But it’s very clean because there is very little waste from each doll we make.”

Shoreditch and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Hackney are now home to more than 3,000 digital start-ups, according to the think-tank Demos.

But the prevalence of manufacturers among this number may help London’s technology cluster to distinguish itself from Silicon Valley in the US, and show how the UK capital – with its world-class design and art colleges – can produce fundamentally different companies to those coming out of San Francisco and Palo Alto.

Neil Rimer is a partner at Index Ventures, a venture capital firm with operations in San Francisco and London that includes Moo.com among its investments.

“London has a tradition of fine craftsmanship . . . and there is clearly a pride in that tradition,” he says. “To say that couldn’t have occurred somewhere else, I don’t know, but London has an unbelievable depth of talent in not just technical areas but also in product design.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.