London’s TechHub plans to be a mini-cluster for tech startups

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TechHub (@TechHub), the project set up by Elizabeth Varley and Mike Butcher to create a physical space in London for tech start-ups “from from across the UK, Europe, the US and beyond”, appears to be well on its way. It is now accepting a limited number of Founder Memberships, booking sponsors and details about the actual space will, I’m told, be outlined shortly.

Comparisons could be made with the similar-ish Plug and Play Tech Centers in Silicon Valley, although TechHub’s model feels like it may well be better adapted to the spread-out nature of the European scene, and potentially more flexible. It’s also not an incubator.

Not bad for an idea dreamt up a couple of years ago by my colleague and editor Mike Butcher, who has joined as a director and cofounder, advising on strategy. Perhaps because of that, the back-story here is relevant.

The problem they are tackling is quite clear. While in Silicon Valley you can’t throw a stone without hitting a geek or a VC, thus giving rise to the amazing technology cluster there, the opportunities to rapidly develop startups in Europe are witheringly limited (in fact, it’s amazing we do as well as we do). Unless they have an unlimited travel budget, startup founders and developers must find their cofounders and venture backers in their backyard – that can be very limiting. In addition, while London’s business friendly regime makes it a key European meeting hub for startups, actually living and working here can be pretty expensive.

So what’s needed is an affordable, easy to access “mini-cluster” of other tech companies, which lets you touch down in London, work and network – and, crucially, not charge you when you’re not there, as as a managed office or a high-priced private club does. With a sort of ‘pay as you go’ model for its community, it turns out that’s exactly what TechHub wants to do.

As Varley tells me: “London has all the pan-European VCs, it has new seed funds like Seedcamp and PROFounders, an active Angel investor market, many tech events and locally created startups as well as ones from Continental Europe. It’s also a bridge between Europe and the States. But to access this eco-system you shouldn’t have to be locked in to a pricey office lease, hit an expensive conference or join a London club where they are more interested in racking up your bar bill than who you are and what you’re doing.”

It’s a fair assessment. After all, what do most of us want, other than somewhere to sit, power, wifi, coffee, maybe a printer and, ideally, a spot next to someone interesting in the tech industry, rather than just the barista for company in a Starbucks.

But what exactly will it be like to work in when it launches? Varley says there will be a co-working space with flexible seating so members can work alone or move chairs/desk around to “huddle” on a project.

There’ll also be meeting rooms and on some evenings the venue will turn into an event space usable by any one of London’s many tech events, or ones coming from outside. There’ll also be about 30 or so desk spaces rentable on a flexible monthly basis.

Plus – get this – a device room where mobile startups can test their applications on Android, iPhone, iPad, Nokia Maemo etc etc.

In fact, she hopes that the initial London TechHub in the Old Street area of London, where there is already an existing cluster of tech start-ups, will just be the first of many geared towards technology people in other markets.

The site itself also has potential. It doesn’t look like much right now but I’m told it’ll have an internal member network at launch. The online side sounds particularly interesting as Varley says they hope to create a platform where startups can run applications that help the community.

How’s it all getting funded? Aside from memberships and desk spaces, TechHub is in the process of closing a “very limited number of founding sponsor partners”. The idea is that these are sponsors which will have something to offer TechHub members. She points out that TechHub is not a venture-based incubator and will be agnostic when it comes to the venture scene. It also has a business model: as a commercial entity it’s set up to be self-sustaining – crucial in London’s expensive property scene. This compares with some older style co-working facilities which have often withered on the vine when public sector, charitable or individual backers withdraw.

And what’s Mike Butcher’s role? Does TechCrunch have an involvement? “Absolutely not,” he says. He says he’s involved in a purely personal capacity to advise on what works best for tech people and startups.

“Hopefully, TechHub is going to be like a sort of ‘tourist office’ for startups, pointing visitors to where the tech scene is, where the companies are around London, across Europe and just networking people. It’s also going to be neutral. I’d love it if other bloggers and journalists join up. Elizabeth will run it day to day. Frankly, it beats the hell out of working in a Starbucks for me as well.”

It sounds like a few startups might well agree. Check out the many videos on their site in support of the idea, as they’re running a competition to win a free place if people submit a video about “Why I want TechHub.”

Update: We should have mentioned other co-working facilities in London, though to be fair none appear to be as laser-focused on tech as TechHub.

The Cube in Shoreditch is again non-sector specific, described as a “conceptual workspace” whose members consist of freelance graphic designers, copywriters, web designers and film production companies. The Hub is aimed at “social entreprenuers”. eOffice is not a co-working space but a managed office facility providing a hot-desking. Again it is not on the niche of tech. As a commenter points out below, The Trampery is a co-working space where anyone can drop in, aimed non-specifically at “software developers, designers, consultants, entrepreneurs and other creative spirits” as well as “creative freelancers and small businesses”. It’s the former office of Trampoline Systems.

Naturally, other co-working or community spaces don’t focus on technology, mainly because they can’t afford to close themselves off to potential business from outside that sector.

In fact, a close analysis of all the London co-working spaces listed at the Coworking Wiki reveals that not a single space is focused completely and totally on the technology sector. General they are aimed at the ‘creative’ sector which is dominated by design/media companies.

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