London’s claim to being the hub for tech startups in Europe got a boost last week, when Google opened the doors of its latest effort, Google Campus, a seven-story centre for startups, which it has launched in partnership with several existing organizations, and big ambitions to galvanize some of the tech activity that has already marked out London to take it to the next level.
The company is keeping much of its corporate profile at arms length from the project, but ironically, in describing Google’s aims, Campus’ head, Eze Vidra (pictured here), falls back on some of the terminology that has marked out one of Google’s other, massive efforts, Android: the building, he says, is “open source.” And the aim is to do away with some of the “fragmentation” in the London tech scene. Does that, in effect, lay out both the challenges and opportunities that Campus faces going forward?
For those who aren’t familiar with the lay of the land in London, Google has taken a 10-year lease on a seven-story building in a part of the city just east of the traditional financial district, in the heart of an area that is already home to many startups. In doing that, Google is not pretending it’s creating something out of nothing: rather, it is trying to make something more concentrated around which the rest of the startup scene in London can revolve.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. There is already a great emerging cluster of tech in London, but it’s been pretty fragmented, with not enough regularity,” Vidra told me. He believes Campus could become the greatest concentration of startups under one roof in the UK, and even Europe.
To that end, Google has partnered with four existing organizations already focused on building up startups — co-working space Central Working, early stage mentoring and investment program Seedcamp, community and workspace TechHub and accelerator program Springboard — to sublet and help manage some of that space and to bring promising companies on board. TechHub, for example, is migrating a large number of its members to the new building and will use hire out its existing space to companies that are in the next stage of development and need to take out larger digs. (Disclosure – TechCrunch’s European Editor Mike Butcher is a co-founder of TechHub, but the facility is run day-to-day by MD Elizabeth Varley).
So far the Google Campus concept has picked up a lot of interest, with 800 initial applications for workspace, 90 percent of it already allocated, 4,500 registered users and 60 permanent residents on site.
But Vidra says he wants to add more than just physical proximity into the equation. In addition to offering a communal cafe space, Google plans to program events “every day”, not just for those who are residents there but others, too.
“In San Francisco, there is stuff going on every day. There is more of a defined community. Now we are the London community. I want to create that kind of regularity. I want every entrepreneur passing through London, instead of working from Starbucks, to have a place to go. I want this to be where angels grab a coffee, and VCs come to seal deals.”
In Eze Vidra, Google has picked a guy who says that he has startup culture in his blood — blogging about, speaking to, being involved in and mentoring startups for years before taking this role. (Previously at Google he was in charge of strategic partnerships, spearheading services like Google Shopping in Spain and Local Shopping in the UK.)
“This is what I do for fun,” Vidra said. “You can’t fake passion.” (And, I should add, his enthusiasm is infectious. He even got me to agree, in theory, to the idea of helping out with and going on a bike ride from London to Paris. Startups on wheels for a good cause being the basic idea.)
Google Campus also represents one more instance of Google trying to get closer to its own original roots and away from its leviathan, corporate image that has led some to compare Google less to cool Internet upstarts and more to Microsoft, an analogy that has even seen Google become the subject of antitrust investigations for its dominance.
If you think about it, said Vidra, thirteen years ago Google was started by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a garage: “This is just a better garage and a good way to give back. Any success from Campus will be about the success of the startups.”
And Google has tried to put a bit of the thrown-together nature associated with startup ventures into this project, too.
“Four weeks ago, this was still a construction site!” Vidra exclaimed to me. He described Campus’ oversubscribed opening party the other week as a “beta” event: some issues with trash and two broken toilets, “but at least the WiFi held up.”
That’s been manifested in other unflattering ways, too: Others I talked to around the building noted the not-always there Internet connection and the fact that there is still no direct Ethernet in place for residents as yet.
And the cafe — which Eze told me is envisioned as the “hub” of all activity, with dark, cushioned nooks for coders to hack away; big open tables for collaborative working; and your usual mix of tables and cushioned chairs — had nary a soul in it when I sat down for a latte.
These are things that are, of course, likely to evolve over the coming weeks.
You might quite naturally ask, “What’s in it for Google in all this?” Indeed, while Vidra talks about the ethos of Google for putting people first, another has also been about creating products and services that help advance its own business model — specifically around advertising.
Vidra brushes off questions of whether Google is just creating a space to make it easier for Google itself to find the next big thing a little more easily.
“We bought and invested in companies before Campus,” he says. “We didn’t need to sign a lease for 10 years to find them.” And for those hoping that coming into Campus will help catch Google’s eye, it apparently won’t be any easier than it was before. Vidra says that at this point there is “no plan to invest in any of these companies. Not at the moment. It was not the intention behind why it was set up.”
But he does also point out that, while he is the only full-time Google employee at Campus, it will be a great way for other Googlers to also touch more of the startup scene: he said that a full 25 percent of Google’s London office (in a totally different part of town, intentionally) said they wanted to get involved with Campus either as volunteers or mentors.
Naturally, that will mean a whole lot more help and suggestions for how to use Google products…if that’s what developers want to use: “If you’re doing anything like A/B testing on Android, Google+ or Maps, then speaking to the right people can be very useful.”
But that does not mean there will be Google shoved down people’s throats. “I am operating campus as an open source building,” he said. “Google has created a platform here and is making sure that platform is robust. Then we are partnering with great partners to make it even better.”
On the subject of investment: interestingly, Google has kept VCs — the focus of so much attention from the startup community already, and clearly an important part of it — out of direct involvement with Google Campus.
“I think investors are an integral part of the community, and I’d like to have a lot of interaction with them through pitch nights and office hours and have them being involved as mentors,” Vidra explained. “But choosing one or two [as partners] sends the wrong message to the rest.” It could also mean potentially more expectation on securing deals with resident startups, which might also be a conflict of interest for Google itself.
So what’s next for Google and its Campus concept? It looks like more of these could be in the cards in the future.
Vidra says that London was chosen for this project because of two big and apparent problems: the price of real estate and the community lacking a “density” in its network — but these are problems other cities have, too, and they are problems that should be addressed by other companies as well — not just Google: “If this succeeds I hope to see more campuses opening up, but the playing field is wide open for other companies to get involved too.”