Lords Of The Ring: The Tech Titans of Silicon Roundabout

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A traffic-choked corner of east London seems an unlikely rival to Silicon Valley. But Google has just moved in – and some of Britain's brightest minds live next door. James Waterson reports

David Cameron hopes it will kick-start economic growth and his government has dedicated enormous resources to ensuring it succeeds.

But on a shabby side street near the Old Street roundabout in east London, Ramona Leru, of Riccardo's Sandwich Bar, is unaware that she's at the centre of Europe's fastest-growing technology hub. "The Google? Moving next door? No, I haven't heard anything about it."

That will change fast. The web titan's decision to lease a seven-storey building just off the so-called "Silicon Roundabout" is seen as a vindication of No 10's desire to transform a collection of former warehouses and print works into an entrepreneurial centre to rival California's Silicon Valley.

What began with a handful of fledgling internet businesses attracted by the low rents and local cultural scene has become a benchmark by which the Government's growth agenda will be judged.

The first inkling of the area's potential came when Last.fm, a British music start-up, was bought by CBS for £140m in 2007. Matthew Sheret, the company's "data griot" ("A new role...I'm employed to tell stories with data") explains why they chose to base themselves there. "It was just an interesting space: relatively cheap, full of similar companies and with plenty of gigs in the evenings," he says.

Dodging the foam bullets and plastic balls at their open-plan HQ ("We used to have a ball pit, but someone took it for an art project"), Sheret points out the allure of being in close proximity to fellow innovators. "It's about the brain-food, it's about the people who are around this area, people who can see how the internet might develop".

There is a risk of this high-talk slipping into waffle; when London was last at the vanguard of a new-media movement at the turn of the century it lurched into self-parody, as brutally satirised by Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker in their 2005 television series Nathan Barley. One start-up admitted that a visitor once described their office as looking like "the set of The Social Network but staffed by hipsters; all skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses." However, today's Shoreditch entrepreneurs are more interested in corporation tax rates and immigration restrictions than the cut of their trousers.

Mike Butcher has been tracking the scene since it began to pick up "in about 2008". He co-founded TechHub (described on its website as "a community space reflecting the vibrancy and global outlook of the technology scene"), a members' club where young companies can rent office space for below the market rate.

"We put together a business model that would be like Soho House for geeks," he says. "But instead of high-priced club sandwiches and cocktails it provides what start-ups want: super-fast wi-fi, great coffee and likeminded people. We've had people coming in from Paris, Berlin, Slovenia. They have to be here to do marketing and raise finance."

Such devotion to organic growth and ad-hoc interaction explains why David Cameron's November 2010 vision for a larger, quango-backed "East London Tech City" was initially greeted with cynicism. It appeared to be a case of politicians trying to latch on to the latest fashion in search of good press. But since then the number of tech companies in the area has increased from 200 to more than 500.

"Like anyone, you expect that government initiatives will get quietly dropped," says Butcher. "But I've been pleasantly surprised. Pretty much every month there's been a No 10 meeting about how to enrich and enliven the tech start-up scene."

Eric Van Der Kleij is the endlessly enthusiastic head of Tech City Investment Organisation, the body set up to encourage businesses into the area. "It's quite exciting to work directly with No 10 – we have policies going straight in and we have ministers coming over all the time," he says.

"The Government sees it as central to their growth strategy; there are not many sectors where you can achieve low-capital-intensive growth. Here, for relatively small amounts of money, you can produce large amounts of growth, scale quickly and export very, very fast." He adds that a number of larger companies are in discussions to move to the area.

Given that the Silicon Roundabout moniker was originally a tongue-in-cheek term coined when the number of firms based there could be counted in the dozens, this may prove to be suprisingly prescient. Now recruiters such as Harvey Nash and investors Seedcamp are following the new companies, abandoning their former bases in Mayfair for the lofts of Old Street.

But the techies agree on one thing: Britain's increasingly restrictive visa rules are damaging their prospects. Ian Hogarth, 29, is a Cambridge graduate who heads up Songkick, a live music service that employs 20 people. "We just hired an amazing guy from [Silicon] Valley with loads of experience, but the current visa system is not perfect. Over a third of our team are from outside the UK," he says.

Despite this, the twentysomething entrepreneurs are warming to their close association with the Government's mission to revive the economy. "The No 10 guys came down here on their bikes and were trying to be down with the kids," says Alex Halliday, CEO of SocialGo, which sells kits that enable people set up their own social networks. "But they were really receptive to all our ideas. You can't manufacture something like the Shoreditch tech community. But you can encourage it. Seventy-five per cent of our business is in the US so we're bringing money into the UK. In this office they used to make garments, ship them abroad and make money for Britain. We're doing the modern equivalent."

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'