Just call it Silicon Lane

Dotcom has replaced Dot Cotton in London's East End, since they wired up the old Truman Brewery with high-speed connectivity and rented out space to hundreds of internet startups
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The Independent Online

Any estate agent will tell you that London's East End has been "up and coming" for a few years now, but surely no one expected the run-down flea market in Brick Lane to turn into such a hotbed of flurrying internet activity.

Any estate agent will tell you that London's East End has been "up and coming" for a few years now, but surely no one expected the run-down flea market in Brick Lane to turn into such a hotbed of flurrying internet activity.

It all started in the mid-1990s, when the loft-conversion boom hit Central London and property prices went through the roof. Just on the borders of the City of London lie poorer East End boroughs, such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The disused factories and warehouses in these areas were ideal for young people who wanted lofts and warehouse conversions but couldn't afford the City sky-high prices.

This influx of young people, with plenty of money to spend, soon transformed Brick Lane. The old market is still there at weekends, but it now competes with the organic food stalls in nearby Spitalfields. Just down the road from the old Beigel Bakery there's a cybercafé, an aromatherapy clinic and a clutch of trendy shops with names like Overdose On Design and Eat My Handbag Bitch.

Dominating the entire street is the vast old Truman Brewery. The original Brewery dates from 1660, although the oldest surviving buildings were constructed in the 18th century. Most of the site is hidden from view as you walk along Brick Lane, but it covers a full 11 acres, with vast warehouses sitting alongside cluttered warrens of small offices.

The architecture may be centuries old, but its infrastructure is 21st century state-of-the-art, and the Brewery is now home to hundreds of internet companies, both large and small.

Truman left London in the 1980s and the Brewery was eventually sold to the Zeloof Partnership in 1995. The first people to rent space in the Brewery included designers and musicians, who were attracted by the low rents. But many of these people were also experimenting with the new media world of the internet. Gradually, a small community of dot.com companies began to gather in the Brewery, including Gaialive, one of the first European Web radio broadcasters.

"The whole 'digerati' thing started in Curtain Road," recalls Gaialive's founder, Tim Paul-Read. Curtain Road is a small street tucked away behind nearby Liverpool Street Station, where a number of internet companies got started in the mid-to-late 1990s. "Rents started to go up, so it was natural to come here. The Brewery has the potential to be the fulfilment of the ideas that started there."

Recognising the growing internet community, Zeloof ensured that the Brewery was wired to the hilt. "We made sure the site was well connected," says the estate manager, Matt Paton. Eighteen months ago, both BT and Colt Telecommunications were called in to lay down fibre-optic cabling for high-speed internet connectivity. This degree of connectivity, and the Brewery's proximity to the City of London's financial centres, attracted the attention of giant Dutch company InterXion (pronounced "interaction"), an organisation that acts as an "Internet Exchange Centre".

Translated into English, this means that InterXion rents out space and equipment to telecoms companies who want to get together and share capacity, and also to internet service providers and other internet companies which can make use of some of that capacity themselves.

InterXion's telecoms clients very quickly started to feed their own cabling into the Brewery, "and that made the site super-connected", says Paton. That combination of low rents and state-of-the-art infrastructure makes the Brewery an ideal environment for internet start-ups, and there are now around 300 companies operating there.

At the top of the scale is InterXion, with its 6,600-square-metres of warehouse space, but there are also hundreds of smaller companies. Many of these are just two men and a laptop computer, running companies with typically daft internet names such as Quingo, 9feet.com, and digitaldance. "That's the fourth floor," says Patton, smiling. "The rabbit warren - our own little incubator. It is actually the life and soul of the place," he adds.

You can rent a 200-square-foot office in the Brewery development for about £70 per week, so you certainly don't need millions of dollars of venture capital to get a company started there.

Paton also points out that tenants don't have to commit to long-term occupancies, "which is good for high-risk companies" - such as the now-defunct former tenant Clickmango.

"But it's also good for us, because we always want fresh blood."

The other advantage of the Brewery is that there's plenty of space to grow for those companies that do survive and go on to prosper. The new search engine company E-spotting started with just a small office in the Brewery, but has now expanded to more than 50 staff. Then there are design companies such as Oven Digital, which has just finished redesigning the Sky Sport website, and the Web video specialists LemonTV.

The combination of small start-ups and corporate giants makes for an odd culture clash, but Tim Paul-Read says that this size and energy mix is part of the Brewery's appeal.

"You need to force those different types of companies together in order to create something new. Then you get an environment where you can be much more creative."