Is Level39 at Canary Wharf the future of Innovation

Eric van der Kleij suggests that innovation centres are a valuable way of providing comprehensive support for new hi-growth businesses – in their best markets; and every city should have one.

 

Who better to ask about the future of innovation, than Eric van der Kleij, formerly Head of Tech City at Shoreditch, and now Head of Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation space. Accelerators, he responded will specialise; they will spawn natural pre-cursors and after-care, they will proliferate and they will be more about revenue than about investment – more about growth than about funding. And innovation spaces will be a natural feature of cities and clusters.

He believes that Accelerators will become more thematic, citing The Bakery in London, with its Adtech focus, and the Tramperies, whose progenitor Charles Armstrong, has just opened the ‘Fashion Pub’ – a workspace for fashion designers and startups in Hackney. Other new specialist programmes include Ravensbourne College of Art’s incubator programme in Media Technology and Design, and UCL’s IDEALondon space with its focus on future media, healthcare and mobile.

And Eric sees a future for the Technology Strategy Board funded Catapults, designed to propel forward specific areas where technologies promise innovation. Hack Days, of which Level39 has run many in the past year, can help to identify commercialisable IP, and the Catapults need good leaders who can manage the tech transfer process, and help them to get allied with authentic startups.

He sees innovation spaces not only running Accelerators, but also running Hackathons, whose prize winners will enter Accelerators; and as at Level39, innovation spaces will offer tailored accommodation in co-working areas to hi-growth companies coming out of Accelerators (some of which can grow at twice the rate of their less curated entrepreneurs.) The future that he sees is of thriving, self-sustaining and independent clusters, consisting of startups/young businesses, users and funders.

And he thinks that every city will have an innovation centre; and he reels off the names of innumerable cities the world over that have beaten a path to his door to learn about how Level39 does what it does – cities with whom he has made Friendship Agreements.

He is quick to add that every such innovation space has to work with its own context; and he cites one city in a country with few roads, where the prize for winners of a competition to enter the Accelerator included an SUV – inscribed with banner details of that person’s new business – which would enable the participants all to reach the Accelerator daily.

So what is Level39? At first it was one complete floor of One Canada Square, the tallest building at Canary Wharf, which provided desk spaces for early-stage businesses (in retail and financial technology) because of its unique ‘connectious’ environment (with mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs), most of them already post-revenue – some desks in communal rows, some in small glass-fronted offices, some in larger spaces, with an attractive central area (with its 3pm Cookie Bell for getting people to meet up, and its infamous electronically controlled coffee machine!) In addition there are three Sandboxes – areas which organisations take in order to wrestle with particular issues, each of slightly different proportions and lay-outs; and there are Board Rooms, and a handsome auditorium and beside it a large restaurant area. (For a fuller description, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-65)

Now a second floor of One Canada Square has been added. Two successful Accelerator programmes have prompted the equipping of a tailor-made space for such programmes. Last year’s Fintech Lab London, a 12-week Accelerator programme designed to help up to a dozen small businesses introduce new products to the big banks located at Canary Wharf is about to be repeated (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-3); and Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, invited startups to come and develop customer solutions in one special area of its expertise – both these programmes run by teams separate to the incubator space. The new space has rows of bench-type desking, all with essential IT, and a couple of small meeting rooms. In addition, this new floor has a number of rooms set aside for hi-growth companies emerging from Accelerators, along with a kitchen/rest room (with its Subbuteo table.) And more space on this floor is about to be equipped similarly.

Established with the imaginative support of Canary Wharf’s landlord  (who was concerned about the future of the area), Level39 has proved that Incubators and Accelerators have closely complementary roles and that a comprehensive innovation space is a viable concept. But insiders cannot turn the taps on; it needs influential outsiders to help nudge into being the policies that can bring them into existence. And any city can adapt the concept to its advantage.

 

John Whatmore                                                                  January 2014

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London

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