Business Technology

The birth of Tech.London: How IBM benefits from backing “Type A” London tech startups

11 min read

17 June 2015

Former deputy editor

To ensure London's creativity continues to grow, Tech.London, an online information hub for startups and investors, has been unveiled by IBM and funding platform Gust. During an interview at the official launch, Real Business discovered the platform may just grow beyond the borders of London to help the entire UK tech economy achieve its true potential.

London Technology Week is underway and Boris Johnson has been knee-deep in promoting the UK capital and its innovative glory. 

Innovation is happening all over the UK right now, and a fine example of this was demonstrated by Chinese takeaway Hokkei.

The Cardiff-based food startup has created a refreshing new spin on the cuisine and harnessed digital through crowdfunding channel Seedrs, which has prompted the fintech firm to make a commitment to supporting Welsh business growth.

Of course, it may be a while before we see Cardiff Technology Week, however, London is happy to grab the headlines – the latest of which have been caused by the launch of Tech.London.

The new online information hub contains everything about the city’s tech businesses, investors, news, events, courses and more, and has the approval of mayor Boris Johnson. In fact, Real Business was in attendance at the official Tech.London launch at Johnson’s City Hall office.

The London launch has taken inspiration from a similar New York project called Digital.NYC that launched back in October 2014, which was created by funding channel Gust and IBM. The American giant has made its focus on the British tech industry felt in 2015, having opened a new studio to help firms develop digital skills at the start of the year.

Explaining to Real Business how the project came about, Sandy Carter, general manager of IBM cloud ecosystem and developers, told us: “Doing everything in person is great, but then you can’t reach everybody, so we actually started looking at a way to scale ecosystems.

“Baroness Joanna Shields and Prince William came over to New York City and did a meeting with the mayor and his team,” she revealed. “They asked him to talk about three things he considered the most significant for the city and one was Digital.NYC. The next day we got a call to come along and discuss a possibility of what we could do with London.”

Carter worked closely on the campaign with Gust founder and CEO David Rose – a man who has gone from entrepreneur to investor and back again. He created Gust to help bridge the divide between business builders and angels.

“IBM is probably the single biggest coordinated programme for app developers around the world and Gust has a platform that connects startup companies and angel investors,” explained Rose.

“The data exhaust from the combination of investors and startups that we had on the ecosystem, combined with IBM’s resources that support entrepreneurs, came up with a concept for a platform to power an entire regional ecosystem, taking the best of everything that was there.

“The key thing about Tech.London is that there’s nothing new. Everything that’s here [in the city] is here [on Tech.London], but what’s new is pulling it together. So you had all these things in the city but nobody could ever put them all in one place [until now].”

Rose claimed the feedback has been positive and that the current iteration of Tech.London is only the minimum viable product launch, adding that more content such as service directories will continue to arrive as more and more companies join the platform.

Meanwhile, Carter explained a female entrepreneur with a successful business presence in South Africa had confessed she was torn between launching in San Francisco or London. “I showed her the site and she said ‘this would be a great help to me, I could be more successful here’,” Carter detailed.

She added: “Because of the site and ability to go back and find out where things were, she was looking more towards London. People who aren’t here believe it’s a great way to start and people who are here get better connected.”

Rose acknowledged that London and New York are truly sister cities. “London has an amazing ecosystem and the interesting thing is that London and New York are much more similar than either is to Silicon Valley, which is a one industry town – tech,” he said.

Read more from London Technology Week:

Describing London and New York as two global capitals of everything from finance, retail, fashion and advertising, she noted that London especially has been amplified by tech over the past several years. “Nobody realised how big this ecosystem were, but now we’ve pulled all of the information together,” said Rose.

But what about the big picture? Why is IBM so intent on helping the little guy? Like any business, it wants customer loyalty.

Carter detailed: “We want the ‘Type As’ on top of the IBM platform, and Type As for us are startups, innovators and disruptors. We found that when we invest in companies early with our knowhow and tech that, when they grow up and they’re successful, they stay on IBM. Monitise is a billion dollar company – we started with them when they were a baby and they’ve grown up with us and they’re loyal with us.

She also added that brainstorming is an added benefit. “Because we’re working with the Type As in this ecosystem, it enables to innovate faster and disrupt more because we get all of the great ideas. ‘Oh wow, we didn’t think of adding that IoT service’ – it really allows us to innovate faster with the diversity on the platform.”

Using a shoulder to shoulder approach to support companies, IBM boasts a facility at Level 39 to connect with fintech and insurance innovators, a Shoreditch space to help “crazy creative agency types” and developers can also be found at the IBM building on the Southbank.

“We’ve acquired about a hundred different SaaS companies and we have all these great CEOs who were entrepreneurs who have now had a successful exit in that they were purchased by IBM,” said Carter. “We’re putting them on tour and they’re going around helping the entrepreneurs and they’re eager to share their knowledge. No other vendor is doing that, sharing that level of expertise.”

In terms of difficulties, funding was named a common concern for entrepreneurs. Another was leveraging a go-to market channel. Carter revealed IBM supports fears and doubts with a David and Goliath approach where startups are connected to large firms.

“We bring in the Goliaths, which are big companies that work with IBM, and the Davids, which are the entrepreneurs, and we match them up. We might do a retail one and we’ll come talk about the retail industry five years out, they get to matchmake as they want,” she said. In fact, Monitise secured a significant deal during one of the meets.

Rose emphasised the openness of the platform. “There’s no competitive stuff, no backend economics or fees – it’s completely free to put in, to take out, to view, to connect. It’s being funded by IBM for this purpose, so everyone benefits by having the ecosystem there, because IBM has stepped up to do this as their contribution to the community that they’re in.

“Anybody can add content, but more than that there are well over a dozen APIs we’re pulling in, so nothing is created specifically for the site – that’s a principle. Everything is sourced from the community itself, job sites and so on.”

We noted earlier that food innovation can be found in British locations such as Wales. But Swansea-based tech startup Veeqo also secured funding through Seedrs, raising $600,000 with the help of New Look’s founder.

London is often noted as the epicentre of all things tech in the UK, but that’s not to say digital creativity isn’t happen beyond the city’s walls.

Indeed, we’ve reported on the rising war of the tech cities that’s happening nationwide, with the likes of Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester vying for the attention of talent with competitive salaries and attractions.

With all of that in mind – we were curious to know whether IBM and Gust are ready to adapt Tech.London for other UK cities.

Tightlipped, Rose offered: “We cannot comment, but we’ll be sure to credit you.”

Carter, equally as secretive, added: “It’s a great idea, watch this space.”