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August 8, 2013updated 22 Sep 2016 1:10pm

Could Croydon eclipse Shoreditch as London’s Tech City?

South London on the up as Silicon Roundabout reaches saturation point, claims Croydon Tech City co-founder.

By Joe Curtis

Croydon Tech City – borne in the aftermath of the London riots

Until the London riots of 2011, some of Croydon’s biggest employers were department store Allders and Nestle.

But just over a year after the looting and fires disfigured the town centre and singed Croydon’s reputation, both businesses closed.

Allders never recovered from the damage done that fateful summer, while Nestle chose to move its headquarters to Gatwick.

As Croydon’s economy floundered and people grew angry at the lack of government funding to help the area recover, tech firm employee and Purley resident Jonny Rose co-founded Croydon Tech City (CTC) – an initiative named after east London’s own startup hub – with friend Nigel Dias.

Nine months on and he believes the scene he and his co-volunteers have helped nurture has the potential to eclipse Shoreditch.

"The riots were the catalyst for action," Rose tells CBR. "I was acutely aware policy makers weren’t doing anything to rehabilitate the area, nothing was being done in the wake of the riots.

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"The economy was absolutely stagnating and I became aware that all the future thinking economies were shifting to become tech cities. Croydon needs this."

Croydon’s own cluster of startups, he points out, has arisen in a similar way to how Shoreditch’s hub grew up in 2008.

There was already a tech scene in the area that had grown organically before CTC decided to lend a helping hand.

There are 320 digital or tech firms in the borough, with CTC now working with about 40 startups to try and help them develop into larger companies.

And Rose believes the conditions are right for Croydon to eclipse Tech City in just a few years to become the UK’s premier destination for tech startups.

"What Shoreditch was like seven years ago is what Croydon is like now," he says. "Inexpensive rents, lots of developers, relatively edgy. I wouldn’t use the word grotty, but it’s got that urban griminess.

"There’s so many reasons we could out-position Silicon Roundabout. We have got everything east London’s got except its profile."

One advantage Croydon has over its rivals is its cheap rents. Shoreditch office space goes at an average of £30-£35 per sq/ft, compared to locations close to East Croydon Railway Station going for around £20 per sq/ft and cheaper.

Rose adds that the University of Sussex, which has close ties with Croydon College, is soon to open a 20,000 sq/ft ‘innovation centre’ in the town as early as September.

"We’re soon going to have this complex with the cheapest Grade A office space within the M25," he boasts.

Another advantage is the 14-minute train journey to Victoria, as well as Croydon’s tram and bus links to elsewhere in south London.

Coffee is Croydon Tech City’s aromatic heart

Croydon Tech City

What’s more, just as Tech Hub is Shoreditch’s epi-centre, helping startups improve quickly by offering expert guidance, Croydon has its own equivalent in Matthews Yard.

Founded by software mogul Saif Bonar immediately after the riots, the space is at once a café, bar, workspace and art gallery all under one roof.

"He realised if there was going to be a tech city there needed to be coffee," Rose says simply.

It is there many of CTC’s own events are held, including four monthly events devised by co-founder and Head of Investment Dias to develop startups from initial idea to preparing to go to market.

CTC’s ‘maturity model’ events help link the idea people with tecchies able to execute the concept, host tech surgeries where developers give advice, and also help startups meet sales and marketing teams who offer guidance – with a view to taking on a new client, of course.

Matthews Yard is also where many small startups hold meetings – in one of its rooms designated for the purpose – and even work full-time in offices there.

One such company is Couch, a digital marketing startup which actually moved from Silicon Roundabout to Croydon to take advantage of the cheaper office space, transport links and business supplies.

Rose himself believes more will come, as Shoreditch proves less popular with new firms trying to break into the tech scene.

"It’s more talk than actual substance there," he says. "People can be quite cliquey and there weren’t that many tech startups there which could get inside, it’s a closed shop.

"If you’re new and fresh or small on the scene, people don’t really reach out to you. Companies are coming out of the woodwork but east London is at capacity and they realise this is a new opportunity."

But where Croydon comes up short is in its shallow pool of resources.

Most tech clusters are located close to universities, whose computer science graduates help firms grow when they start to expand to more than a dozen people working from a small office.

And Tech City has strong links with both City University and the University of London. Croydon does not.

It has the local college, which has links with the University of Sussex, but there is no direct talent pool to dip into the way other tech clusters have.

"We do lack a university," admits Rose. "But there’s talk of Sussex twinning with Croydon College and that would be very beneficial. We have the Brit School [for students aged 14-19] as well. They both have massive IT suites."

But resources do not equate to skilled workers, and CTC is taking steps to address the issue by ‘upskilling’ the populace.

It is helping run Code Club, a volunteer-led afterschool initiative to teach HTML and CSS to nine to 11-year-olds.

The scheme is currently run in 12 primary schools around the borough but by 2015 CTC aims to implement it in all 94.

This strategy would not pay off for years, though, and so the organisation hopes to expand lessons to school leavers, older people and the unemployed too – creating job opportunities by providing workers for startups.

"It’s a massive campaign and if Croydon is going to give people the skills to survive they need to learn coding," Rose explains.

Show me the money

Fairfield Halls

If skilled workers are the lifeblood of a growing business, capital is the energy required to grow in the first place.

While there is evidence of a funding gap in Tech City (for which the Government announced a £50m pot for communal space for startups in December 2012, but where more and more firms are turning to private equity), things are harder in Croydon.

Its startup scene has received no actual Government or council investment, yet such investment has proved crucial to Tech City’s growth over the last five years.

Rose accuses the major parties of failing to promote the startup scene.

"Politicians on both sides [the Tory council and the opposition groups] have been very slow on the uptake," he complains.

"Local government needs to lobby City Hall and trumpet this vision. Politicians should be trumpeting Croydon as a tech city so we can get the same funds afforded to east London."

Cash investments would allow Croydon crucial upgrades to its WiFi network as well as providing superfast broadband, both critical to today’s tech companies.

But he believes more mature companies with their roots in Croydon are acting as ambassadors for the area in the course of their work abroad, forging links with both San Francisco’s startup scene and New York’s Silicon Alley.

And CTC believes more attention would fall on Croydon – from startups, investors and media – if it was able to host tech expos at Fairfield Halls, the vast concert and event venue which held the 2011 European DrupalCon, organised by Drupal, the open source CMS company.

"Why don’t we use that as a place to hold tech expos?" Rose asks. "We’ve done it before, it shouldn’t just be an entertainment venue, but a place for technical fairs."

While Croydon faces challenges in its push to become a destination for new tech companies, the framework is more or less in place.

There is a central core of startups and a supportive organisation dedicated to helping them grow. Cheap office space is in plentiful supply, the transport links are strong and the businesses of many trades are already based in the area, making supplies easy to locate.

Perhaps Croydon’s biggest challenge is attracting outside investment to actually help ignite an explosion of growth similar to the rate of Silicon Roundabout’s own expansion.

But being an organically-grown startup scene, the enthusiasm is already propelling things forward, and the companies and CTC must hope investors and public funding bodies recognise the potential in the area.

As Rose says, "this is community-driven, by people who genuinely believe in it. It’s so exciting. Croydon is the largest borough in London. We’ve only scratched the surface."

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