Things I Learned in London
A First-hand Account on How Europe’s Tech Capital Is Nurturing Its Startup Ecosystem, by Omar Christidis
Arabnet’s CEO gives a first-hand account on how Europe’s tech capital is nurturing its startup ecosystem
In early April, a few members of the Arabnet team made a trip to London to help build bridges between the Middle East and the UK tech market, which is rapidly emerging as the key tech hub of Europe. The trip was a whirlwind of meetings with investors and digital executives, visits to coworking spaces and accelerators, as well as great talks and networking events.
Beyond the connections that we built, I came away with a few insights about the trends in entrepreneurship that I believe will be coming to our region in the near future.
1. Sector-specific Accelerators Are on the Rise
We visited more than a dozen accelerators and co-working spaces in London, and one of the interesting things we noticed is the presence of many sector-specific accelerators. The hottest sector by far was Fintech - Financial technology - with three active accelerators focused on this industry. Level39, so named because it is located on the 39th floor of a skyscraper in the heart of the London banking district, offers startups direct access to the banking industry, so they can test and then sell their products. We also visited Startup Bootcamp, who were just setting up the office for their financetech accelerator, and met with Barclay’s, who commissioned Techstars to run their finance-focused accelerator. Beyond finance tech, we also visited The Bakery, an advertising accelerator designed to connect brands with startups and innovators to solve marketing problems; and Emerge Education, an accelerator for startups in the education space, based out of Google Campus.
2. Brands Are Looking for Innovation
The second insight that emerged from these same meetings is the heavy involvement of the big corporations / brands in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The Bakery, for instance, works directly with brands to solve their marketing problems; each cycle is sponsored by a brand, who puts forward a brief for the startups to work on. They pitch their ideas, the brand shortlists their favorites, and each of those receives 50,000GBP to develop their product. At the end of the cycle, the entrepreneurs demo their final products to the brands, and the best products may be implemented into commercial use by the brand. Barclay’s is another example: the company is a key sponsor of Central Working coworking space, and is running its own accelerator program to harness the next wave of innovation to grow its business. Finally, Tesco, the world’s second-largest retailer by revenues, is the main sponsor of Rainmaking Loft coworking space, and they come in to meet startups on a monthly basis to keep their finger on the pulse of innovation.
3. The Pace of Growth Is Increasing
Every coworking space we visited seemed to be filled to the brim, yet all of them were less than two years old. Google Campus, a 5-floor building in the heart of London’s Techcity, celebrated its two year anniversary during our trip. The Campus has free working space and tech events. We attended a talk by the Head of Europe at Buzzfeed and the Founder of Jawbone two nights in a row
- both of which were packed. Level39 was 13 months old when we visited, and Rainmaking loft was just 7 months old and yet were turning applicants away and looking at expanding their space to accommodate more startups. We visited Warner Yard, an 11-month coworking space where Techstars is located, but which more importantly has a coworking space dedicated for angel investors, where they can share and discuss deals and co-investments. So while the ecosystem is already further along than MENA’S, it hasn’t reached anywhere near its maturity or capacity; I expect that MENA will experience this same exponential rate of growth in tech entrepreneurship as well.
I believe we’re on the cusp of tremendous growth for the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Middle East. With the major corporations, brands, agencies, government and investors all eyeing this sector, we’re going to see an influx of money, power and relationships that are critical for the emergence of success stories. In the meanwhile, to the startups that are struggling to grow in our nascent ecosystem today, I’ll leave you with you the quote that most struck me from our trip: Alexander Asseily, the LebaneseBritish Founder of Jawbone insightfully told us: “The value of a company is the sum of all the challenges it has overcome.”
Omar Christidis is the Founder and CEO at Arabnet. He is a frequent speaker on digital technology and was selected by Gulf News Magazine as one of its “30 under 30.”