Maija Palmer Google opens East London Campus

London’s Tech City project got a big boost on Thursday when Google officially opened Campus,  its first hub offering start-up technology companies desk space and mentoring.

Opened to great fanfare by George Osborne, chancellor, the seven-storey building will house 100 start-up companies and organisations such as Seedcamp, the technology incubator, and TechHub, the original provider of co-working space in the Shoreditch area.

The building itself is kitted out in the modern start-up vernacular, with stripped-back concrete ceilings, brightly-coloured furniture, table football and mini-kitchens fashioned out of mock shipping containers. The commemorative plaque unveiled by the Chancellor is done in Banksy-style spray paint, and even the flowers in the courtyard are linked to sensors that tweet when they need to be watered.

For the government, Thursday’s opening ceremony was a nice set-piece event to show their commitment to the high tech economy, following on from the tax breaks unveiled last week for the creative industries, and measures such as the entrepreneur visa, launched last year.

“We want to make the UK the technology centre of Europe,” Mr Osborne told the start-up crowd. “Our goal is to help you realise your goals. Lets fill this building and indeed this city with start-ups.”

Courting the technology sector makes sense, given that the rather loosely defined “internet economy” contributed £121bn to the overall UK economy in 2010, equivalent to 8.3 per cent of gross domestic product, according  to a report by the Boston Consulting Group earlier this week.

The government rarely misses an opportunity to highlight its involvement with Tech City, although its unclear whether its cheer-leading role has, in practical terms, had much to do with the number of start-ups in the area growing from 200 in 2010 to more than 700 today. A number of companies, including Cisco, Intel and Amazon have all made pledges to do things around Tech City, but Google’s building is one of the first and most concrete of those to emerge.

It is harder to see what Google gets out of the Campus project, which it has characterised as a gift to the community. It is not a profit-making scheme for the internet company, and the ten-year lease and refurbishment of an office block will not have been cheap.

“We were lucky to have been very successful in the UK and we wanted to give something back,” said Matt Brittin, Google’s European managing director.

It may be an opportunity to recruit, and to get a first glance at promising young start-ups, perhaps a way of keeping in touch with what the cool kids are doing.

Certainly it helps shine Google’s halo with the UK government, at a time when issues such as privacy and anti-competitive behaviour are gaining momentum, and the company faces some criticism over the small amount of tax it pays in Britain.

Whatever the ulterior motive, the Shoreditch entrepreneurs are excited about the scheme. Some 800 companies applied for desks within Campus.

“There are not that many places for the tech community to gather. This really is a unique space,” says Nadim Saad, director of FinanceAcar, a start-up which helps people fund car purchases online.

“Meetings like Open Coffee, started by Saul Klein have been great but that has started to decline. It is good to have a central meeting space like this.”

For others, however, it still remains to be seen how much of a magnet the Campus will prove to be.

For all of Mr Saad’s enthusiasm about Campus, FinanceAcar still has its offices in North London, rather than Silicon Roundabout. Playfish, one of the UK’s big recent gaming success stories was based in West London, and the companies’ co-founders, who have gone on to create new businesses have stayed on that side of town. Mediatonic, the online games company, recently moved to new offices in Soho, saying that their employees preferred the location, and that East London still seemed a bit too far.