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TechCityInsider interviews Elizabeth Varley Transcript

Elizabeth Varley: We currently have two sites in London, so that's our original site on City Road, and the Technical Campus on Bonhill Street that we've been in for a year now. Also, we announced last year that in 2014 we'll be opening in Olympic Park as part of the iCity Project. I'm so excited about that. I'm really, really looking forward to it.

Julian Blake: How far is it down the line, as far as you're concerned, in terms of your commitment?

Elizabeth Varley: We're definitely going to be there. We're still working out exactly what will be happening at TechHub there. But we are very keen to look at some more hardware/software type companies and how we can better support them there. Because we are finding at the moment that in London, we're starting to get more companies who are either creating hardware products and tying them into their software products, or just using hardware in different ways around their software products. And so that's been really interesting and something that we very much want to support.

So one of the things that we envisage having at iCIty is dry lab space where you can actually tinker with things. I'm very excited that I might learn how to solder, and things like that. It's not totally motivated by my desire to start heating up metal and fiddling around with things, but I have to say, that's certainly appealing. When you are an entrepreneur, you learn things that you never thought you would need to know, or you never learned how to do. One of the things that I learned how to do when we first launched back in 2010 was, I learned to weld, because we had some desks made, and there was some stability issues. So we needed to weld some support struts on them, so I learned to weld in order to make that happen. And so it kind of gave me the taste for fiddling around with things.

Julian Blake: Yeah, definitely, definitely. Just on that, is there any reason, do you think, why there has been that trend towards where you're seeing more of those kind of hardware providers coming in?

Elizabeth Varley: I don't know if it may be that the barrier to entry for creating hardware products is coming down, and I don't have data to support that. But I think as we see things like 3D printing and those kinds of things becoming more accessible-- certainly financially accessible-- I think we're going to see more people saying, hey, I can actually make some physical things that are manipulated in interesting ways by software technology. The concept of the Internet of Things-- that everything will be connected and smarter, in terms of products and things that we use every day-- you can see how those things will start to happen because of the boon in online development.

People saying, well, how do we better connect the online environment with the offline environment that we experience every day? How can we make our offline environment richer through connecting things together? So I think there's just a general interest in how we can better do that. And also, there's a lot of interest in issues around sustainability, environmental effects, in how we can connect things more effective on that front. There's a lot more interest in personal health monitoring, how we can take better ownership of our health and health care. And so you can see how these sorts of things are very, very much tied to your physical world and your physical well-being. It's not surprising, but we're just sort of seeing some of this starting to bubble up, in terms of what's coming through TechHub.

Julian Blake: Why did you choose Riga and Bucharest, and are you looking at other places in Eastern Europe to expand to as well?

Elizabeth Varley: Yes. So the reason that we went first with Riga was actually two things, really. One is that there's a great community there. It's small but growing rapidly, and really very exciting and very committed. The entrepreneurs in Riga are really like, yeah, we're going to do this. One of the things that TechHub can be, because it's a focal point for the technology industry, it can really be a catalyst for smaller communities to really push beyond their existing capabilities and really shoot for something. And that was really the case in Riga.

The second thing is that we had a group of four co-founders approach us to do this. They knew TechHub in London, they loved what we were doing, and they said, we want to create this kind of environment in Riga, and we want to do it with TechHub because it doesn't make sense for us to do it on our own. And they were really enthusiastic, really well-connected in their local tech community and outside [INAUDIBLE], in the US and elsewhere. And so, it made a lot of sense for us to be saying, OK, well if this community is ready for a TechHub, then who are we to argue and say, well no, we want to do San Francisco first, or we want to do Berlin first.

It's about the need being there very strongly, and people who want to work with us to make that happen. So it was a real no-brainer for us to go there first, and they've been fantastic as our first TechHub outside of London. Their community there is just growing and real robust and really exciting. It's great-- great products coming out of it. Manchester was our next one after Riga. We opened Manchester last November, and it was same sort of thing-- the need in the community, and very strong [INAUDIBLE] who are really well-connected. And Bucharest is the same situation again. We're working with Bogdan who runs the How To Web conference, which calls 800 people into Bucharest for a two-day conference, which is fantastic. There's great talent locally, there's a lot of interest in creating technology businesses, there's sort of this activity fermenting, so we're like, OK, let's go in there and harness it and help it to come together.

Julian Blake: Is there a kind of TechHub template, do you think, that you'd like to apply to these things? You've obviously proved it's worked in London. Or is there a kind of localist approach and people take their own way?

Elizabeth Varley: We want to make sure that because all of these sites are part of the TechHub network, it's very much all part of one organization. The members, when they go from site to site, see consistency of experience in terms of the essentials-- great events, product-oriented technology companies, good Wi-Fi and workspace, and that sort of thing. What we do always want to make sure is that local co-founders are responding to the more specific needs in their local community. What's happening in London may not be the same thing that's happening in Riga, for example. So it's important that the local co-founders respond in terms of event topics, and types of events, and the mix of different types of work space and different types of memberships is very much down to the local co-founders to establish.

Julian Blake: Where's next then?

Elizabeth Varley: Well, we haven't announced our next one's yet, so I can't tell you exactly where they are, but I can tell you that we'll be announcing at least another four, I'd say, in the next three months.

Julian Blake: In Europe?

Elizabeth Varley: Europe, more potentially further afield.

Julian Blake: OK, that sounds like an exciting time, then.

Elizabeth Varley: It is really exciting, and the demand has been huge. We've had loads of good contact and they're saying, I'd love to work with you to do TechHub in South Africa, TechHub, Capetown, or TechHub, Oslo. People understand what it is and they want to get involved.

Julian Blake: So you're opening up in Oslo and Capetown, then?

Elizabeth Varley: No, not those two. Well, not right now, not this week.

Julian Blake: Just thinking about the ecosystem generally for tech startups in London, obviously it's changed and grown rapidly since you started. And one of the things I've noticed since I've been doing it the last year is just this rapid emergence in growth of accelerator spaces. It seems to me that a week doesn't go past without a new accelerator space. It's quite a competitive marketplace now.

Elizabeth Varley: I guess it is potentially, we haven't had any issue with that. We usually have a waiting list, so I think there's certainly a lot of interest. But also different spaces, different communities, different accelerators, or incubators have different focuses. So for us, we are a product-oriented, tech-focused community that also has work spaces. Whereas there are various things that are less focused, but also that are more focused. For example, Level 39 out on Canary Wharf is specifically focused around finance. And so I think things like that are great because it means that very like-minded people can be brought together because they're likely to experience the same sorts of growing pains, the same sorts of difficulties, and can really help each other, as well as being assisted by the services provided by the organization.

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