‘It’s never quick enough’

By Simona Strimaityte on August 29th, 2012

“For me, it’s never quick enough,” says Eric van der Kleij, who is about to try to establish “synergy” between technology companies and financial firms in Canary Wharf, as he takes up a role as an advisor on the technology sector in one of the world’s major financial districts.

The question, however, is what’s taking so long for London to embrace the organic high-tech cluster in east London into the finance hub of the City.

London is the third most important tech start up centre in the world, after Silicon Valley and New York, according to the Boston Consulting Group. It’s not going to become a replica of Silicon Valley, but there is plenty of unrealised potential, and plenty of interest in finding the right strategy to harness it.

Canary Wharf Group is taking the initiative to bring growing technology companies closer to their potential investors and customers with the help of Eric van der Kleij (pronounced “kleedge”), outgoing chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation.

Van der Kleij is quite comfortable in the financial district, thanks to its technological prowess: “One thing Canary Wharf was always known for is its strength in financial services. But actually the City of London was revolutionised by the technology that was installed in Canary Wharf.”

Twenty years ago, Canary Wharf rose from an industrial wasteland to provide open space trading floors that didn’t fit in the Square Mile. Today, to diversify and bring a second wave of technological innovation, Canary Wharf Group, the property development and management service, is getting ready for expansion in the best way they can: by building more.

“The new buildings for the tech sector will be a little bit different: a little bit less American, a bit more European in scale and shape. But they are still going to be big buildings,” says Howard Dawber, strategic advisor at Canary Wharf Group.

And Canary Wharf is growing on multiple levels. One of the biggest infrastructure projects in Europe, Canary Wharf Crossrail station is going to be the size of the One Canada Square when it is finished in 2018. £500 million is its fixed price, with the Government as a major risk and share holder.

Behind this massive infrastructure development – property and transport – lay even bigger growth expectations: to double the current working population of 100,000 over the next 25 years. It’s unclear of how many of those new commuters and tenants will be technology developers who currently reside in Shoreditch.

There might be some foundation missing for greater interaction between technology and finance. New York, much like London in terms of its developing high-tech sector and financial profile, is already mixing the concrete. Its power mixer – the FinTech Innovation Lab program – partners early and growth-stage companies with major Wall Street players.

FinTech Lab wrapped its second year on July: the first year, banks were rather vague about their expectations; this year, they came with specific demands that provided an opportunity for technology innovators to get involved in solving complex financial problems.

The program is run by the New York City Investment Fund and Accenture.

Some of the FinTech Lab participating institutions, such as Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and State Street are also Canary Wharf tenants. So after uncovering the benefits of collaboration with the brightest hi-tech minds in New York, they could be more willing to amplify engagement with creative technologists in Canary Wharf.

If so, it would bring Canary Wharf back to the 80s, when the American financial institutions revolutionised it by establishing open space trading floors.

Whether fast- or slow-acting, the synergy between finance and tech could just happen under van der Kleij’s leadership. That partly depends on how efficiently it will be imported from the other side of the Atlantic into those less American, more European buildings in Canary Wharf.

Solid infrastructure is a start, and van der Kleij is about to bring the expertise he developed in the public sector to bear on a private sector initiative. Canary Wharf Group has made a good catch.