Eric Van der Kleij, ex-Level39 and Tech City boss, is back with a new concept tech hub that's a mash-up of co-working space, accelerator, think tank, consultancy and investment firm

 
Lynsey Barber
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Eric Van de Kleij was ther first head of Tech City (Source: Getty)

Eric Van der Kleij, one of UK tech's most high-profile leaders, is returning to the scene with a new venture.

The former head of Tech City and Canary Wharf's Level39 is launching a digital hub, City A.M. can reveal, aimed at developing new tech businesses that are also solving problems facing society.

The new concept co-working space, accelerator, think tank, consultancy and investment firm rolled into one, will focus on startups in some of the hottest areas of tech: artificial intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things and blockchain.

Centre for Digital Revolution (C4DR) will be based at Cocoon Networks, the Chinese backed 70,000 ft tech space opened with University College London last year, with plans to venture to other locations in Europe; China and the US.

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Van der Kleij's think tank 4IR will pose challenges around subjects such as the future of work, with startups hoping to solve them joining the space. There they will be able to connect with businesses, government organisations and other experts. C4DR will make "modest" early-stage investments into the startups, while the ties with Cocoon Networks, backed by China Equity Group and Hanxin Capital, will help the firms explore opportunities in China.

Van der Kleij told City A.M. each startup will have a tailored programme, rather than joining as a cohort on structured programme as is common, and it could last anything between one week and 10 years.

"Programmes, especially ones initiated by our think tank, have societal implication that will measured over decades," he said.

C4DR has been in development for three months and is so far self-funded, though Van der Kleij said it would potentially take on investors.

Alongside the accelerator-style programme for startups, Swisscom is the first of what Van der Kleij expects to be several corporate partnerships for the hub. The Swiss telecom firm will explore fintech and specifically blockchain technology, with the two co-investing to create a new business. Talks with two unnamed international corporates are currently taking place.

"We do want to own significant stakes in the business. And we think it's a fairer model in the corporate innovation world," he said.

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Van der Kleij, who helped start the government's Tech City initiative in 2010, is returning after a break having stepped down from Level39 in 2015 and ENTIQ last summer, a consultancy he founded with Claire Cockerton which has morphed into the Plexal innovation hub at the former Olympic park in East London. The entrepreneur is also a part-time advisor to the department of international trade and was formerly an advisor to No 10 under then Prime Minister David Cameron.

He told City A.M the five person team (but hiring) expects to "grow very quickly to become the super-charged co-working model" of the future, adding that custom design accelerators are "the next step of an accelerator" and that creating companies with corporates are "the new model for innovation".

Based on his experience at two of London's most well known hubs, Van der Kleij said: "One of the things startups like is the ability to go to market, but also introduce them to potential markets. They shouldn't’t become dependant on them [corporates], but should help initital business. One thing I experienced at Level39 with around 200 startups is corporate partnerships are often more valuable than investment."

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