Canary Wharf has a chequered past. It went from being one of the busiest docks in the world to being deserted by 1980, before reinvention as a business district, with the first buildings completed in 1991.

The construction company then promptly went bankrupt and in December 1995 an international consortium bought the scheme. That consortium became the Canary Wharf Group.

Ben Brabyn © Level 39
Ben Brabyn © Level 39

It is this £5 billion company that owns Level39, Europe's largest technology accelerator, located on the 39th floor of One Canada Square (it has since expanded to include levels 24 and 42).

Level39 opened in March 2013 and has since grown to house more than 200 startups with about 900 people between them, according to Ben Brabyn, who took over the reins in February 2016. He was previously COO of UKTI's 'Innovation Gateway', having worked with JP Morgan after a stint as a captain in the Royal Marines. 

The accelerator doesn't take equity in any of the companies it hosts. It offers membership packages for desks, meeting rooms and other amenities starting from £325 a month.

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It's clearly a model that's working: a brief tour reveals rooms packed with people typing into laptops, taking calls, holding meetings and getting coffee. It's a hive of activity.

"We don't have time limits, a deadline or a demo day. We don't take equity or behave like investors. We treat all as best we can, with the same price for a desk for everyone. We are not picking winners," Brabyn tells Techworld.

The accelerator has a wide variety of specialisms, including fintech, cyber security, smart cities and retail tech.

"We're more a meta accelerator really, we don't do any one thing – and we host a lot of others' accelerators, including UBS, Accenture, EY and Silk Ventures, who are helping the Chinese to engage here. Increasingly we are a team of teams, a host of centres of excellence rather than one in our own right," he adds.

Level39's genesis lies in the 2008 financial crash. "There's been a focus on diversification [beyond solely the finance sector] in Canary Wharf since then, led by Sir George Iacobescu [CEO of Canary Wharf Group]," he says.

Of the 120,000 people that work in the area, less than half of them now work in finance, compared to 80 percent in 2010, according to Brabyn.

Level39 is part of this wider push to diversify Canary Wharf, and to try to provide more support for earlier stage companies, not just the vast multinationals that the area is so famous for.

"Within five minutes from here we've got 30 percent of banks' IT budgets. We can provide access to customers, capital, talent, regulators and government bodies, and deep sectoral knowledge," Brabyn enthuses.

There is also a growing academic presence: UCL has moved its School of Management postgraduate programme onto the 38th floor below, for example.

Of the startups within Level39, the soaraway success is Digital Shadows, a cyber security company with 75 employees which works with big names like the NSA and the Bank of England, and has offices in the US as well as UK.

However there is a dizzying array of early-stage companies based there: Revolut, dopay, MapR, OpenCorporates, Coinjar, DigitalGenius and Credits, to name but a tiny few.

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Looking ahead to 2017, Brabyn says his focus will be on ensuring access to talent post-Brexit and international expansion.  

"Level39 is scaling up now. We're taking over three floors. We're going from a startup to a scale up ourselves," Brabyn says.

On that ever-present topic, Brexit, Brabyn refuses to be downbeat. He approaches the topic in as upbeat a manner as everything else: "Let's focus on what we can do, not what we can't", he says.

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