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New Level39 chief sets out vision for incubator

New head of Level39 speaks to Computer Weekly about her vision for the accelerator going forward, and how it will leverage its network to support the startup and tech community

Canary Wharf Group’s startup accelerator, Level39, will focus on “connectedness” and building closer entrepreneurial networks in the coming months, according to its newly appointed chief.

Amy French, the new head of Level39, has spent the past six years working on ecosystem development for the accelerator, ensuring that members, partners, mentors and investors all collaborated to add value to the startups as they scaled.

“My vision – in my previous role, in my new role – has always been to drive additional value to our company, and what that looks like right now is focusing on connectedness and making sure, especially in this time, that our members can continue to connect with fellow entrepreneurs,” French told Computer Weekly.

Established in 2013 to support early-stage tech businesses, mainly in the finance and cyber security sectors, Level39 gives startups access to a network of investors and mentors for business support.

To ensure entrepreneurs and startups in the Level39 network stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic, the accelerator launched Digital39, an online platform that allows them to share stories, insights and experiences with each other.

“Creating that platform is really important because some of our startups are earlier-stage, so they might have great content and great stories to share, but not necessarily a platform to do it,” said French.

“One of the key things I’ve seen [during my time at Level39] is how important your network can be, but also how important openness can be. I think some of the most successful people I know, both within our community and externally, are always open to building their networks, not only in terms of people that might be able to add immediate value, but also people that are interesting and that come from different businesses or areas of the industry.”

French said getting different companies at different stages together, whether in a physical space or online, was an important part of the startup development process, because it allows them to continuously build new skills and knowledge based on each other’s experiences.

But although the online platform can help entrepreneurs connect during the pandemic, and even internationally across borders once it subsides, French maintains that physical proximity will still be important going forward.

“Speaking to some members quite recently, it has highlighted how important physical proximity is to people, both from the productivity side of things and from a creativity standpoint,” she said. “Right now, there is obviously a bit of a structure of needing to make a phone call and arrange things, there’s less of that natural ability to meet different people, to be able to walk over to someone and have a quick chat or ask a quick question.”

Networking has also suffered from the lack of face-to-face meetings, she added.

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Early-stage startups, in particular, have been struggling to secure funding during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, with just 5% of funding raised since 23 March going to firms that are raising funds for the first time.

On top of this, just over 80% of the UK’s 30,000-odd startups are ineligible for the government’s Future Fund, a £250m startup rescue package officially launched on 20 May, which provides loans ranging from £125,000 to £5m to UK-based companies, subject to at least equal match-funding from private investors.

French said that as part of its focus on connectedness, Level39 has been rallying its network to specifically support these early-stage companies.

“I am in frequent contact with our mentor and investor network to ensure these conversations keep happening, and to ensure our members can continue to build relationships with investors,” she said. “I think it’s actually really important that people also have advice around the different schemes and initiatives offered by the government.”

It is vital that members have access to the right advice and support, especially at this “critical time”, she added.

French said Level39 would be leveraging its network to “spotlight” companies with exciting stories and amplify socially positive tech initiatives.

“We are quite a small team, so what we try to do is amplify the work that [our members] are already doing,” she said, citing the example of a cyber security firm that runs regular events about getting more women into tech, and Level39’s support for the Code First Girls initiative.

French said Level39 also plans to help a number of “smart city” companies to run pilots.

When asked how to ensure these projects remain democratic, so people actually have a say about the technological changes being introduced in their local area by politicians, technologists and corporations, French said it was important to “share what the value is” beforehand.

“Certainly, the way we’ve started to do things when we’re looking at different technologies is being able to do a very small pilot sample, so that we can actually share what the value is before doing any kind of significant roll-out,” she said.

“We can have that mutual understanding between both the provider and us on what is the value, and then you can go out to who your audience are, and then share that. We are always keen to get feedback on pretty much everything we do to make sure we can continue to adapt and grow in the most positive way to support our clients and our communities.”

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