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Summary:

Since taking the job heading up the UK government’s project to champion East London as a global technology hub, Eric van der Kleij has taken plenty of brickbats. Now he’s stepping down, who will be there to take on the challenge?

Eric van der Kleij, London Tech City CEO

A potentially serious blow has been dealt to London’s Tech City initiative with the news that current chief executive Eric van der Kleij is stepping down.

The project, which is trying to push the British capital as a global startup hub, will now be looking for a new CEO and deputy to share the workload that van der Kleij has been balancing for the past 18 months. But they don’t have to rush too much: the change is not immediate, as he plans to reduce his role over the summer before stepping down entirely in September.

The South African-born entrepreneur has been a highly visible — if sometimes controversial — figurehead for an organization that has generated a mixed reaction among the community it’s meant to be championing.

Many prominent British technologists have told me that they are frustrated the government decided to focus on a narrow slice of East London known colloquially as “Silicon Roundabout”, rather than either looking at the substantial activity taking place in other areas such as nearby Cambridge or Reading. And sometimes its desperate attempts to latch itself onto the existing community in East London even stretched the truth to breaking point.

Meanwhile those who have benefitted from the extra attention Tech City has brought them have no reason to complain: after all, they can only see the good side of the organization’s priorities of bringing investment into local tech companies, and raising the area’s profile to tempt in talent.

When I asked van der Kleij about the criticism he’s faced, he was pretty sanguine and positive about its prospects, even if it has been difficult to bear at times.

The vast majority are very happy with us, 80 or 90 percent. We could just say that’s fine and carry on — but listening to the 20 percent, that falls into two camps: those that are looking for a rational challenge to what we do, and we’re always happy to consider those, and the other, who are actually quite smartly using this initiative to mobilize their own agenda. I understand that, and by the way some of it can be fun. But I listen to all of it, and we do make changes as a result. I’d never say we’ve got it nailed, and one of the things I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur is that you have to iterate.

Some of it is weird, though, and some of it comes from the wrong perspective.

Mike Butcher at Techcrunch gives a good roundup of how the last year or so has gone for Tech City, and says “only a curmudgeon would say it’s done nothing at all”.

That may be true, but the fact is that whatever the impact of Tech City has been, it is a project that has van der Kleij’s fingerprints all over it. Whoever comes next will have to remodel it into something a little different.

This could be to their benefit, of course. In particular, the TCIO’s desire to focus in order to claw back some of the money invested in the Olympic Games has caused it some conflict: trying to push technology companies into unloved parts of East London to help cover the costs of building for the Games has been a thankless task.

The Olympics will be over once van der Kleij has left, which could the make the job of his replacement substantially different. And it will be interesting to see if can bring in somebody who has a very strong reputation in the region (which van der Kleij didn’t, particularly) or if they’ll opt for somebody who can pull in outsiders.

So the question now is who’s in the running to take over? And who would want to be?

  1. Hopefully this will mark a new dawn for the organisation. From what I hear, Van Der Kleij was widely disliked within his organisation, and refused to tell anyone what he was doing or spend any time working on any sort of overall strategy for the Tech City. With any luck his successor will be a bit more willing to work on these areas.

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