How Google will court startups at London ‘Campus’

Updated: When the news broke a few months ago that Google (s:GOOG) was taking up a lease on a seven-storey building in East London, it wasn’t exactly clear what the Internet giant wanted the space for. There were some vague mentions of a “creative space” and “hackathons” but in reality it all seemed a little vague.

After all, what does Google have to gain from opening up a place just a few miles from its swish base in West London? Sure, the new space is at the heart of the city’s much-hyped “Silicon Roundabout” area… but is that really enough?

Now more solid details are emerging about what the company plans to do with the 25,000 square foot space, though, I have to admit they’re intriguing.

According to the London Evening Standard, 4-5 Bonhill Street will open next month under the name of “Campus”, and essentially become a co-working space for London startups:

It will feature open plan office spaces where firms can rent desks, along with cafes, meeting rooms and event spaces. Google will also have an office to give advice to firms.
Plans for the building seen by the Evening Standard show space for over 200 desks, along with lockers to leave expensive equipment, table football tables and even tea making stations. Small wooden booths can be hired to work on sensitive projects, while upper floors feature open spaces and even a cinema area for presentations.

Google will keep plenty of desks in the building too, but what’s particularly intriguing is that other companies will be moving in as well. I understand that Seedcamp, the pan-European incubator, will be moving its operations entirely into the Campus building, and it seems that other groups including Springboard and TechHub will also be using the space.

That makes it a smart move for Google in more ways than one.

Most obviously it gives it increased visibility in the developer community: London’s a city where small distances can make a big difference, and while its main Victoria complex is only four miles from the new building, that is in fact a world away for many of the engineers who are clamoring to be near the heart of the British capital’s technology scene.

In the short term this gives it a boost at a time when rivals like Facebook, Twitter and others are starting to increase their British presence. And that means it could be useful in the longer term for hiring and even acquisitions.

In addition, Campus also allows Google to do a little public relations work, acting as a champion of the local technology industry and working alongside the British government: no small thing when the company has been under fire for paying just $1.9 million in U.K. taxes on more than $3 billion in revenues.

But while the deal appears to have been blessed by the authorities — though Google hasn’t yet answered my questions on what incentives it was offered to open Campus — the truth is that the government may be smiling about this deal through gritted teeth.

The authorities have made a concerted effort to woo major technology companies into the area — dubbed the “Tech City” development — in the hopes that big businesses can fill the vast space left behind when the Olympics finishes this summer.

But while the official Tech City group has been bending over backwards to get Google to sign on the dotted line and take over a significant office space in the Olympic Park, it seems that Campus may be the best it can manage. Instead of committing to East London as Downing Street had hoped, over the past few months Google has leased hundreds of thousands of square footage elsewhere in the city and continued negotiations to move its operation to an 8 million square foot space in North London — just outside the Tech City zone.

So while government officials may crow about bringing a major Silicon Valley name into their orbit, the reality is that Google’s only serving one master here: itself.

Update: Shortly after publication a Google spokesman responded to my question of whether there were any incentives given for opening Campus: there were none, he said, and Google is “just looking to help fuel the community and support their ideas and concepts.”

Photographs used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr users mbiddulph and osde-info