Understanding the Knowledge Quarter’s Start-Up Ecosystem

In 2019, with support from UCL, the Knowledge Quarter undertook a survey of the start-up ecosystem around King’s Cross. Our intention was to map the start-up activity in the area and better understand the interconnections between businesses and research institutions. The Science and Innovation Audit, published in 2019, had confirmed the strength of the area’s innovation networks, however, it suggested that this trend, while strong between research organisations, was less prevalent in the ecosystem for start-ups.

Our mapping and accompanying research confirmed many of these suspicions. When we interviewed stakeholders and leaders in the area’s start-up network, a common message emerged. The Knowledge Quarter area is seen as a place where new cutting-edge research is taking place, often between sectors. However, start-ups are facing a unique set of challenges; it is difficult for them to find suitable space in the area and when they do, the space available is often at a premium, which reduces potential for growth.

A survey of available workspaces in the area presents a more concerning picture. In total, we identified 70 workspaces: 33 of which were traditional coworking spaces; 12 were “coworking plus”; and 24 were a mixture of accelerators, incubators or training programmes, predominantly specialist in nature.

While these numbers might be significant on paper, context is everything. The “traditional coworking spaces” are not traditional bootstrap operations but corporate-serviced offices. This points to the continued “WeWorkization” of office space and the changing nature of work for SMEs, rather than an increase in provision for start-ups.

The more significant figure is the number of “coworking plus” spaces. These are spaces that provide general support to tenants and work to build their networks. They also provide the bulk of affordable rents in the Knowledge Quarter area. Our mapping has shown that not only is the number relatively small (12) but that these places are at risk. Indeed, some of them have already shut down since we began our mapping.

Given the increasing demand for space within the Knowledge Quarter area, it is unlikely we will see the growth of the “coworking plus model” without external intervention. This means that there is very limited space for early-stage start-ups, social enterprises and other less profitable sectors.

Our research has limitations, and we recommend further national research into start-up ecosystems. All London boroughs are in the process of developing affordable workspace strategies, but, to date, there is little evidence of the local economic impact of affordable workspace provision, with most spaces only measuring tenant turnover or job growth.

The Impact of Covid-19

Our plan was to publish this research in March, but few could foresee the far-reaching implications of a global pandemic. As staff begin to reoccupy offices in full or adopt hybrid work-from-home regimes, we believe it is appropriate to publish our findings now, and contribute to the discussion about the future of work and colocation.

As a result of the pandemic, there is potentially more workspace provision available in the Knowledge Quarter area. Our report outlines the opportunities to reshape the nature of this provision and safeguard the future of the start-up ecosystem.