Ben Brabyn, once championed by the BBC as one of Britain’s most-promising Royal Marine officer candidates, has taken over as the boss of Canary Wharf’s startup accelerator, which launched on the 39th floor of the One Canada Square skyscraper back in 2012 and is now home to 207 members.
Brabyn, a former captain in the Royal Marine Commandos, replaced Tech City founding CEO Eric Van der Kleij as the head of the Level39 startup space in March.
Approximately six weeks into the job, Brabyn told Business Insider that he’s been busy finding his feet, establishing “where are we and where are we going.”
Kleij was at the helm of Level39 for three and a half years. He was vocal on topics like fintech regulation, blockchain, and banking reform, and a well-known figure throughout the London tech scene. Brabyn, on the other hand, is relatively unknown in the London startup community, having worked in government for the last few years as a British business champion.
“I grew up on a farm and have no background in tech,” he said. “But I’m a generalist. My appetite is working across disciplines and this is a great place to do that.”
During his time in the Royal Marines as a tactical unit commander, Brabyn became an amphibious and air assault specialist, leading a team of up to 60 people. According to his CV, he was involved in counter terror operations in Northern Ireland and he featured as one of the highest-scoring Royal Marine officer candidates ever in BBC documentary “Situation Vacant.”
When asked about his time in the Royal Marines, Brabyn said: “It’s a fantastic place to gain entrepreneurial experience. You’re constantly dealing with uncertainty, which is the definition of startup life.”
After five years in the military, Brabyn moved into finance, taking up an analyst role at investment banking giant J.P. Morgan, where he advised FTSE 100 companies and led a team on a $5 billion (£3.6 billion) credit ratings advisory project. Brabyn left J.P. Morgan after just a year in the investment banking industry, which is known for its long hours and stressful trading floors.
The married father of two then got his first taste in startup life in 2001, setting up BMY Limited, a company providing online transaction processing services to UK charities and individuals. Brabyn led the startup for nine years, raising £32 million for clients, before selling it to Help for Heroes in 2010, which closed the service down in December 2015.
Brabyn cofounded his second startup in 2010, This Tribe Limited — an ecommerce business selling outdoor equipment to people in the military and other outdoor enthusiasts. But, according to Companies House, the startup was dissolved on 23 June, 2015.
Working for the UK government
Most recently, Brabyn has been working for government department UK Trade & Investment, where he started out as chief operating officer in the venture capital unit, before becoming chief operating officer of its Innovation Gateway programme, which aims to establish relationships with global sovereign wealth and pension funds to facilitate investment into UK innovation.
Referring to his time at UKTI, Brabyn said: “I was travelling around the world and pointing people to what’s been done here [the UK] in terms of innovation.”
After his time at UKTI — where he said he saw how important it is for companies to build relationships with investors and customers in different markets — Brabyn joined Level 39.
Level39 was created by property developer Canary Wharf Group as part of a wider effort to diversify its current portfolio of tenants and increase the amount of tech being used across the Canary Wharf estate.
The business district is home to the UK headquarters of HSBC, Barclays, KPMG, J.P. Morgan, and several other multinationals in the financial services industry. Traditionally, the area has struggled to attract tech firms but there are signs that this is changing, with 10,000 of Canary Wharf’s 120,000-strong workforce now employed by tech companies.
“We [Level39] are very much an integral part of diversification of Canary Wharf,” said Brabyn. “We’re extending our tentacles throughout the Canary Wharf estate and the whole of neighbourhood can benefit from Level39.”
Through Level39, the Canary Wharf Group also hopes to create the next generation of successful UK tech companies by putting them in front of mentors and investors.
The idea is that the tech startups take a small amount of office space in Level39 in their early days, before graduating to take an entire floor in One Canada Square or another property owned by the multibillion pound property developer. This hasn’t happened yet, but one cybersecurity startup called Digital Shadows is well on its way, having grown its team from six to 85 while at Level39.
“We certainly have access to as much space as our tenants need,” said Brabyn. “When you get too big for Level39, we find floor space for you.”
A spokeswoman for Canary Wharf Group told Business Insider that tech companies have taken 220,000 sq ft of space in the last 24 months — equivalent to 3.5 football pitches.
A thousand flowers
Brabyn said he wants to help Level39’s “bloom into a thousand flowers.”
“We have global reputation,” he said. “We now need to rip out the walls and make this organisation accessible at scale while maintaining fundamental qualities. We need to make sure we provide the springboard and platform.
“For 300 years, Canary Wharf has been the best place to embark to build a trading empire and it remains that today. We want to reduce the friction of going global. That’s our function. We’ve had 105,000 visitors in last three years. Now we need to turn that into real enduring value for member companies and Canary Wharf companies.”