A year since plans for Berlin’s ultimate tech hub Factory were announced, we go on tour with its visionary – angel investor and entrepreneur Simon Schaefer as he reveals construction frustrations, tenant ideology and some interesting archaeological finds…
At the heart of Germany’s capital, pushed up against a memorial section of the former Berlin Wall, dozens of construction workers move past a parked excavator atop a hill of rubble and into an historic ex-brewery blanketed in white tarpaulin. It’s a scene Simon Schaefer hoped would be a memory to an open-for-business coworking space by now. But as a cruel Berlin winter and usual construction grievances would have it – the Factory, estimated to cost around €20m, is now hoped to be unveiled at the end of summer this year.
“It’s like building a website”
“Building this is like building a website,” says Schaefer, as we sit on the main building’s exposed top floor – in earshot of its construction cacophony: “There’s just been so much complexity and careful planning involved.” And looking around at some of the estimated 14,000 square metres of the Factory’s campus space – it’s not hard to see why.
Of the five buildings planned for the hub’s cluster, the main building – made up of 8,500 square metres will span five levels (including two floors currently being added) – and house a glassed-in auditorium, art gallery, spas, fitness centre, bar and restaurant. Enjoying the luxury amenities in-house, will be big-name startup tenants Soundcloud, 6Wunderkinder and Mozilla.
There will also be up to 18 small international startups with an acceleration or incubation space to hold extra teams with flexibility for long-term lease agreements: “When business kicks in for a lot of these small companies they’re going to grow here as well. It’s going to be very fertile ground for being part of the Berlin web community. For developing and starting your business in Europe – even as a US company – you have a stronghold right in the centre of town.
Turning down the blue-chips
“We’re totally booked out. With the demand and requests we have for space we could build two or three Factories… There’s been a lot of interesting requests from blue-chip companies who know that working alongside innovative companies is a great thing. We have consultancies that want to be in here, investors that want to be in here, but we’re not going to do that – even though it would be very lucrative. Instead, we’ll have a lot of events where blue-chip companies and startups can meet.
“We don’t want this to be an investment-driven project. We could have done that and flipped this into apartments to make a lot of money but the bottom line of the story is that it should be – and I hope it will be – for people to just create great stuff,” Schaefer says excitedly.
Secret rooms and sinister bunkers
In creating fresh working spaces, builders also discovered old ones – believed to date as far back as 1890. Outside, at the back of the main building, we made our way down a sandy, rubble-strewn hill within metres of the Factory’s façade:
When we started digging up dirt around the building here we found these two rooms that nobody knew were here. It was under a terrace… everyone thought that this terrace was just built on dirt.”
One room, dug up on one side – exposing the small space to the elements, is lined with brown and dust-ridden brick pillars stretching up to a low ceiling. At the back, an opening leads to a rather beautiful, circular cavity – a roughly-cut windowed section of the wall leaves a heavy trail of old brick and stream of sunlight.
“We had an archaeologist on site who tried to figure out what these rooms were used for, and they say that the circular room was an oil and fluid catch tank area for the production of beer and the other was a yeast storage room,” he says.
The discovered space of up to 180 square metres has been earmarked for an event area, with architects looking to preserve some of the rooms’ old-world charm.
“Another thing we discovered was that we had a whole bunker in front of the Factory that we didn’t know of. Because the whole block used to be one big brewery, underneath there were storage rooms for beer because it was cooler down there. So they had these tall spaces for storage.
“During the war it’s believed the Nazis used this as a bunker and next up were the Russians, and then it was filled up with dirt and not used any more. When we dug in front of our courtyard to lay a foundation for a second building, we found a lot of vacuum down there – empty spaces, and we started digging deeper and discovered the bunker.”
Digging in to the startup psyche
With construction going slowly but surely, and its tenant list maxed out, there’s been increased focus on digging into the startup psyche to deliver effective educational and training programs: “We’re working on collaborations with Universities – working alongside academia to intensify quality and get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t work within entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of consultancy that can go wrong on many levels and what we’re trying to do is step away from that a bit and try and figure out what makes the ecosystem work on an academic level.
“We always compare Berlin to London and if you look at London, there’s a lot of catching up for us to do. Looking at how Gidsy started and sold and how others might be in the same space right now – there’s a lot of opportunity in Berlin, but a lot of work to do as well.
“With the Factory, it’s easy to think about how great this all is but I’m trying to keep away from that because what’s ahead of me is a lot of work. And with all this attention from people like politicians, it can be stressful and it’s not even open yet… We have the chance to create something great, but Berlin has to deliver.”
So, in adding to the attention-induced pressure and dropping the question Schaefer wish he had a crystal ball for, when will the Factory doors open? “We’re still really optimistic about being open this August… Looks like it’ll be a fun summer ahead,” he laughs.