Level39 boss: Banks are under “existential threat” and we’ve got the answers

By Oliver Smith 17 March 2017

Stark warning from the head of Level39.

Ben Brabyn has a warning for the banks which surround his office hidden on the 39th floor of London’s iconic One Canada Square tower at Canary Wharf.

Work with me, or else.

“Don’t spectate,” Brabyn says is his stark message for bankers. “Your industries are under existential threat.”

Banks are under attack from enemies both old and new. They face the challenges posed by crumbling infrastructure, systems built in the 1980s which are today are quite literally falling apart.

And worse still, new names like TransferWise, Monzo and Starling are coming to swoop up banks’ customers, customers who are frustrated at how slowly these arthritic institutions are moving in the digital age.

Enter Level39

Last year Brabyn, a former Royal Marine officer, became the head of Level39, a huge 80,000 sq ft of Canary Wharf’s most valuable office space dedicated to housing small digital businesses in the world of finance.

“The challenges faced by the banks around where we sit now are staggering, and growing,” Brabyn told The Memo, a glint in his eye.

Level39’s physical location is critical, it’s a little-known hub for over 200 businesses trying to tear up the finance rulebook in some way, with potential clients and suitors among the dozens of banks in Canary Wharf.

“What we have here are organisations with billion-dollar problems and, critically, billion-dollar budgets.”

Within a five minute walk of Level39, says Brabyn, lies 30% of the world’s financial services IT budgets.

But accessing this mountain of cash is another story.

A mixed bag

Today, four years after it first launched, Brabyn admits Level39 still isn’t well understood by the community of banks and bankers which surround it – and should be Brabyn’s closest allies.

“We’re well integrated, but not well enough.”

Similarly Level39’s commercial success is a mixed bag.

While Digital Shadows, a cyber security group, used Level39 as a launchpad to grow from 6 to over 85 employees around the world and secure contracts with a range of banking partners, for bankers and startups Level39 clearly isn’t a silver bullet.

None of the most-hyped new wave of companies: TransferWise, Monzo or Starling were started in Level39, in fact it’s fair to say that most disruptive finance startups are found elsewhere.

“You may not find the solution immediately, you may not even find the solution here, but this is best place to start your search,” says Brabyn.

With characteristic military precision Brabyn has orchestrated a huge redesign of Level39 in his first year as head, around his theory that Level39 shouldn’t be the hidden secret of Canary Wharf any more.

Gone is the private members lounge along with a vast corporate events space, transformed into a huge cafe and open workspace.

A symbolic ‘throwing open the doors’ and an invite for Canary Wharf’s, often reclusive, bankers to ride the elevator to the 39th floor.