BERLIN — Travis Todd, an American tech entrepreneur, pointed at the snow-covered construction site behind his shared office. Twenty-five years ago, East German border guards would have gunned down anyone caught in the restricted zone along the Berlin Wall. Today, Google and other investors are turning an abandoned brewery in the “death strip” into a technology campus.
Todd, at 30 a veteran of Berlin’s burgeoning tech industry, was giving me a tour Monday evening. His start-up toa.st — which allows users to share shopping wish lists and he hopes will one day become “the Google for gifts” — occupies the front room of an old apartment. Silicon Allee, the local English-language trade publication that Todd helped found, takes up a second room. The offices of a new fashion app for the iPhone are in the back.
Sitting down in the kitchen among takeout menus, a race-car set and a bin of empty beer bottles, I let the impressions sink in.
I had visited the divided city as a teenager, lived in an anarchist squat the summer after the Berlin Wall came down and started my reporting career in reunified Germany’s chaotic capital in the late 1990s. Now, returning after nearly a decade away, I am astonished at how much Berlin has developed.
Perhaps the biggest change is the city’s internationalization, brought about by the young, creative people who have flocked here from around the world. Berlin’s drive to become a technology center would be unthinkable without this openness.
I got my introduction to the tech scene last week, when I attended a class about start-ups at betahaus, a building of shared working space squeezed behind a couple of car dealerships in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s answer to Haight-Ashbury. Hussein Kanji, a 36-year-old American venture capitalist from London, was speaking about start-ups on behalf of General Assembly, a New York-based organization that offers technology and business courses in mini-campuses like this one around the world.
I had signed up not out of casual curiosity but because of a professional interest in developing post-paper journalism platforms from the ground up. I ended up spending the rest of the evening discussing Berlin’s prospects with Kanji, who has worked for Microsoft and the venture capital firm Accel Partners.
Although Berlin still lags behind other European tech hubs like London in terms of available capital or qualified developers, Kanji said, the German capital’s scruffy, anything-goes attitude is attracting talent. Last year, Twitter chose Berlin as its base in Germany, over Hamburg and Munich.
Todd, who has a background in design, arrived in Berlin five-and-a-half years ago to follow his girlfriend. With one start-up — an app that allows you to buy drinks for friends in bars faraway — under his belt, there’s no turning back for him.
He appreciates Berlin’s low cost of living and bohemian spirit. As for red tape, Todd said, it’s easier for an American to work in Germany than for a foreigner in the United States. In fact, Berlin has started its own initiative with a Web site to help pair investors and entrepreneurs from abroad. According to the city government, greater Berlin’s IT industry has an annual turnover of some $35 billion and employs more than 300,000 people.
Among its success stories is Soundcloud, an audio-sharing platform for musicians that has more than 30 million registered users and counting. In the spring, the old brewery is due to be opened as a digital campus called the Factory.
As we spoke in the office kitchen, Todd’s lanky co-tenant and fellow entrepreneur, Dario Galbiati Alborghetti, sauntered into the kitchen, his mouth full of Nutella.
“In Italy, we say eating pure Nutella is a sign of depression,” Alborghetti laughed. “But no, no, no. I’m not depressed at all.”