There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.
Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.
There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.
Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.
What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.
So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.
This week BBC director general Tony Hall launched a slew of initiatives designed to reposition the beleaguered broadcaster. The aim is to show that the BBC is central to meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future, and to draw a line under an annus horribilis for the corporation, which has been plagued by scandals from Jimmy Savile to excessive payoffs for senior managers.
Amongst the news of a BBC One + 1 channel (by my maths that’s BBC Two), and expansion of iPlayer, one thing that caught my eye was a pledge to “bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK”. As someone who grew up in the 1980s it made me misty-eyed with nostalgia for the last time the BBC got involved in technology, with the original BBC Micro. Essentially the BBC put up the money for the machine to be given to every school in the UK, as well as producing TV programmes and courses on coding.
While I never had a BBC (I was a Sinclair Spectrum diehard), we used them in at school and it did help me learn to code. It really was a golden age for UK computing, as it introduced a generation to computers they could play games on, but equally program and learn with. Programming your own creations was a viable alternative to just treating these machines as games consoles – particularly as a Spectrum game took about 10 minutes to load (and often mysteriously crashed just before it should have started). I was incredibly proud of my amazing horse racing game (complete with betting and flickering graphics), even if my programming days are now long behind me.
Not only did the BBC/Spectrum age produce a generation that wasn’t afraid of coding, but it also helped shape the UK IT industry. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, spawned ARM, now a world leader in chip design, while countless games companies developed from bedrooms into multi-million pound concerns. You could easily argue that Cambridge wouldn’t be the technology powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the BBC.
But then IT became marginalised as a school subject – essentially replaced with learning to use desktop applications rather than program. In a global economy where companies compete on knowledge, the need to rekindle that interest in coding has never been greater. The BBC is not the first to understand this – the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi has become a global phenomenon as it brings back the spirit of adventure and exploration to children weaned on iPads and Wiis. There’s also a new computer science curriculum for schools and coding courses are becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
So where does the BBC fit into this? There’s a lot of hyperbole in the announcement about “using world class TV, radio and online services to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity”, but very little detail. The challenge for the BBC is to pitch whatever it offers in a way that doesn’t replicate what is being done in the private sector and doesn’t dumb down coding to a simple point and click level. As seen in the 1980s, the backing of the BBC can be a major force for good, but it could equally stifle the innovation and creativity that it is trying to encourage. The jury’s out, but I hope it can turn the undoubted niche success of the coding revival into a mainstream movement – working with the industry to create the Acorns and ARMs of tomorrow.
Last week Mike Lynch, founder of Autonomy, announced the first investment by his latest venture, Invoke Capital. It has put money into Darktrace, a security company founded by Cambridge mathematicians. Darktrace uses Bayesian logic to spot cyber security issues by learning what is normal inside a company network and then flagging behaviour that differs from this.
Lynch is a divisive figure, but whatever your views on him, he built Autonomy into a multi-billion pound business, achieving the biggest ever sale price for a UK tech company when he sold it to HP for £6.2 billion. Of course, since then HP has sacked Lynch, written down Autonomy’s value substantially and asked authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to investigate possible accounting irregularities at the firm.
But two things that Lynch said stood out for me. Firstly, he believes too many European tech companies are sold too early in their development (normally to US rivals) – raising tens of millions rather than billions. Invoke plans to change that by investing for the longer term and providing experienced managers to take businesses to the next level.
The second thing he really encapsulated was the difference between Cambridge and Tech City businesses. Speaking in The Economist, he said “What you will find in Cambridge is something which is fundamentally clever, while what you are going to find in Tech City is something where the raw science isn’t fundamentally clever, but its more attuned to the market and the consumer.”
So the difference is between Cambridge clever and Shoreditch smart – but (as Lynch also says) we need both if we are going to build strong, vibrant tech sector in the UK. After all there’s no point in clever technology if it doesn’t have a market, while there is a limited opportunity for low IP businesses – we already have enough social networks.
What we need is to bring the two clusters together and develop a mutual understanding so that both can learn from each other, cross-fertilise ideas and even work in partnership. Let’s face it – they are only 60 miles away from each other, just a bit more than the distance from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Some people in Cambridge have a tendency to look down on any ideas that haven’t originated here (or spent years in development in the lab). In contrast denizens of Silicon Roundabout often view Cambridge companies as too technical, too geeky and taking too long to build in comparison with their agile media startups.
Two immediate things would help this necessary cross-fertilisation. Firstly, a forum to bring the two groups together to share ideas and network, and secondly, a realisation by the government that you’ve got to look at the tech sector as a whole. At the moment a lot of effort goes into TechCity but that needs to be widened to encompass tech companies across the UK (not just in Cambridge, but in other clusters too) with a cohesive set of policies that encourage innovation and longer term investing. Otherwise Lynch’s vision of building billion dollar businesses in the UK simply won’t be realised, and that will hurt everybody.
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (prnewswire.com)
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (virtual-strategy.com)
Everyone is packing more into their working lives – and work is increasingly invading our leisure time. Apparently 69% of us cannot go to bed without checking email, and in the US, employees spend an extra 8.5 hours working every week compared to 1979.
And we’re continually being told to do more. But this normally translates into wasting our energies on ultimately unproductive activities such as sending and answering emails or sitting in endless meetings. McKinsey believe the average highly skilled office worker spends over a quarter of every day answering emails. The Dutch talk about vergaderziekte, which translates as ‘meeting sickness’. On one hand we make snap decisions to get emails out of our inbox and on the other fall asleep in day long meetings that seem to have no purpose.
It wouldn’t matter so much if this busyness translated into better business. But Robert Gordon of Northwestern University argued last year that the any additional productivity caused by the internet is much smaller than previous innovations such as indoor plumbing or electrification. Do you feel more productive?
For those of us in the creative industries the distractions and interruptions caused by modern business are particularly dangerous. And it is no accident that lots of startup ideas come from academia, where there is more time for uninterrupted research.
Creativity doesn’t come in the midst of an email or a meeting, but when you have time to think, unfettered by the ping of an incoming message hitting your inbox. Otherwise ideas come out half formed without reflection or perspective. Research at the University of California removed email from 13 people for five days and saw concentration levels rise and stress drop.
To win back our creativity and give time to thinking we need to regain control over our working lives. I’m no management guru, but here are five things that might help:
- Set aside thinking time. Leave your office, switch off your phone and just take an hour a week to focus, uninterrupted, on the big picture.
- Go for a run – get up from your desk and do some exercise. The added bonus is that if your company doesn’t have showers you won’t be invited to afternoon meetings.
- Use a pen and paper. Get your thoughts down longhand before opening up Word.
- Be ruthless. Turn down meetings (politely if possible) so that you have blocks of time to concentrate on what is important.
- Do less. Follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but why take the chance?” Do you need to check your email – and do you actually need to send that email to 20 people, with another 10 cc’d.
Whatever industry you are in, creative or not, take a step back and refocus if you want to be happier, more productive and more creative. Easier said than done perhaps, but the potential benefits are vast.
As anyone who’s tried to walk down King’s Parade knows, Cambridge is a magnet for tourists. However while visitors have plenty to look at, most of it is pretty old. From the colleges and Senate House to Fitzwilliam Museum the impression is of wonderful past achievements, rather than demonstrating the innovation and new breakthroughs that are happening now in the city.
Cambridge is leading the world in scientific research and is one of the centres of the UK IT industry, but up until recently the casual tourist would have been hard pushed to see any of this. And, let’s face it, simply seeing imposing medieval architecture and porters in bowler hats is going to put off a lot of young people from applying to study here.
The good news is that this is changing. In February, the Cambridge Science Centre opened its doors, inspiring the general public by enabling children (and their parents) to try hands on science experiments. Having had to physically drag my children away from it on our first visit it definitely delivers an engaging alternative to King’s College Chapel.
This week the Science Centre will be joined by The Centre for Computing History, which opens its permanent base in the city. The culmination of a two and a half year campaign, the Centre will give hands-on access to a huge collection of machines from the last 40 years, including a 1980s classroom with working BBC Micros to bring back memories for those of us of a certain age.
So far, so good. But having just visited the enormous @Bristol Science Centre and seen what has been achieved there as part of the city’s regeneration, there’s plenty more that Cambridge needs to do. The Cambridge Science Centre is essentially operating as a showcase in small (but well-utilised) premises while fund raising and the search for a larger location continues. And the Computing Centre needs volunteers to staff the building as it seeks to establish itself.
There’s been an enormous amount of support for both centres from local companies such as ARM and Red Gate and entrepreneurs including Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely. But now, during the summer holidays is the time for visitors and locals alike to stray from the tourist trail and try something different. You won’t regret it – and you may well help to inspire the next generation of scientists and programmers to continue the Cambridge success story.
I had the chance this week to see an old copy of BT’s Technology Journal, published at the time of the millennium. To give you an idea of how long ago the year 2000 actually was, the cover trumpeted an interactive version of the journal on CD-ROM that delivered a multimedia experience.
What was most interesting were a series of technology timelines, across areas as diverse as health, home and entertainment that predicted what the world would be like in 2020 and beyond. By now (2013) we should all be watching 3D without glasses, using robots in the kitchen and the police will be equipped with phasers (as seen in Star Trek). Looking forward by 2015 we’ll be able to pleasure ourselves with the Orgasmatron (though I’m sure that was in a 1960s Woody Allen film).
It is really easy to laugh at predictions made 13 years ago, particularly as they spectacularly failed to imagine things such as tablet computing and Facebook which have changed our lives and disrupted industries. I remember Tomorrow’s World back in the 1970s happily demonstrating the jet packs we’d be using to get around by the turn of the millennium. I’m still waiting for mine to arrive.
The reasons that futurologists get it spectacularly wrong are two-fold. Firstly, progress is not linear. Moore’s Law may apply to computers, but not to everything. Creating artificial organs does not mean that we’ll have artificial brains ten years later. Research simply doesn’t work like that and is much more stop start. Even now, eureka moments can move things forward rapidly or development can hit a dead end.
The second, and most important factor, is about user acceptance – and this is where startups and innovators need to pay most attention. Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean that people will want to pay money for it. I’ve talked at length about how startups need to cross the chasm and create products that the mass market wants, rather than just early adopters. This is where a lot of the innovations predicted by BT (and plenty of others) fail. There simply isn’t a compelling reason for people to either change their behaviour and/or fork out significant amounts of money to take a risk on a new innovation. Understanding consumer behaviour and designing products to meet their needs is vital if new innovations are going to make it out of the lab and into the mainstream. Yes, we can create 3D TVs that don’t need glasses, but the cost is currently prohibitive. We could probably even build jet packs, but the legal framework isn’t there to control their usage.
So the lesson is clear – innovation, blue sky research and predicting the future is all very well, but think about the problem that you are trying to solve. Is there actually one? Do people care enough to change their behaviour? Will they pay money for it? Otherwise you’ll be left with a warehouse full of rusting robots as consumers spend their cash elsewhere. Though I do think the Orgasmatron probably has a decent chance of success…………
On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.
All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.
But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.
Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.
Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).
Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.
I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.
Many people spend more time on the internet than they do in face to face or even telephone conversations. But despite the rise of video, we’re not really using all our senses on the internet, missing out on touch and smell. Replicating touch is a difficult one, though I’m sure the porn industry is working on technologies like electronic skin suits that help there.
Smell is (in practice) a bit easier. Everyone understands the power of scents to change our moods – from the multibillion pound perfume industry to supermarkets pumping round the smell of hot bread to get our taste buds salivating. I’m probably not alone in being disappointed that the Bank of Canada has categorically denied that its new plastic bank notes smell of maple syrup. Hundreds of Canadians wrote to the bank, claiming they could smell maple syrup on the maple leaf note – with many asking for the scent to be strengthened.
But experiments in delivering smell via the internet have all, so far, failed to catch on – in fact Google made it the basis of its last April Fool’s joke, with the Google Nose. In the same way that Smell-O-Vision flopped at the cinema, pioneers have vanished into obscurity. All shared a similar approach – a plug in device to your computer that mixed different components to deliver the right smell to match the page you were on or the situation you were in. The key issue is that while you can create any colour from the basic Red, Green, Blue combination, the palette for smell is much wider, meaning the device would have to have an enormous number of odour components inside it.
Latest internet smell technologies are trying to make things simpler. The Mint Digital Foundry launched Olly, essentially a plug in atomiser that you fill with a scent source. You can then set it to spray when a particular internet event occurs (such as receiving an email or a tweet). In Japan, the Chaku Perfume Company has created Chat Perf, an add on scent tank for your iPhone. You can then use the app to ‘send’ the scent to a friend with a tank of their own.
Smell on the internet may be in its infancy, but get it right and the benefits for marketers and internet companies are potentially huge. The scent of lavender on a page encouraging us to buy flowers, the background smell of the sea on a holiday site, the aromas of food on a cookery or restaurant page. The possibilities are endless – as they are for online gaming (smell the fear!), incorporating into mainstream TV or films or identifying your friends on social networks. So, rather than trying to build the next Facebook, entrepreneurs should be looking closer to home for the next big thing. After all, it is as plain as the nose on your face…………
The UK has always been full of people with bright ideas, but in many cases we’ve been let down by an inability to commercialise them. While it is wonderful to be known as a nation of inventors, it would be even better for the economy to translate this potential into strong companies, exporting around the world and employing skilled staff at home.
Turning this innovation into viable businesses requires focus, bringing together universities, companies and engineers to work together around certain areas and specialisms. Cambridge is the perfect example of a series of clusters (embedded, biotech, computer games, natural language processing), where participants feed off each other to move a particular industry forward. It is essentially an unofficial version of Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, which have played a large part in driving German innovation.
The good news is that the UK government has seen the potential of clusters and, thanks to a report from Hermann Hauser, set up the Catapult programme. This has established seven centres across the UK focused on high value manufacturing, cell therapies, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications, the connected digital economy, future cities and transport systems. The Satellite Applications Catapult has just been launched at Harwell, outside Oxford, on the same campus as a new technical centre for the European Space Agency. All seven centres will be operational in 2013, as part of the £440m the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is investing in innovation this year.
This is great news, as is a recognition of the growth of unofficial clusters (such as security in Worcestershire) and support for them. But there are two areas that need to be addressed if clusters are to achieve their potential. Firstly, as a report from the Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation pointed out in January, the programme must be scaled up. Seven centres is a start point, but more are needed and those that exist require greater resources if they are to match other countries. Simply relying on British ingenuity to sidestep budgetary concerns is not going to work.
Secondly, Catapults have never been designed to launch commercial products – they are simply a stepping stone on the journey, providing the early stage support and specialist facilities to get an idea moving. My fear is that this innovation won’t necessarily produce another generation of ARMs or CSRs, but fledgling companies that are snapped up by international players. A huge number of small and midsize businesses find themselves unable to make the leap to the big league and opt for acquisition rather than pushing on to the next level. There needs to be a focus on why these UK innovators aren’t achieving their potential independently and help provided to ensure they make the jump to stable, quoted companies. That’s going to take greater investment and access to a wider pool of skills (such as marketing, sales and business development) to accelerate growth. We need a Rocket programme alongside our Catapults if UK ideas are going to achieve their full potential.
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.