Cambridge is rightly highlighted as one of Europe’s biggest innovation hubs, particularly when it comes to commercialising ideas that began in the research lab. This has spawned a huge biotech sector, and helped create a series of billion dollar tech companies that lead their industries, such as ARM and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR).
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been identified by many commentators as a key emerging market – and one where Cambridge has the ecosystem, experience and ideas to play a major role. So the news that IoT pioneer Neul has been sold to Chinese telecoms equipment behemoth Huawei depressed me. Not for nationalistic reasons, but simply due to the low reported purchase price ($25m) and the fact that the company has cashed out so early in the growth process. While there was a fair amount of PR spin around Neul’s progress to date, I genuinely believed it could join the billion dollar Cambridge club by developing its technology and building alliances and routes to market.
At the same time, Cambridge Silicon Radio is mulling a multi-billion pound sale to US firm Microchip Technology, reducing the number of major, independent, quoted Cambridge companies. Obviously investors and founders do look to realise their profits at some point, but it is important to balance this by looking longer term. While those that put money into Neul no doubt got a decent return, think how much more they’d have received if the company had been allowed to grow and exploit its market position.
I’m not alone in taking this stance. Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), the University of Cambridge-backed VC fund, recently warned its portfolio companies against selling out too early and promised to provide long term, founder friendly, capital to help grow the next ARMs and CSRs.
So what we need is the support, both financial and in terms of time, that gives companies the ability to achieve their potential. Not all of them will make it, and many will be niche players that logically fit better within bigger companies – but at least they’ll have had the ability to aim for the stars before finding their real place in the world. Otherwise Cambridge (and other parts of the UK tech scene), will simply act as incubators that turn bright ideas into viable businesses that can be snapped up and digested by tech giants looking for the newest innovation. It is much better for both the local and national economy that some of these startups make it the stock market as fully fledged businesses, creating ecosystems that generate new sectors and jobs. This requires longer term thinking from everyone involved – otherwise the number of billion dollar Cambridge companies will shrink even further.
As I’ve said before, startup clusters are springing up all over the place and that’s great. There’s even one in my village (population 3,000) – well, two startups and a group of support services, including myself.
Clusters encourage innovation, particularly through external economies of scale – i.e. by providing access to the people, resources and infrastructure that startups need but don’t have themselves. And the more startups there are in an area, the lower the price of these services as they are shared across a greater number of companies.
A lot of these clusters seem to be driven from outside, particularly as both central and local governments realise that startup clusters are (a) sexy and (b) cheap. Why not give them a small pot of money/some space/a patronising visit to show you’re supporting innovation?
So, putting cynicism aside, what does a startup cluster require – and how does Cambridge measure up? I’ve been looking at Brad Feld’s work on building a startup ecosystem, based on 20 years experience in Boulder, Colorado. The aptly named Boulder Thesis highlights four things that these communities must have:
- They should involve entrepreneurs and feeders (people/institutions like universities, government, venture capitalists, lawyers, PR people). BUT they have to be led by entrepreneurs if they are to truly take off.
- Long term. It can take 20 years to build a community, so entrepreneurs need to stick around, even if they’ve built and sold their company long ago. And the same goes for those that fail – encourage them to stick around.
- They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
- They need to be active, with a range of events and accelerator programmes to help encourage and nurture startups.
That’s Boulder. Let’s compare it to Cambridge.
Firstly there’s a large community of entrepreneurs and feeders in the city (so a tick there) and entrepreneurs are taking a leading role. And given the longevity of the Silicon Fen success story there are plenty of long term entrepreneurs who have stuck around, from Hermann Hauser to Mike Lynch.
It’s the third and fourth points where I believe Cambridge has issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly welcoming people in the Cambridge community and some great events/accelerators that nurture startups. But, perhaps because of the size and depth of the community, spanning everything from medtech to green IT, groups can appear disconnected, with everyone focused on their niche. Some of this may come from the research-led nature of many Cambridge innovations, but, even in academia, cross-discipline working is becoming more normal after centuries of specialism. Compare this to places such as Norwich, which has a smaller (but still substantial) startup community that seems more cohesive, with greater communication between disparate companies with radically different ideas.
What Cambridge does have, and that I think is missing from Feld’s thesis, is the combination of new and old blood. The universities, and increasingly tech businesses, attract talent, much of which stays on and contributes to the ecosystem. But enough leaves to make space for new ideas so that things don’t go stale.
So, in true end of term report style, Cambridge needs to try harder when it comes to building a cohesive, overarching supercluster. It has the constituent parts, but what is needed is stronger glue to stick it together and help connect the bigger picture. Let’s see if 2014 brings a solution to this long term problem.
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.
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.
In a week that saw the publication of the long-awaited Cambridge Phenomenon book, celebrating 50 years of innovation in the area, some more sobering figures concerning continued investment have been published.
Research from tech-focused investment group Ascendant found that while generally VC investment is up in Q1 2012, money doesn’t seem to be coming to Cambridge. £307m was invested in tech companies in the UK and Ireland – with £188m going to London-based outfits, and £27m to Irish ones. Cambridge (and Oxford) saw very little new money.
While it can be misleading to generalise based on three months of data this could be a worrying trend as centralised government action to boost London’s Tech City draws potential funding (and talent) away from the Cambridge ecosystem. After all, as Rory Cellan-Jones points out in his BBC Blog, Cambridge has potentially a better chance of creating world-class tech companies than London as it has already developed an ecosystem with research at its heart to feed innovative ideas to the market. But investment funding for Cambridge is key – not just in ‘scientific’ spinouts such as Owlstone and ARM but the more internet-style businesses and the thriving cleantech sector that Cambridge also supports.
So how does Cambridge compete against the media-savvy Tech City community when it comes to gaining funding? I may be biased as a marketer, but really feel that public relations has a strong role to play. There is still a tendency amongst Cambridge startups to treat PR as an afterthought rather than an intrinsic part of how you create a company and drive its success. You need to know your audience and deliver the right message to it at the right time using language they understand to succeed. Otherwise the risk is that Cambridge will become seen solely as the domain of technical wizardry rather than as a driver of customer-focused innovation that leads the UK tech scene.
Last weekend saw the first Idea Transform event, which aimed to uncover new ideas and projects that have the potential to change society for the better. As one of the founders of Idea Transform I’m obviously biased, but all the feedback I had was that everyone that came along learnt lots, worked hard in their teams and had fun at the same time.
Over 100 people attended the weekend in Cambridge, which saw ideas pitched on Friday evening and then teams formed to develop them before judging on Sunday evening. While four teams were selected as winners in the different categories of education, health, community and environment everyone deserves congratulations for the hard work and their achievements.
Rather than bang on about the success of the event, I’d like to share three things that stood out for me:
1 Amazing range of ideas
Over 25 ideas were pitched on Friday night, from mobile learning through technology to calibrate medical devices and an avatar for online clothes shopping. The nine teams that made it to the end of the weekend included charging electric vehicles through the road, experimental maths teaching and mobile phone based biometics. Not just apps and websites!
2 Commitment and support
For all these projects, the idea itself was just a start point. Thanks to their own hard work and the support of the team of experienced mentors, who gave up their weekends to help, projects had really progressed by Sunday evening and the final presentations were incredibly professional and well constructed.
3 Ideas with legs
The aim of Idea Transform is to support projects to help them grow after the weekend, with mentoring, support and advice for all the winners. Sim-Prints, the overall winners, were awarded three months membership of the ideaSpace Enterprise Accelerator and two teams now have the chance to pitch for funding from the Cambridge Angels. Outside of this I saw lots of connections being made that will help projects meet the right people to progress and real enthusiasm amongst everyone to move things forward. I’m confident that at least one of the teams will grow into a fully fledged business in the future.
So it was an exhilarating, exhausting and packed weekend – finally I’d like to thank all the other organisers, our sponsors, particularly ARM, Red Gate Software and BlackBerry, supporters including the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL), mentors, judges, volunteers and speakers for making the first weekend to change the world a weekend to remember.
Cambridge has got a worldwide reputation for the excellence of its tech cluster. The likes of ARM, Autonomy and CSR are global leaders and a plethora of other innovative tech businesses like Transversal, Adder, RealVNC and Red Gate Software have successfully developed within the city.
But the tech market doesn’t stand still, meaning there’s a constant need for new startups to replenish the pipeline and potentially become the ARMs of the future. And creating a startup can look like a daunting prospect. You may have an idea, but where do you go from there? Tapping into the right skills and receiving help and encouragement is almost as critical as attracting funding when at a very early stage.
Help is at hand, through the first Cambridge Startup Weekend, which will be held between 11-13 March 2011. It adds to existing initiatives such as Cambridge Pitch and Mix to provide a focused event where people with ideas and skills can meet. Organised by volunteers, I’m very happy to be personally involved, both in publicising it and providing PR advice to the startup teams over the weekend.
An intensive 54 hour event, it focuses on building a web or mobile application which could form the basis of a credible business. At the end of the process, a high level judging panel, chaired by Neil Davidson, co-founder of Red Gate Software, will choose a winning project.
Based on a formula pioneered on the US West Coast, it is the first time a UK version of the event has been held outside London. And in another first, a proportion of the proceeds from the event will remain in Cambridge to be used as a legacy to support startups.
It promises to be an exhilarating (and exhausting) event and a great way of unleashing the next generation of great Cambridge ideas. Find out more at cambridge.startupweekend.org or follow the event on Twitter @swcambridge. Special offer tickets are available now, with prices at £50 when you enter discount code PRCAM.