We’re continually being told that innovation is critical to our future as a nation – indeed, last week’s Budget included plenty of talk about encouraging research and development, technology and bright ideas.
Getting kids interested in science is vital to this – and after all it shouldn’t be too difficult, given their love of things that explode, make a mess or beep loudly (or all three). However at the moment not enough children see the link between studying science and doing cool stuff – just look at the stereotypes of white coated, glasses-wearing, techie nerds if you don’t believe me.
So as the parent of destructive but inquisitive boys I had high hopes of the Cambridge Science Festival, the annual two week series of 180+ events put on by the University of Cambridge to show everyone (not just children) that science is vital, fun and something they can get involved in. We went along to just some of the festival last Saturday and I can’t help thinking that it was an opportunity not quite delivered on. I’m not sure if they were expecting fewer people but both the Centre for Mathematical Sciences (a building I never knew existed) and the Institute for Manufacturing were crammed to the rafters and beyond with eager children and their parents. That had a knock-on effect on having to wait to do activities (and the laser bunny hop had broken, boo), leading to grumpy kids and increasingly stressed parents.
Amongst the bodies it was great to see a Raspberry Pi in the flesh, but for me the standout activities were all organised by the Cambridge Science Centre. Set up to establish a public interactive centre for science aimed at locals, tourists and schools it is currently raising funds to eventually create a permanent base in the city. It’s a great initiative and from the range of activities they put on and their sheer enthusiasm they demonstrated that they really understand their target market and know how to connect with them. My kids (aged from 3 to 8) had to be dragged away from the air cannon that showed how seeds are carried by the wind (parents, think of it as a supercharged Elefun game), while inside the Institute for Manufacturing they had a whole range of gripping hands on activities. Take a look at http://www.cambridgesciencecentre.org/ to find out more – this is exactly the type of innovation that the government is talking about and a project that really deserves to succeed.
There’s a continual complaint that the UK simply doesn’t produce the numbers of heavyweight tech companies that the US spawns. And looking around, the pattern seems to be true – for every ARM, Sage or CSR in the UK, you could name a dozen similar size companies in the US.
While some of this is gap is obviously down to relative population sizes are there any other factors holding back UK entrepreneurs? This was one of the issues discussed at last week’s Enterprise Tuesday event in Cambridge by an entertaining group of speakers, including company founders and Cambridge Angels, Sherry Coutu, Andy Richards, Robert Sansom and David Gill, managing director of the St John’s Innovation Centre.
The key factor is the ability to scale – the UK creates exactly the same number of startups, per capita, as the US – but only half of them successfully scale up compared to their US rivals. There are plenty of reasons for this – from an inbuilt British fear of change to an inability to cross the chasm
and appeal to the mass market. It seems that for too many UK companies the choice between scaling themselves or selling out is weighted towards the exit option. While this releases investment capital back into the system and gives entrepreneurs the chance to begin again, it has created (in the words of a US VC quoted by Andy Richards) an industrial veal farm in Cambridge, with prized startups nurtured and pampered ready for the inevitable early death/exit.
The UK in general, and Cambridge in particular, has shown that it can grow dominant tech companies, so now is the time for the government and tech ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurs to take a step back, aim higher than an early exit and build businesses that can scale. Given the UK has the ideas we need to move from farming veal calves to growing some bulls……….
I had the privilege of being involved with helping to organise last weekend’s Cambridge Startup Weekend. Essentially a Startup Weekend brings together people with ideas and skills to create a new application in just 54 hours. People first pitch ideas and teams then form to work on the most popular ones. The idea is that some of these teams and applications then go onto become real, viable businesses.
Sound exhausting? It was. But what amazed me was the energy and enthusiasm amongst the 90+ delegates. Everyone was incredibly committed to the projects they worked on, despite the fact that they had only just met their team mates or come across the ideas. People were happy to work non-stop through Friday and Saturday night to achieve some pretty incredible things, learn loads and make lasting friendships.
This all made me think – just imagine if you could replicate this energy and teamwork within larger organisations. Innovation would skyrocket, as would morale as everyone worked towards the same goal, rather than in individual silos. Rather than going away on team building retreats/jollies, I believe innovation weekends are something every company should look at – or risk people with ideas just walking out the door.
- Cambridge Startup Weekend unearths new generation of talent (cambridge.startupweekend.org)
- Cambridge Startup Weekend set to find next generation of tech success stories (cambridge.startupweekend.org)