Revolutionary Measures

The Cambridge Cluster – what’s missing?

Cluster (IA)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
  4. 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.

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Moving Cambridge into the future


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.

July 31, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Catapulting the UK into the future

Ariane 5

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.

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments