Start-up Britain - Cambridge v Tech City


Entrepreneurs explain the allure of Cambridge for tech

Where in the UK do you go to find all the smartest new technology firms? East London, or Tech City as it's been dubbed, has been grabbing all the attention recently, and it's true that dozens of new media and web design businesses seem to be blossoming around the Old Street roundabout. But if you're looking for real technology firms you probably need to head 50 miles North East of London to a university town in the Fens.

That's what I did for the launch of a book called The Cambridge Phenomenon. It's a study of the emergence in Cambridge over the last 50 years of a clutch of world class technology firms, many of them born out of a university whose scientists have been behind everything from discovering the structure of DNA to building the world's first webcam.

At a launch party in the dignified but distinctly low tech surroundings of the Senate House, the Cambridge great and good had all turned up. I spotted Herman Hauser, founder of Acorn and now godfather to many start-ups, Sir Alec Broers, the scientist who after a business career which included many years at IBM, returned to the university as a vice-chancellor determined to forge stronger links with the outside world, and Warren East, the chief executive of ARM, the chip designer which is Cambridge's biggest success story so far.

The speakers described a culture which encouraged students and academics to look outwards, and a community which supported young companies with a spirit of collaboration and advice from those who had gone before. So, for instance, ARM was born out of Acorn Computer in the 1980s, but is now itself providing help and inspiration to the next generation of start-ups.

But having heard from the Cambridge veterans, I was on the lookout for evidence that the spirit of innovation really was still alive, and that clever new companies were emerging from the university. And in the nostalgic crowd, I found two young entrepreneurs, both products of the university, and both convinced that this is the place to grow their companies.

Silicon roundabout Hundreds of tech firms are based near the "Silicon Roundabout" aka Tech City in east London

Billy Boyle's start-up business Owlstone makes gas sensors on a microchip which can detect anything from explosive to disease. He and his co-founders took their research from a Cambridge engineering lab where they were working on a microchip design and turned it into a business.

"Right from day one we wanted to take what we had in the lab and out it out in the world," he told me. "One of the great things about starting a business here is the access to talent and the willingness of people who've done it before to help. When we started lots of people gave up time to help us."

By contrast, Emmanuel Carraud emerged not from a lab but from Cambridge's relatively new Judge Business School. His start-up, MagicSolver, enables smartphone users to discover the latest and best apps from the thousands now cluttering up the Apple and Android stores. It doesn't sound a very hi-tech business, but Emmanuel told me that Cambridge software expertise and the collaborative culture were among the many good reasons to base his firm here. "There's great talent, great advice from mentors, it's really international and there's a great vibe."

So, a few reasons why Cambridge, rather than London's Tech City, may offer the UK's best chance of generating world-class technology companies. What London does have is easier access to the venture capital firms which seem so reluctant to travel outside the capital. What it lacks is strong links with a world-class university, and a powerful network of people with a track record in both science and business, willing to pass on lessons to new companies.

But the main lesson from Cambridge is that you cannot build a technology cluster overnight. When I made a programme about the Cambridge phenomenon in the early 1990s, a number of people told me that the place still needed a few billion dollar companies to act as an inspiration for others.

Now, at the latest count, it's got nine such businesses. Twenty years from now, perhaps Tech City will be home to a similar collection of world-beaters, but first it may need to attract more scientists and fewer web designers.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    In fact I would argue HH and the other usual suspects in Cambridge should be ashamed for Silicon Roundabout not being in Cambridge; suffocation by an all-controlling University, lack of embracing consumer internet, lack of finance and poor infrastructure planning (the guided bus system & lack of direct London to Science Park public transport are both a joke) and lack of vision, are to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm not involved with either, but my perception, as a member of the public, rightly or wrongly, is that East London is all website and app design, while Cambridge is "real" tech. As such, I would expect companies in Cambridge to be still around in 30 years, and companies in E. London to make a quick buck (or not) and disappear within 5 years. I know where I'd rather invest...

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    If you're building something in bio-tech or low level tech such as microchips, it may be true that Cambridge is the place to be. But if you're trying to build a tech start-up whether B2B or D2C, CB is a bit of a joke. It is my home town, but my first 3 start-ups were starved of funding (there is little) & it took a move to London for my company to be taken seriously and benefit from the cluster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Cambridge is a most productive place to build a real business – small enough to bump into people regularly, to build trust and to collaborate, attracting people from around the world. We build things that people will buy. We share challenges and successes, developing skills in selling and leadership as well as technology. Cambridge competes on the world stage and is a powerful force for the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Tech, in the UK? Not a chance we're too busy outsourcing it to Bangalore (or where ever happens to be 'cheapest' today).Even if we do come up with something (rasberrypi) we make it in China/Korea...
    Stupidly setups like Cambridge concentrate an industry into one small area which becomes an expensive overcrowded nightmare... try the A14 at 8:30 one morning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Does it have to be one or the other? They are a hour away!

    Fostering collaberation between the 2 would be a less interesting story but probably more helpful in the long term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The London Tech City is not comparable to Cambridge or other tech centres like M4 corridor. Tech City is mainly web design companies, rather than true tech businesses - ie those that create tech rather than just using it (I'm a web dev too).

    Tech City is a way for govt to pile public money into companies that can apparently choose to afford central london rents, whilst ignoring true innovators.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    "He and his co-founders took their research from a Cambridge engineering lab"

    It would be interesting to know who paid for that. Start-ups are all very well, but if that was publicly funded research then it's not theirs - it's ours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Do you have any stats for "What London does have is easier access to the venture capital firms which seem so reluctant to travel outside the capital."?

    What the UK needs is the Infrastructure (HS2, 1Gb Broadband) in places like Manchester, Leeds and Cardiff to give all startups a chance and stop the mass migration to the south east.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    As much as I admire these start-up efforts & the evident supportive environment of Cambridge, these things alone will not solve the economic problems that face most "normal" working people.
    Is there a UK University that supports new ideas re financial management, fiscal responsibility and especially forensic accounting. These talents are critical to economic reform and well-being.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Posted on FB: Thx @trufflehound - what the author doesn't say is that Cambridge has a 3/4 millennia Uni / industry tradition, starting with metallurgical in the Middle Ages, then onto gunpowder in the Industrial Revolution and machinery during the Great Wars... Which made it a natural for hi tech we all know post-WWII

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I had a mobile start-up yards from Old Street roundabout from 1992 to 2001 and ran a software development team near Cambridge in 2005.

    The ethos in Cambridge is so much better. There is no industry feel in London, Mobile Monday (as great as it is) isn't Cambridge Wireless.

    For the mobile tech venture I'm just starting I may have an office in EC1 but want as much help from Cambridge as I can get

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Its a nice media story to talk about hotspots for Startups, but the reality is that is now easier than ever to start businesses. Service like allow you to access skills all over the world. Apps on Smartphones provide a platform to over a billion potential customers. The more important issue is having access to the right support to turn initiative, ideas and enterprise into real business



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