Cambridge - making a noise about tech

  • 12 August 2014
  • From the section Technology
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With a world-class university, a clutch of billion pound businesses, and a constant stream of young graduates with bright ideas, Cambridge should be unchallenged as the UK's top technology cluster. But in recent years it's struggled to make its voice heard above the hubbub from London's TechCity, which has had the backing of the government and plenty of its marketing muscle.

Cambridge has also suffered from a lack of venture capital, and that has meant plenty of its young tech firms have headed to London, because that's where the money is. But today a new venture capital fund Cambridge Innovation Capital unveils its plans to change that.

The fund which has raised £50m to invest in Cambridge companies is announcing details of the first three companies it is backing. Two of them are established technology firms looking to move onto the next stage, but the one that caught my eye was Jukedeck, which is still more of a concept than a business.

It's the brainchild of two recent Cambridge graduates who've developed some innovative software which allows users to create music to accompany any video. What is striking about them is that neither is a scientist. Ed Rex studied music, Patrick Stobbs read history, but both were determined to start their own internet-related business.

Image copyright Ian Nicholson

I met Patrick at the Hauser Forum where Cambridge Innovation Capital is based and he gave me a demo of the software. "What we've done is taught a computer how to write music - we've programmed in the steps a composer goes through when writing music," he explained. "The computer makes decisions on a note by note basis. It will start with one note and decide on the only notes that will sound right next."

I had supplied a short video - a fascinating shot of me eating my lunch while multi-tasking with phones - and he fed it into the software. He chose a style - techno in this case - and a not particularly inspiring soundtrack was quickly generated.

The software is quite crude at this stage , but the idea is that it will eventually be able to match what the video shows. "In a video game for instance it could customise the music to the game play - so if I turn right in the game it would sound differently to if I turned left. If a baddie came in, again the music would change." The idea is that this could prove attractive to anyone wanting to generate their own music for for videos or games without worrying about copyright.

Sitting listening to our conversation was Victor Christou, who has come to Cambridge Innovation Capital from a long career as a serial entrepreneur and investor. He explained the that main task of the the new fund was trying to fill what he calls the valley of death: "There's a very difficult period where companies exhaust their early funding without having proven their business model or their technology. We're here to take a little more risk - hopefully for more reward - to help promising businesses get through the valley of death."

Looking out across the sprawling Cambridge West site, home to the university's Computer Laboratory, Microsoft's research centre, and a growing number of other new buildings, you can see that this city does not lack ambition. And with even arts graduates like Ed Rex and Patrick Stobbs now starting businesses, it seems the entrepreneurial bug has caught hold: "Along came Facebook, along came films like The Social Network," Patrick remembers," and it opened up a number of people who weren't scientifically trained to the possibilities of entrepreneurship."

But Cambridge still has to show is that it can attract investors with an appetite for risk to back restless young entrepreneurs, who may find the bright lights of London irresistible. "So where is your office?" I asked Patrick Stobbs as I left. He seemed slightly embarrassed to admit that, while it was looking for Cambridge premises, right now Jukedeck was based at Techhub in London. Silicon Roundabout or Silicon Fen? Not an obvious choice for a business which may need to plug into London's media scene.