- Author Emma Haslett
- Published July 25, 2014
Cambridge, UK: Tech Cities
At first glance, Cambridge is a decidedly analogue city: steeped in centuries of tradition and populated by bike-riding, leather elbow patch-wearing, beard-sporting academics, there isn’t much of a high-tech vibe here. But look closer and you’ll find one of the largest and most well established tech clusters in Europe.
It’s obvious, really: stick a bunch of the world’s brightest people together in one city and eventually a few of them will start tinkering with tech. Ever heard of ARM, the company that designed (but doesn’t make – it licenses out its designs to other manufacturers) the processors that go into 98% of smartphones?
Or Autonomy, the software company that became one of the UK tech scene’s darlings before it was sold to HP in 2011 for more than $10bn (£7bn) – then suddenly erupted in flames when it turned out it may or may not have ‘misreported’ its profits?
Or Cambridge Instruments, which, er, is based in Cambridge and makes instruments (of the technical variety, natch)?
All three can be counted among Cambridge’s billion-dollar tech companies, helping to establish the city as the place aspiring geeks want to be. Now Microsoft Research operates its European Research Lab there, while in 2013 AstraZeneca announced plans for a new global R&D centre and corporate HQ in the city.
A history lesson
There’s an argument Cambridge’s first entrepreneurs were the 13th century monks who started the university but the Cambridge Cluster established itself in earnest back in 1960, when Cambridge Consultants was started to ‘put the brains of Cambridge University at the disposal of industry’.
In 1970, Trinity College built the Cambridge Science Park. These days, 1,500 technology-based firms with combined revenues of more than £13bn employ 57,000 people in the area. Silicon Roundabout? Pah. If you’re serious about your startup, the Cambridge Cluster – Silicon Fen, if you will – is infinitely more interesting.
Actually, Cambridge is often compared with London’s Tech City – but the two are more complementary than competitive. Although Cambridge has a thriving startup culture, its bread and butter is ‘hard science’. Because of the university’s strength in engineering, the area has more inventions per square mile than Silicon Valley could ever dream about. Many of the people behind these innovations cut their teeth in Cambridge then transfer their skills to the capital.
If you’re looking for a hotbed of entrepreneurial ambition, head to the ideaSpace co-working space. There are two in the city: one in the middle of town and one not far from Girton College in the west of the city. The sleek, glass-and-steel building that houses ideaSpace West is about as far removed from the historic architecture of Cambridge’s ancient colleges as it’s possible to be.
Launched in 2010, the space is run by the university and accepts anyone who can ‘show your business model has… potential and that you have the determination to make it happen’. It offers some of the lowest rents of any co-working space in Cambridge – so there’s stiff competition among entrepreneurs.
Just round the corner is the ARM-sponsored Makespace, a ‘shared engineering workshop’ whose members pay £40 a month for 24-hour access to equipment including a 3D printer, laser cutter and even a glass-working kiln. For all those glass-work innovations…
What makes Cambridge so special? The university is, obviously, at the centre of things, acting as both an incubator and a springboard for startups. But students and locals talk about a special ‘collaborative culture’ that spans disciplines, which you don’t get elsewhere. MBA types from the Judge Business School get together with students in the engineering and computing faculties to create some of the most exciting startups in the UK.
As well as professors, the university’s many illustrious alumni are on hand to mentor. Take Hermann Hauser, the man who founded Acorn computers (which ARM was spun out of), who did his PhD at the University, and founded Amadeus Capital Partners, which has stakes in Nujira, a Cambrdge-based firm designing devices to improve mobile phones’ battery life, and Plastic Logic, which is developing bendy screens.
It’s that special culture of collaboration – and the buzz of innovation around the city – that serves as a lesson to the likes of David Cameron. He may have ploughed few billion into a downtrodden area of London and persuaded some young entrepreneurs to shift their businesses there but it takes something very special – and several decades – to create a proper tech cluster. London may be achingly cool but Cambridge has the brains. And when it comes to innovation, that’s what matters.
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