Cambridge is still healthy and growing, says Cleevely


'Despite the recent concerns of a global economic downturn, I think the “Cambridge Phenomenon” is in a pretty healthy state right now,' says David Cleevely.

David Cleevely, founder and former Chairman of telecoms consultancy Analysys (acquired by Datatec International in 2004), is a co-founder and Chairman of Abcam, a prime mover behind Cambridge Network - of which he is Chairman -  and a co-founder of Cambridge Wireless. He also holds a number of other positions on company boards. He is a member of the Ofcom Spectrum Advisory Board, the Expert Panel for the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. He puts forward his views about Cambridge and its current state in a recent interview for the Cambridge Science Park Catalyst newsletter:

You can find statistics that are coming out at the moment that suggest a plateau or a slow-down in funding for start-up companies, but it doesn’t square with what I’m actually seeing. At the moment you can find more good quality ideas than ever, more people interested in starting up companies and more companies actually getting off the ground and doing it in a way that’s better and more professional than I’ve ever seen at any point in Cambridge.

It helps that there’s a lot more expertise around to help start-ups, and some of these new companies are much better at presenting these days and pushing their ideas forward than they used to be. And there’s also a lot more money available for funding start-ups. Cambridge Angels is putting two to three million pounds a year into start-ups and that’s just one source – the companies we’re investing in probably double that from other funders.

I think that one of the key reasons why we’re in a healthy place right now and why I think we’ll continue to be so is that we’ve now built up a really strong network of expertise across a range of areas.

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1990s, Cambridge started to expand and one of the things that became obvious was that there were lots and lots of different people in Cambridge who didn’t really talk to each other. It was the driving reason behind setting up the Cambridge Network, which was founded by myself, Herman Hauser, Alec Broers, Fred Halsworth from Andersons, Anthony Ross from 3i and Nigel Brown from NW Brown.

Really it was the first large scale initiative aimed at bringing people together so they could help new ideas get off the ground and share some of the expertise that was so obviously here in the city. If you look at Cambridge now in terms of that eco-system, it’s actually working very well. There’s enough money flowing in and critically there are enough individuals who are interested in investing and giving their time, who themselves are really well networked.

That networking is really really important – I can’t overemphasise it. Because what it enables you to do is to put together very quickly and efficiently the resources you need if it’s going to be successful, or have the insight to reject it if it’s not.

So do I worry about Cambridge continuing to be a thriving place to do business? Absolutely not. But I do worry about whether we are creating the social environment and infrastructure that can support the increased number of inhabitants that a growing economy demands.

We are building more houses in the area, but people don’t just live in houses, they live in communities. If you build structures that don’t encourage those communities to form, that don’t encourage people to live properly as human beings, then I think you’re asking for disaster. You’ve only got to look at how the bold experiments of the 1960s turned into sink estates and real trouble later on.

I’m concerned about the way in which plans get approved and moved forward without getting the input from local communities which they really ought to have. We have a great deal of regulations and processes associated with planning acceptances and rejections, but we don’t have reliable ways in which proposals can be changed as a result of the involvement of the local community. Business-wise, I think we’re moving forward to an exciting future, but we need to make sure we’re really creating the infrastructure – both physical and social - that can support it.

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