Location, location: the secret Cambridge success story

The influence of Cambridge as a powerhouse for innovation has been underestimated, according to the new book The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact, launched at the University of Cambridge.


The Cambridge Phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain.

For the first time, this book sets out the positive influence that Cambridge science and technology have on people’s lives and the contribution they are making to the UK economy.  Cambridge innovations are used around the world – and above it – every day.

Co-authors Charles Cotton and Kate Kirk, highlight that the cluster is entering a new phase of high growth. Technology companies in the cluster have not only contributed value and employment above the national average but also attracted inward investment as multinationals choose to operate in the city rather than move jobs and research overseas.

Technologies invented in Cambridge in the past have made major contributions to the development of entire industry sectors such as computing and biotechnology. The big change now is that these breakthrough innovations are being turned into businesses that stay and grow in the cluster.

Cotton attributes this to the growing maturity of the cluster and access to new sources of short, medium and longer-term finance: “The ecosystem encourages entrepreneurs to develop viable companies that are able to translate world leading science and technology into sustainable businesses.  The stock of companies continues to increase year on year.

The latest employment figures for Cambridge, a city with a population of 123,000, show that over 58,000 people are employed by 4,369 knowledge intensive companies in the cluster. A third of these businesses have been established in the last four years and evidence suggests they could have an 80% survival rate.

However the authors argue that these figures underestimate the level of economic activity as they do not include the increasing presence of multinationals like Amazon, AstraZeneca, Google, Hexcel, Illumina, Microsoft and Qualcomm. These firms have been attracted to Cambridge by the breadth and depth of innovation, the talent pool and the opportunities for interaction between different disciplines that can spark new ideas.

Kirk comments: “The Cambridge Phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain.  Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

For example: Cambridge entrepreneur William Tunstall-Pedoe launched the voice recognition personal assistant Evi in 2012, based on his highly successful True Knowledge technology, an intelligent search engine.

Evi achieved significant interest from multinationals and Amazon subsequently acquired the company. The multinational has created a European R&D Laboratory in Cambridge and as Product Manager, Tunstall-Pedoe played a leading role in the development and launch of the new Amazon Echo and the Alexa software that powers it. He says: “Evi is a good example of a Cambridge start-up that has attracted millions of dollars of inward investment, providing a good return for investors and creating many high value jobs in the cluster.

“Amazon’s investment in the technology has helped to secure the city’s position at the forefront of voice controlled computing.”

AstraZeneca’s acquisition of MedImmune became the impetus for its move to Cambridge. In the book, Pascal Soriot, CEO of Astrazeneca, states that. ‘AstraZeneca’s decision to make Cambridge the location of our global headquarters and the beating heart of our research and development reflects the importance we place on scientific excellence and the unique position of this amazing city as a hotbed of biopharmaceutical innovation.’

The authors believe that the economic contribution of Cambridge to the UK has not been recognised by many commentators. Cotton says: “A criticism made in the past about Cambridge companies is that they lack the mind-set and culture needed to scale-up. However, we are seeing Cambridge companies with the ambition and drive to address this and being successful in attracting senior management talent – particularly from the US and Canada – with the experience and contacts needed to complement the skills of the innovator and take these companies to global markets.

In the final chapter of the book (‘Transforming the Future’), high value sectors such as digital health care, genomics medicine, the Internet-of-People and the graphene value chain are identified as areas where Cambridge is world leading and already has a strong pipeline of companies coming up.

Kirk also believes that the growth of the Cambridge technology cluster has a multiplier effect for the local economy. She says: “Looking at the cranes on the skyline it is immediately evident that the expanding knowledge-intensive sector is creating growth for other sectors. We are also seeing the growth of consumer brands such as the Cambridge Satchel Company and Hotel Chocolat, which are broadening the attraction of the region and creating high street profile.”

Cambridge Network CEO Claire Ruskin has been on the Advisory Panel for the book and says it is has been a great experience to sit and piece together so many different aspects of the Cambridge story.  “We individually think we know a lot about Cambridge, but right until the last moment before publication we were finding new stories that merited a place in the book.  Cambridge invents and scales so freely, across so many different sectors, that we could have kept writing.  The publishers had to draw the line in order to ship the books in time for the launch.

"We have Cambridge Network branded copies of the book in our office for sale to members and for us to use as we welcome business visitors and investors to Cambridge – let us know if you would like a copy."

‘The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact’ is launched today  (1st June 2016).


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