Saturday, September 12, 2015

'Magic' matters

Last week, IfM hosted a visit to Cambridge by a group of young Japanese technology entrepreneurs who wanted to learn about the Cambridge Phenomenon. The visitors were part of a Japanese government-sponsored programme (GTEP) that aims to encourage academic researchers to think about ways of using the outputs of research to create social and economic value through entrepreneurship.  As part of the programme, they visited ideaSpace at West Cambridge to learn about the role of this important part of the Cambridge innovation ecosystem. The visitors asked the usual questions about ideaSpace entry requirements, costs and services, number of members, etc, and the ever-helpful Belinda and Jess (the office managers for ideaSpace City and West, respectively) addressed all these questions professionally and clearly. The visitors were clearly impressed by the popularity and success of ideaSpace, especially when contrasted with their observations of less successful innovation support facilities elsewhere in Europe. So someone asked 'What makes ideaSpace work?'.  The answer? Many things, but among the most important are Belinda and Jess. Every day, by listening, connecting, cajoling, guiding, and reminding – and (from time to time) partying – with the ideaSpace community members, these two ensure that ideaSpace is able to provide a really effective link in the chain of local innovation support activities.
Cambridge is full of people like Belinda and Jess who play this vital -  frequently hidden - role in adding 'the magic' that makes so many elements of the Cambridge phenomenon work.  Without them, Cambridge would not be so phenomenal.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

AlertMe and British Gas: Glass half full?

CC: Bart Cayusa

At the end of last week, British Gas (BG) announced that it was going to acquire the Cambridge 'smart home' start-up, AlertMe, for £65m ($100m).  BG had been an investor in AlertMe since 2010, and had been using the start-up's technology in its Hive offering, but this acquisition now "sets up British Gas to become a much broader player in the burgeoning smart home space".
Putting this in the context of what this means for Cambridge, the debate is likely to split along two lines of argument: 'Oh no, not again' and 'This is great!'
The 'Oh no, not again' camp will talk about what a shame it is that another Cambridge start-up has been unable to remain independent and has had to be acquired (adding to the long list of sales that include Neul (to Huawei), TTPCom (to Motorola), CSR (to Qualcomm), CAT (to AstraZeneca), Autonomy (to HP), and many more). They will ask why so few of the Cambridge start-ups can be as successful at scaling as ARM, AbCam or Domino

On the other the 'This is great!' commentators will talk about how this deal will allow AlertMe's technology to be scaled using the vast resources of BG and its parent Centrica. It also sends another strong signal that Cambridge as a whole is great incubator for the commercialisation of technologies that can have major impact. This will support on going investment from funds and large companies seeking to help create and capture value from the 'open innovation ecosystem' that this region has become. 

But some might also refer to a report on the growth strategy for Massachusetts which famously stated that: “[..] we run the risk of turning into Cambridge, England: we’ll have isolated clusters of the very best university research and a number of small R&D firms but not the downstream production, service and support jobs that make a vibrant economy. We’ll create all the new ideas – but others will get too much of the benefit”.   But is that really true?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

AstraZeneca coming to Cambridge: A sign of the times?

Earlier this week, planning permission was granted for AstraZeneca's new Global R&D Centre and Corporate Headquarters at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.  The initial announcement of this plan in 2013 attracted great interest and excitement as it represented a major coup for the region. This seemed to show that Cambridge can not only build £bn companies on the back of its strengths in science and technology, but it can also attract significant direct corporate investment.
Several major corporations have had R&D facilities in Cambridge for many years (Philips, Rolls-Royce, Microsoft, Nokia, to name a few) but the scale of the AstraZeneca facility - £330m investment, 2,000 employees - dwarfs many of the earlier investments by large organisations.
The site of the planned AstraZeneca facility at the
Cambridge Biomedical Campus

AstraZeneca states that it believes Cambridge will provide them with "[..] invaluable access to world-leading scientific expertise and provides excellent opportunities for collaboration with renowned academic research institutions, pre-eminent hospitals and cutting-edge biotech companies". This reflects a widespread trend towards more open models of innovation that draw upon the strengths of specific regional clusters. It also reflects a response to specific challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry, where massively increasing R&D spend has not been leading to 'blockbuster' successes in the market. Establishing R&D activities within a thriving regional innovation clusters is one way for firms to form and manage partnerships that allow them to share the risks (but also the rewards) of research commercialisation.

But there are some potential downsides to this move. There is something of a Catch-22 problem: people want to work and live in Cambridge because of the perceived high quality of life. But the sudden arrival of 2,000 new workers (plus dependents probably doubling that number) in a city with a population of 124,000 may start to put strains on the infrastructure (especially transport and housing), thus lowering the very quality of life that made the move attractive in the first place.

As the Cambridge Technopole continues to build upon its success with more successful start-ups and more inwards investment (most recently from Apple and Amazon), the importance of the joined-up long-term strategy for the city's development within the wider region becomes ever more important.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Attitudes to failure

Delegations to Cambridge from near- and far-flung corners of the world who are seeking to develop their innovation ecosystems often have a clear idea of what they want to investigate during their visits. They typically want to know what institutions have supported the growth of the cluster, how they have done this, and who the 'key influencers' are.  What attract less attention are the softer issues of culture and attitudes.  Key among these is the attitude to failure, neatly summed up by Andy Richards who said Cambridge is "a low risk place to do high risk things".  Recently completed research at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing sheds some more light on this issue.  Keith Cotterill, himself a serial entrepreneur and investor, recently completed his PhD comparing attitudes to failure in three successful innovation clusters:  Silicon Valley, Munich and Cambridge.   A summary of his research can be accessed here.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cambridge from the outside looking in: weird and wired

The Institute for Manufacturing recently hosted a visit by group of managers from major German corporations. Their programme included talks from academics, business networking organisations, business incubators, innovation-related student societies, investors, and visits to a wide variety of local firms.  I thought that viewpoints captured during the final day of their two-week visit were worth sharing as they reveal interesting trends in the cluster from the external perspectives of large, technology intensive multinational corporations. 

People: While the stories of serial entrepreneurs such as Hermann Hauser and David Cleevely were impressive, and the high energy activities of the students were inspiring, the visitors were particularly interested in the 'second-timers'. These were the highly technically competent engineers in the 30-40ish age range who had set up one company and were now on their second. There was remarkable commonality with many of their stories. The first venture had typically been very 'technology-push', requiring large amounts of funding for product development (based on some terribly clever but often low readiness level technology).  By the time potential customers had been persuaded to recognise the value of the product, the funding had been exhausted. The second venture was much more market-pull, with close involvement of potential customers from the outset.  Engagement of users in the early concept development, the recognition that the technology only needed to be 'good enough', and that the business model was key were all features of these second ventures.
Business models:  The visitors had anticipated hearing the typical generic VC-backed start-up story repeated throughout the visits.  What they actually saw were companies that mostly had no VC backing. Some had Angel funding, but most had started with a combination of grants, personal funds (in some cases the gains realised from successful previous ventures), and revenues from customers. They were mostly targeting a niche where the entrepreneurs' specific knowledge and resources could be targeted.  Many had followed the path described by Eric Ries of getting the minimum viable product in the hands of customers and then adapting in response to feedback from these initial users. Extensive planning, plotting of scenarios and Excel wizardry had been replaced by customer engagement, rapid prototyping, and flexible scale-up.

Cambridge is weird and wired:  There was a level of on-going befuddlement throughout the visit. Our attempts to illustrate the complexity of Cambridge may have resulted in more confusion than clarity: Who was in charge of Cambridge? What is the plan for Cambridge? Why are their so many networks? What is the role of the local government?  But one message did stick clearly: Cambridge is an extremely networked community - and it is that connectedness that provides the fertile ground from which successful ventures can start.  In so many presentations, multiple connections could be clearly seen. That student winner of the business plan competition was also actively engaged in this networking group, and had received funding from that business angel, who was also mentoring this new venture, which was connected to .. etc.  But what could have looked like quite an incestuous community was also shown to be open to outsiders, as reflected in the number of start-ups whose founders had come from outside the region.

Cambridge continues to be held up as an exemplar of an innovative cluster (or 'innovation ecosystem' as seems to be the new label of choice) but the complexity of its activities can be hard to explain to those outside - and for that matter to many inside  - the community.  Cambridge can provide lessons that could be helpful to others, but those lessons are not simple to extract.  If Cambridge wants to continue attract the resources of external organisations, more efforts need to be made to communicate what Cambridge is, what it does, and how those from outside can work with this networked and highly innovative community for mutual benefit.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

TEDxGranta 2012 - Inspirational

The 2012 TEDxGranta event was a joy to attend.  The event, one of many independent events organised around the world as part of the wonderful TED network*, managed to delight, inspire, amuse and cause jaws to drop. I was lucky enough to be one of the speakers at this event (wearing my 'We need more children to be interested in engineering!' hat; and if you want to know more  - with apologies for the shameless plug - come along to my talk at the Cambridge Science Festival on 24 March).  
David Constantine
Co-founder of Motivation
(Photo: vandym2002)

The topics of this year's TEDxGranta talks spanned music, homelessness, animation, Kung-Fu, linguistics, preserving culinary history, computer literacy, and design. (Reviews of all the talks can be found on Doug Shaw's blog, and videos of all of them will soon be available on YouTube).

This event illustrated the best of what Cambridge can do; it drew upon both the strength of the wonderfully rich Cambridge creative and innovative ecosystem, and its wider national and international network connections.  The TEDxGranta team did a superb job in bringing everything together; the venue (The Junction J2) was very appropriate; and the content wonderfully diverse and well-orchestrated.
Merlin Crossingham of
Aardman Animation
(Photo: vandym2002)
But attending this event reminded me of the dangers of getting stuck in a rut.  In common with many others in Cambridge, I am a regular attendee at the numerous high quality technology entrepreneurship related events that run every week across this city.  These events are a key ingredient in the success of the Cambridge high tech cluster, and are great at building our communal understanding and ability to accelerate science and technology to market to address new opportunities. But the majority of such events are, intentionally, deeply business and/or technology focused.  What events like TEDxGranta do so well  - and in fact what all TED events aim to do - is to bring together the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, to paint a bigger picture, using a much richer palette. Attending TEDxGranta was a day very well spent, and I suspect that the impact on me will last a lot longer than most other events I have attended in recent months. 

*If you don't know about TED, click here to access a staggering range inspirational videos.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cambridge Cleantech: An idea whose time has come?

Last Friday saw the launch of 'Cambridge Cleantech' at the great new lecture hall at the redeveloped Cambridge campus of Anglia Ruskin University.  The turnout was impressive: 300+ attendees at 07:30 in the morning is quite an achievement for any event.  The success of this launch event  - bringing together investors, entrepreneurs and academics - did seem to point to the notion that a network dedicated to clean tech in the Greater Cambridge (broadly defined) could be bang on the money. But why has this only happened now?
There have been numerous 'green' related local and regional initiatives in the past but none has really managed to bring together the diverse geographic and sectoral interests to act as a voice for the wide range of cleantech organisations in the same way that OneNucleus has done for the life sciences and Cambridge Wireless has done for those commercialising wireless technologies.
This diversity of needs and interests may be one reason for the lack of a single voice for cleantech to date, coupled with the fact that there are so many other business networks into which cleantech, and cleantech-related companies have been able to fit.
Some prior attempts at bringing together 'green' companies have been more publicly-funded push activities, with limited private sector, business-driven pull, and hence lacked market traction.
There has also been the dilemma of the 'C-word'.  While 'Cambridge' is a superb national and international brand, using it (even in its broader 'Greater Cambridge' version) to represent a region that stretches from Bedford to Ipswich, and King's Lynn to Harlow has, for some, stretched both the brand and the patience of those far from Cambridge.
Then there are also changes in the cleantech sector itself (which is not really a sector but rather a collection of technologies applied to deliver some specific benefit but minimise impact on the environment).  This multi-faceted sector is increasing in maturity in terms of consumer uptake, investment readiness, and refinement of available business offerings. But there is still a long way to go in getting the best solutions to market to address the sustainability opportunities presented by the huge range of needs of individual and business consumers.
And this is why a network  - leveraging the power of the Cambridge brand for regional benefit - that represents and lobbies on behalf of this diverse range of organisations, facilitates value-adding connections between these firms, and supports the development of its members is so timely and important.