Monday, September 14, 2009

Convergence? Edges coming together in Cambridge......

Viewpoint from Juliette Morgan, Cluster Development Consultant

At dinner the other night, I was struck by a comment from an über-connected Cambridgian.....who posed the question: 'Why is it that all the people at the Enterprise Tuesday lecture are not the same people at the sustainability lectures? Are the innovators not interested in the future of the planet?'. Now those are pretty good questions, but even more so when you consider that there are whole communities of ‘creatives’ in this city who also are not attending either of those forums. The dinner conversation moved on to talk about silos, distributed conversations, etc.

Yet it's pretty flippin' interesting then when a University of Cambridge professor (Nicola Clayton) has been working with the Rambert Ballet company to inspire a ballet based on the work of Charles Darwin. More so, when ballet companies are entitling their work as E=MC2. The creatives are looking to science for inspiration, but are the technologists/sciences looking to the creatives?

If innovation happens at the edges or overlaps, then surely we should be acting to cross-pollinate creatives, with tech, with sustainability. That means as individuals we have to step out of our own silos and attend things for the good of ourselves and the good of the city. Take Paul Smith's Cam Creative's group - how interesting to cross pollinate them with i-teams or CUE, or better still Cam Tech Demo night (probably the coolest event in town these days, which it took an outsider to start!). Apple does this brilliantly - excellent software coupled with excellent product design and marketing. By definition, great companies need marketing and design to be able to touch consumers by reaching them with a great products made by the technologists. So we need to get these groups together.

It was also said that creatives find picturing the future much easier than technologists. The upshot is that we need them on the team, with their fresh perspectives, ability to make us question, and ability to communicate complex ideas.

And frankly, it would just be more interesting. We're a small city, and finding these people and groups won't be hard. There doesn't need to be some big initiative - just a few people inviting arty people to tech demo nights and vice versa. How much more interesting would it be to hot-house start-ups in artists' studios to form a culture of creativity and competitiveness. After all, a huge proportion of UK economic output comes from the arts, and frankly, we need to sort the planet so if Cambridge is a microcosm of that, then we should be overlapping these groups and interests.

There are lots of publicly funded initiatives in this city to promote enterprise, but I think the model needs a shake up. Lets chuck artists, video makers, digital media guys, tech teams and eco entrepreneurs in the same space to do something together in an informal way to stimulate each other in whatever realm they are working on......this isn't new. Singapore was a small island state thirty years ago with a mission to become a world class innovation cluster. Through planning it is putting its artist quarter next to its digital media quarter, which is beside IT and Healthcare. Now I'm not suggesting that Cambridge is a small island state, but life isn't disconnected anymore, so nor should Cambridge be. We need to start overlapping at the edges, which in reality is just people going out of their way to learn more and network differently.

I'm looking forward to being invited to whoever puts on the event that has Nicholas Juett (Cambridge artist) discussing with Nokia how he uses phone technology to make his art, and teach us all to look at the world from a new perspective.

Friday, September 04, 2009

What future for young companies?

Viewpoint from Dr Anne Dobrée, Investment Business Manager, Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds

With the selling of 3i’s portfolio and much depression in the venture capital industry one has to ask how young companies are going to raise that critical seed capital. Although our portfolio companies are still successful at raising follow-on funding – we have a great x45 leverage that we like to quote as much as possible – it is the seed and pre-A round finance that is proving so difficult to find. With University Challenge Funds almost fully invested, longer and longer timescales till exit, and fewer and fewer early stage VCs it is increasingly left to angels to fill the gap. But as we know, funding a high cost, long timescale technology start-up is not always the right investment for an angel since they will have to follow significantly to avoid being crushed by preference rights in later rounds.

There’s a rainbow outside my window as I write this (seriously!) but unfortunately no pot of gold. Although the University of Cambridge is raising a donated fund to support fledgling companies, not everyone can use this approach. Unless some of the new UK Innovation Investment Fund finds its way to very early stage start-ups, life for the high technology start-up is going to be very difficult indeed.