Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Cambridge: 10 years on .. but how much further forward?

The Cambridge Phenomenon conference provided an opportunity to reflect upon the development of Cambridge over the past 50 years, but two smaller events triggered an interesting question relating to more recent history. The first event was a college dinner hosted for a visitor from mainland Europe. At the end of the dinner, discussion turned to the European approach and attitudes to entrepreneurship. The views expressed by those present were varied but included:
  • On European entrepreneurs: "We lack the relentless, obsessive focus on building high growth, market leading businesses. We just don't have the ambition and we don't work hard enough."
  • On competition from China: "While growth and scale of activities in China is immensely impressive, this has been largely focused on developing production and, more recently, R&D capability. Europe needs to recognise that it has the capabilities that allow us to compete on a different basis."
  • On the Cambridge cluster: "We may have many of the features of a Silicon Valley-type innovation ecosystem, but we are still not completely 'getting it'."
These views (which do not reflect my own) are very similar to those being expressed back at the end of the last millenium when there was increasing interest in supporting entrepreneurship as a means of driving economic growth. If these issues matter, and given we've had 10 years of significant efforts focused on promoting entrepreneurship, are we any closer to addressing them?

The second event was a meeting of some organisations that have been involved in supporting high-tech businesses in Cambridge over the last 10 years. I compared the minutes of that meeting with those of a meeting of the same group of 10 years ago. Again, most of the issues and concerns discussed were the same as they had been a decade earlier.

A question prompted by these two events is: What has really been achieved in the past 10 years?

Clearly, much has been achieved. The volume of activities focused upon supporting entrepreneurship and innovation is measurably higher (e.g. mentoring, angel investment - both quality and quantity, education, events, incubation, etc), and some of the economic outcomes are very impressive (e.g. number of US$bn-valued firms, number of firms dominating their chosen markets, jobs created, student interest in entrepreneurship, volume of license income generated from IP, etc). But, in these resource-constrained times, now might be a good time to reflect on the balance between what we are doing and what we are achieving so that in ten years from now we are not forced to point to the same concerns again and say 'We really must do something about that'.