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.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Phenomena in Cambridge and Kyoto, and the need for a Japanese Hermann Hauser

"We don't have a 'Kyoto Phenomenon' because we don't have a Japanese equivalent of Hermann Hauser".  I heard this statement at a recent meeting in Japan attended by a small group of academics, entrepreneurs and investors, and it triggered the following thoughts.
There are, of course, numerous outstanding entrepreneurial role models in Japan, individuals who have driven major transformations in industries and defined whole new product categories.  For example, Akio Morita of Sony (who co-founded the company and introduced the famous pre-cursor to the iPod, the Walkman), Masayoshi Son of Softbank (an outspoken multi-billionaire who built Softbank into one of the country's leading internet and mobile phone companies) and Tadashi Yanai of Uniqlo (another of Japan's richest men, who built a global clothes design and retailing empire).
Despite such notable successes as these (and others), commentators highlight the absence of a thriving startup culture - in part a result of the comparatively weak domestic VC industry -  as a key reason for Japan's 'lost decades' (the period since the early 1990s during which Japan's economy has stagnated).  But what about alternative models of recovery?  Though there are plenty of good arguments that point to embedded structural problems with Japanese companies and their strategies, there are also quite a few that point to their ability to respond to and cope with change.   Kyocera's growth from 3,000 to 60,000 employees up to and through the lost decades is an example.  The strategy of Japanese firms in India is another one. But the role of Japanese entrepreneurs in stimulating economic recovery in Japan is, as Ben Goldacre would put it, 'a bit more complicated than that', and so this topic will be the subject of a longer post later in the year.

In the meantime, to find out why Hermann Hauser (and the numerous other successful role models) have been so important to the birth and growth of the Cambridge Phenomenon - and why the absence of a local version of him in clusters elsewhere is perceived as a handicap - come along and hear his views in person at this week's Cambridge Network meeting at Robinson College at 17:30 on12th October.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Hardware, software, monozukiri, and Cambridge

Last week I went to a talk given at ITEC in Kyoto by Bob Cole from UC Berkeley on the topic of Japanese software. This triggered a number of thoughts relating to my last blog post on the topic of the role of manufacturing in innovative regions. Two key points relating to Bob Cole's talk were:
  • Japan's ICT and consumer electronics industries were built predominantly on innovative hardware solutions, supported by bespoke software. This hardware focus plays to, and helped build upon, Japanese strengths in designing and manufacturing precision goods (the term often used to describe this is monozukiri - the art of making physical things).
  • The world of ICT has moved to being much more software intensive. The recent activities of HP and IBM provide ample support for that point. Japanese companies have been losing competitiveness, and do not seem able to make the transition to a more software intensive approach (but caution is needed in terms of causality and correlation there).
During the talk, the question was asked of the Japanese technology managers in the room 'In your development activities, do you start with hardware then bring in software, or is it the other way round, or do you do both together?'. The response was ~80% for hardware first, software second. A lively discussion ensued, part of which focused on Japanese management structures where seniority rules. The older employees are more likely to be hardware specialists, and software will larger be the domain of younger - and hence more junior - engineers. As a result, hardware dominates. If this is the situation (and there are many other factors to consider before leaping too quickly to conclusions) then for Japan’s ICT firms to transform themselves, different approaches are needed. One idea put forward was for Japanese ICT firms to partner with (or buy) innovative start-ups and use these external organisations to stimulate internal change. This is possible, but research shows that getting very large, old, complex firms to partner with small, new, agile start-ups is very challenging. Also, partnering for collaboration is one thing; expecting culture change within the larger firm as a result of the partnership is a much bigger issue. 
So, what's all this got to do with Cambridge? Cambridge has developed strong local strengths in software (Autonomy, RedGate, etc.) on the back of historical strengths in hardware (Acorn, Sinclair, etc). Cambridge firms have not lost their integration with the hardware side (see ARM, CSR, etc.) and this has been built in part upon collaborations with Japanese hardware firms). Going forward, it is interesting to see how new initiatives are seeking to build on some of these long standing Japanese connections. ideaSpace is building links with a business incubator in Japan (Innovation Jungle, based at the Advanced Scientific Technology Management (ASTeM) Institute in Kyoto). It will be interesting to see how this nacent partnership can help play to the strengths of both Cambridge and Kyoto (which is, by the way, the home of Nintendo – a pretty good example of an integrated and very successful hardware and software company).