Saturday, May 21, 2016

Evolving support for entrepreneurship at the University of Cambridge

(The full version of this article appeared in the Cambridge Business Magazine (June 2016).

Image: Chris Williamson / CUE Finale 2016

Back in 1999, a group of us organised a panel discussion on finance for start-ups, targeted at students and researchers in the University of Cambridge. We invited excellent speakers from the business community, promoted the event widely, ordered plenty of drinks, and arrived at the venue looking forward to an informative, interactive and lively discussion.  To our dismay, we had more people on the panel than there were in the audience. 
Scroll forward 17 years and the situation is somewhat different. There are now over 30 initiatives supporting entrepreneurship across the University, each of which contributes to making Cambridge one of the most entrepreneurial universities in the world. The outputs of this activity range from the formation of billion dollar corporations to social ventures that aim to transform the lives of millions.
So how did we get from entrepreneurship being an almost invisible, sometimes frowned-upon activity within the University to something that is widely encouraged, celebrated and supported?  It’s hard to tell that story without also describing the wider ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’, but that is something that has been much better done elsewhere (not least through the books and reports of the same name – see Just focusing on activities within the University, the story can be told through three broad phases:


2000 launch of CU Entrepreneurs (Image: Tim Minshall)
In the late 1990s, the UK government got very excited about how US universities such as Stanford and MIT were acting as the catalyst for the creation of hundreds of new ventures (creating thousands of jobs) either based upon university-generated idea and/or founded by university alumni and staff. To help stimulate similar activities in the UK, a series of competitions were held to award funding to universities to set up their own programmes to support entrepreneurship. Cambridge successfully bid for some of this funding, and used the money to establish the Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre and the University Challenge fund to complement the activities of its long-standing Wolfson Industrial Liaison Office.  The Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre focused on developing entrepreneurial skills, particular for scientists and engineers, while the Challenge Fund provided seed funding for new ventures. A student-led Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) society was also formed to run a series of business plan competitions.  Somewhat out of the blue, this period also saw Cambridge receive substantial funding to set up a major collaboration with MIT (the Cambridge-MIT Institute), part of which was focused on entrepreneurship programmes.   All of these initiatives provided different routes by which students, staff and researchers could be inspired, learn skills, and get support for developing their ideas. There was huge support from the local business community through sponsorship of events and prizes, and provision of competition judges, business mentors and expert speakers.


Cambridge Enterprise website c.2004
After the pioneering activities of the early 2000s, by the middle of the decade things started to get more organised and embedded. Cambridge Enterprise was formed to act as a focus for start-up support activities (particularly advice and investment) and the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning was launched to draw together and expand the range of practically-focused entrepreneurship training programmes. This period also saw an increase in entrepreneurship and innovation as a part of core curricula for a range of undergraduate and graduate programmes to complement the existing largely extracurricular activities. Thankfully consolidation of these core activities did not lead to ossification: new initiatives (particularly those driven by students) continued to spring up, and this was actively encouraged. 


Today, entrepreneurship is an integral part of the education, research and engagement activities of the University.  Cambridge Enterprise is one of the UK’s most successful university-based IP commercialisation organisations, with a substantial and successful range of investment funds to support its activities. The development of entrepreneurship skills now sits with a range of organisations, key among these being the Cambridge Judge Business School EntrepreneurshipCentre. The stimulation of interest in entrepreneurship is fuelled by numerous business plan competitions. Not only are there the large-scale and long-standing activities CU Entrepreneurs, but there are also now several college-based competitions and a recently launched competition targeted at post-doctoral researchers. The early-stage development of new ventures is supported by organisations including ideaSpace and Accelerate Cambridge.

Reflecting on what has enabled the development of these entrepreneurship support activities within the University, some key characteristic can be observed:
  • ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom’: Perhaps as a result of the federal nature of the University, there have been no (successful) attempts to centrally control the development and delivery of entrepreneurship support activities. While this has for sure resulted in some redundancy and overlapping of activities, the positive impact of having a demand driven, entrepreneurial attitude to entrepreneurship support has been huge.
  • Things could always be better: At no point in the development of all the initiatives described above has there been any sense of complacency. Though frustrating at times, there is a constant and pressing demand to innovate and improve in response to the ever-changing context. 
  • Blurring of ‘Town and Gown’:  A very commonly used and heard phrase in Cambridge is: “Hmm, not sure, but I’ll put you in touch with someone who can probably help”. This is exemplified in the substantial two-way flow of expertise, resources and people between the entrepreneurship programmes within the University and local business community.
  • Altrusim: No names of individuals have been mentioned in this article (partly because it is too easy to cause unintentional offence by not mentioning someone who played a pivotal role), but more importantly because those who have been involved in developing entrepreneurship activities in Cambridge seem to typify what Harry S. Truman said: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit’.  This attitude, coupled with a common sense of purpose to ‘make things better’, seems to be what continues to drive the growth of entrepreneurship at Cambridge.

If you have a moment, take a look at the website of the University Enterprise Network. This will give you a flavour of the range and diversity of activities now available to help students, researchers and staff Cambridge ensure that the ideas being generated at the University are used to improve lives across the world.