Cambridge Phenomenon: Three secrets of a 'success culture'

By Rachel Holdsworth - 08 May 2012

Cambridge ideas are still changing the world. 

The rise and impact of the Cambridge technology cluster, which directly accounts for 40,000 jobs in the region, is charted in a new book launched today.

Charles Cotton, founder and chairman of Cambridge Phenomenon Ltd, describes the cluster as a "perpetual motion engine" and believes that the generation of new ideas for businesses is core to its strength.

The Cambridge Phenomenon, describes the explosive growth since the 1960s, which has resulted in an influential and world-renowned technology cluster. There are now about 1,400 technology companies in Cambridgeshire employing more than 40,000 people.

Charles Cotton says: “Cambridge has produced 11 billion-dollar tech companies, but equally important is the diversity of smaller companies employing highly skilled individuals and the increasing number of international companies choosing to locate R&D labs here. 

"This continually evolving community is like a perpetual motion engine attracting fresh, bright people inspired to do things differently; creating not just embryonic companies but entirely new industry sectors.”

Cotton, who joined ‘Micro-men’ Clive Sinclair and Hermann Hauser shortly after the launch of the world’s first affordable home computer in the early 1980s, says that cultural change has been a vital ingredient in the cluster’s success and identifies three key factors.

“The first was a cultural shift in views about commerce, when the University of Cambridge actively encouraged academics to pursue non-academic roles. We are seeing now the success of this policy with serial entrepreneurs such as Greg Winter (Cambridge Antibody Technology), Shankar Balasubramanian (Solexa) and Andy Hopper (Acorn Computers and Virata) who are also active professors inspiring the next generation of students.

“Secondly, we needed to overcome the inherent British fear of failure. Setting up a business, particularly one based on a novel technology, is inherently risky.

"We have now developed a better understanding of the nature of failure and distinguish between external events, such as loss of funding after the bursting of the bubble, and internal factors such as poor decisions, which can be learned from, and this has increased confidence.

"Soft-starts, where technology is developed within a company before being spun-out, has also successfully de-risked technology for many investors.

“The third factor is the Cambridge Spirit - the willingness to collaborate and share knowledge. This is particularly evident in the growth of Angel investment groups where serial entrepreneurs offer experience and finance, providing a nurturing environment for young companies.”

Cotton believes that the book is a valuable resource for capturing knowledge of how a technology cluster can evolve. He also asserts that Cambridge is unique.

He adds: “Cambridge keeps evolving - 800 years of history and 88 Nobel Prize winners is obviously an advantage but in some industries it is the personal brand offered by an entrepreneur or scientist that is important. 

"Increasingly we are seeing companies staying in Cambridge after acquisition by overseas players and international companies such as Amgen, Medimmune, Microsoft, and Nokia, choosing to locate their research labs here to be close to these people.

"I see spin-in, where companies choose to locate here, as part of the contribution Cambridge technology is making to the economy. Success should not be measured simply by the size of the companies we create. Cambridge’s strength is a continually evolving ecosystem employing many thousands of people, that is inspiring new markets, new companies, new products and services and is sustainable.”

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