Cambridge Spurs High-Tech Growth

By Collins, Luke | Research-Technology Management, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Cambridge Spurs High-Tech Growth


Collins, Luke, Research-Technology Management


During the dotcom boom, when technology innovation appeared to offer a solution to almost any structural economic woe, government technology strategists from as far away as Brazil, Canada, China and Singapore made a pilgrimage to the fenlands in the southeast of England. They travelled in the hope that if they could just understand the "Cambridge Phenomenon," they would be able to recreate its success in emerging technology hubs elsewhere.

It turned out that Cambridge wasn't about to hand out a recipe for recreating its Phenomenon. Being able to describe how this formerly agrarian economy, centered on a 795-year-old university, has become a hotbed of technological innovation does not mean it is easy to replicate.

High-Tech Cluster Economy

So what is the Phenomenon? Simply put, Cambridge and its surrounding area has become a high-technology cluster economy focused on computer hardware and software, scientific instruments, electronics and biotechnology. Academics, entrepreneurs, business and support services have coalesced to create an environment that encourages and enables the formation and growth of high-technology companies.

The cluster is sufficiently well-established for serial entrepreneurs to have emerged, mentoring schemes to have been formed, and enablers such as venture capital and professional services to have flocked to the region in support. Links between firms, the university and research organizations are strong and often based on personal relationships.

The impact of the Cambridge Phenomenon is evident from the statistics. According to Cambridgeshire County Council, the region's population grew by more than 20 percent in the 20 years from 1981 to 2001. By then, the region was employing 48,300 people in 1,526 high-technology companies, out of a working population of 337,510. More than half (58%) of these businesses employed ten people or less. And the focus on the city was strong, with 34 percent of the jobs based in the city and an additional 39 percent in nearby south Cambridgeshire.

Explaining the Phenomenon

One obvious reason for Cambridge's success is its university, one of the oldest and best-known in the world, with a record of producing more than 60 Nobel Prize winners. The University's reputation has encouraged undergraduates to stay on to do their research, and this, coupled with a collegiate organization, has tended to create strong personal networks.

The colleges have responded to the entrepreneurial culture by creating science parks and business incubators. In 1970, Trinity College founded Cambridge Science Park, on land it had owned since 1546, as a response to a government report the previous year calling for better links between academia and industry. The site hosts start-ups, developing companies, technology consultancies, and attendant services such as venture capital.

In 1987, St John's College built an Innovation Centre to host early-stage companies, providing business advice and help with finding funding. It has since acted as midwife to at least one billion-pound company.

Networking lies at the heart of the Cambridge Phenomenon, with the colleges, departments, innovation center, and science parks all creating pools of shared experience and personal contacts. In 1998, a group of six companies formed the Cambridge Network to formalize and strengthen this networking, which has underpinned much of the region's technology development.

The Cambridge Network has grown to 1,300 companies that use its website and meetings to make contacts, find services and promote their businesses. Between 100 and 200 of these are overseas companies with at least one person in Cambridge, according to Peter Hewkin, chief executive of the Network. He estimates that between a quarter and a third of these are U.S. companies. Another 20 to 30 overseas companies are members despite not having a local presence. …

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