Sunday 22 October 2017

Decoding the Cambridge Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Cambridge is a fascinating place and on many measures one of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. The latest innovation in numbers provides some useful facts and figures about both the University and the wider Cambridge cluster. Over 60,000 people are employed in the Cambridge cluster, which consists of over 4,700 knowledge intensive firms that between them generate over £12 billion in total turnover. The innovation that underpins the cluster is impressive - with 341 successful patents published per 100,000 residents (that's more than the next four cities in the UK combined). The University employs over 11,000 people and educates around 19,000 students. The five year survival rate of firms that are supported by Cambridge Enterprise (the University's technology transfer company) is 64.6% - the national average is 41.4%.

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations I am in the privileged position of gaining a good overview of how this enterprise ecosystem works. When I took up this new post six months ago, I was aware of comments that the enterprise ecosystem in Cambridge is complex, fragmented and difficult to navigate. The last six months has made me question these comments and I would argue that there is a logic and coherence to the enterprise ecosystem in Cambridge that is easy to explain and understand. What makes the enterprise ecosystem work is that this structure exists, yet constantly evolves. Let me explain.

If you want a good overview of the range of enterprise related activities in Cambridge have a look at the University Enterprise Network website. This site lists around 40 activities designed to support enterprise at Cambridge. These activities fall into five broad categories (shown in figure 1). The foundation is great people doing great projects. People at all levels in the University are carrying out world leading research. Students, post-docs, researchers and faculty are all involved in research projects designed to push back the boundaries of knowledge. When these projects produce new ideas and insights we have organisations like Cambridge Enterprise, designed to help staff and students commercialise their expertise and ideas for the benefit of the global community. Cambridge Enterprise will support staff and students as they seek to identify how best to convert their ideas to reality. They will provide IP protection when appropriate, help individuals undertake consultancy for external organisations, protect and licence technologies and invest seed funds in their new companies. As the firm grows and needs additional finance they can approach Cambridge Innovation Capital, which can provide series A and series B funding. If neither Cambridge Enterprise or Cambridge innovation Capital proves to be the right route, others such as the Cambridge Angels, Amadeus Capital Partners, Cambridge Capital Group, IQ Capital or the IP Group, can all provide support. Together these organisations constitute the "finance and IP" pillar. 

Organisations don't just need capital they also need space to grow, so the second pillar is "physical space".  Again there are multiple aspects to this. When you are first thinking of your business model you could sit in your kitchen and develop your ideas or you could take a desk in IdeaSpace. We have three IdeaSpaces across the University - each provides space for a community of entrepreneurs who can assist each other as they develop their ideas and business models. Again, if the organisation is successful and starts to grow - there are follow-on spaces around the city. St John's innovation Centre or the Bradfield Centre provide modular office space, that firms can use as they grow. The Babraham Research Campus provides space for bio-medical firms - currently there are 60 firms on the Babarahm site, with a waiting list of 40. If the organisation continues to grow they might move to the Cambridge Science Park and take office space there. In addition to office space, of course, there are other forms of space that matter. Makespace provide a community workshop where people can create  prototypes. The local consultants, especially the technology consultants, provide prototyping and design support. Cambridge Consultants and The Technology Partnership have both played a crucial role in the ecosystem.

The third pillar concerns skills and capability development. Departments and groups across the University run programmes and initiatives to support entrepreneurs develop their organisations and their personal capabilities. Lectures and networking is provided by Enterprise Tuesday, a scheme run by the Judge Business School which also runs Accelerate, a start-up accelerator programe and Ignite, an intensive one-week training programme for aspiring entrepreneurs and corporate innovators to trial and prepare business ideas for the commercial environment. The Maxwell Centre runs Impulse, a programme designed to help entrepreneurs translate their ideas into reality. Increasingly groups are seeking to run scale-up programmes, supporting innovative businesses as they seek to grow. The Judge Business School runs a scale-up programme in collaboration with Barclays, while Cambridge Network runs a school for scale-ups for local industry. As with the space pillar there are multiple other programmes across the ecosystem that I could include.

The final element is Connected Cambridge - the fact that multiple networks exist across Cambridge designed to bring people together. If you are interested in the Internet of Things then you would look to Cambridge Wireless. If you want to connect with local businesses you would turn to the Cambridge Network. If you wanted to support the successful long term growth of Cambridge, you would join Cambridge Ahead. Within the University there are multiple student societies and associations - including CUE - Cambridge University Entrepreneurs, CUTEC - Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and EPOC - Entrepreneurial Post-Docs of Cambridge. The point is that these and other networks and initiatives all help bring the community together and support people as they seek to make the right connections. In Cambridge it is relatively easy to reach others - entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and academics - because of the interconnected nature of the city and the institutions it houses.

Figure 1: Overview of the Enterprise Ecosystem

The list I have provided is not meant to be exhaustive, simply illustrative. But the first point is that the enterprise ecosystem works in Cambridge because it covers all of the elements shown in figure 1. However, there is more to the enterprise ecosystem in Cambridge than simply coverage of these five elements. The second point is that people within the ecosystem constantly innovate to improve the ecosystem. Whenever somebody spots a gap - or a perceived gap - they try to fill it. We have a Makespace in Cambridge - a community workshop where people can make and repair things. Entrepreneurs use this to create prototypes for new products. Recently we launched a Biomakespace - in recognition of the need for bio-prototyping facility. The Judge Business School runs a Social Venture Incubator, designed to help people grow social ventures and partners with Cambridge Enterprise to support social ventures through a seed fund. Each of these new initiatives was launched to fill a perceived gap in the enterprise ecosystem, but by filling this gap the ecosystem becomes stronger. Indeed this constant innovation in the ecosystem means that we are forever trying to make the enterprise ecosystem in Cambridge better. We are constantly experimenting with ways of enhancing the ways in which we work.

The third point - beyond coherence and experimentation - is that now the level of enterprise activity in Cambridge has become self-propagating. The fact that so many people are involved in enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation encourages others to participate. In turn this makes Cambridge "a safe place to fail" - a phrase coined by one of our local entrepreneurs, Andy Richards. The level of activity means that even if your first venture fails, there will always be something else for you to go and try, so in essence the enterprise ecosystem provides a safety net for those who chose to get involved in it. All of these factors together are what makes Cambridge such an interesting and welcoming place for enterprise.

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