8 October, 2015 - 11:15 By Tony Quested

Cambridge: From cabbage patch kids to billionaires’ row

Cambridge academic Peter Hiscocks and I were chewing the fat over the evolution of the local Science & Technology cluster since 1990, the year Business Weekly was founded.

Five years previously Segal Quince Wicksteed had produced their take on the Cambridge Phenomenon. So when Trade Minister Tim Sainsbury visited Cambridge in 1990, Peter took the opportunity to tell him how Britain could leverage Cambridge’s brainpower and growing tech kudos for the good of the economy.

Sir Tim, cousin of present Cambridge University Chancellor David Sainsbury, was apparently unimpressed. Peter recalls: “He told me that Cambridge was all micro businesses and to come back with the argument that backing Cambridge would be good for Britain when we could talk about big industry setting up here – like car plants employing 20,000 people.

“But that was never what Cambridge was about. Cambridge’s cluster was built around the brainpower of the university and its strength was and remains the global reach of its Intellectual Property.”

Before the establishment of Cambridge Science Park and St John’s Innovation Park – developments that owed everything to the foresight and spending power of the respective university colleges – Cambridge was, by Peter’s own admission, “a cabbage patch.”

But by 1990 that was certainly not the case. Six months after Business Weekly launched, ARM spun out of Acorn, Tony Purnell was building a formidable business empire at Pi Research and eventually sold it to Ford, Chris Evans was building a hugely successful Cambridge biotech presence, Marshall and Johnson Matthey had already established industrial powerhouses; proprietary IP and spin-offs from Sinclair Research and Cambridge Consultants were already bringing international acclaim.

Also, unbeknown to Tim Sainsbury, we could have had a dozen Japanese industrial giants in Cambridge had the city council not been so hidebound and anti manufacturing. Hoshizaki, the ice making machine company, approached Business Weekly in the early ’90s to say that Japanese corporates that had been persuaded to set up in the new town of Telford had become disillusioned and wanted to relocate to Cambridge. Mitsubishi was prepared to act as power broker for the group. Think of a major Japanese industrial company and they were in the ‘Let’s move to Cambridge’ cartel.

Hoshizaki asked Business Weekly to approach the council but we were told: “No, I don’t think we want all that dirty stuff here.” Imagine the embarrassment of conveying that negativity back to Hoshizaki and Mitsubishi! Unsurprisingly, they looked elsewhere in the UK. Thanks to the continuing brilliance of Cambridge University IP and the growing number of excellent entrepreneurs and managers that built the cluster’s bank of corporate expertise, we can justifiably claim world-class.

There are a number of measures for such a boast but the number of billion dollar businesses the cluster has created – and attracted – in the last 25 years is not a bad startpoint. Ionica started the ball rolling. Charles Cotton, mastermind of the most recent analysis of the Cambridge Phenomenon as it has evolved, believes the cluster can justifiably lay claim to have created at least 15 $billion businesses.

He cites Abcam, ARM, Autonomy, AVEVA, Blinkx, Cambridge Antibody Technology, Chiroscience, CSR, Domino, Ionica, Marshall, Prometic, Solexa,  Virata and Xaar. I would add Johnson Matthey and GW Pharma to that list. While its postal address points to a Royston heritage, Johnson Matthey is regarded globally as a Cambridge player. GW Pharma is very much a Cambridge company and its roots and lead management can be traced to Ely.

Charles makes an excellent point in deciding birthright: “Not many people are aware of Prometic which was co-founded by Chris Lowe at the university and is now a public company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“In my definition, the gating factor is that the Cambridge cluster companies concerned have achieved the $Bn valuation, not that they have necessarily sustained that value.”

So, including Johnson Matthey and GW Pharma let’s credit the cluster – because it is much wider than the city alone – with creating 17 billion dollar companies. The significance of that becomes much wider because of three other important factors.

Firstly, having such a clutch of high quality businesses in one hotspot acts as a catalyst to inspire more of the same. Ambition alone won’t get the new Cambridge breed to the milestone but it will help.

Secondly, the kudos generated by these businesses on a world stage has attracted multi-billion dollar enterprises to establish European HQs here. This is not a definitive list by any means but think IBM, Microsoft, AstraZeneca, Apple, Intel, Amazon, Amgen, Broadcom, Illumina, Qualcomm, Huawei, Takeda, Gilead, Dr.Reddy’s, BioMed Realty, Oracle, Wasabi, Liberty Property Trust, Heraeus, Hexcel. Local speculation is that Google might soon join the throng.

Thirdly, the talent these businesses attract and the collaborations or acquisitions engendered by their presence on the doorstep adds further to the muscle of the cluster.

Peter Hiscocks, who started this mini-debate, believes that a lot of Tech City’s perceived excellence is “fluff over substance. I have always regarded London as being South Cambridge, anyway,” he adds with tongue firmly in cheek.

“But one thing certain areas of London have that Cambridge could do with more of is raw energy,” he says. “One thinks not just of Shoreditch and Silicon Roundabout but also Soho, Borough Market and other places that have this tremendous youth and energy.

“Cambridge needs to get back to that same level. We see it through the Accelerate Cambridge programme, at ideaSpace and one or two other places but not right across the cluster.

“It’s the kind of energy Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry generated at the early Acorn and which existed within Sinclair Research. Cambridge has matured in so many ways so to capture some of the London Cluster youth and energy would give us even more capability to sustain the momentum.”

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