From Day One of its existence in Cambridge, Microsoft Research has been supportive of the technology cluster and generous in its outreach to the wider community.Of course it has benefited immensely by being able to draw on Cambridge’s conveyor belt of brainpower and its global cachet – both key to attracting top research talent.
But there is something more enduring about the Microsoft Research Cambridge approach. While the Microsoft Corporation has had its share of criticism over perceived market monopoly, the Research element of the business is untainted by the commercial arguments.
Bill Gates went to great lengths to personally help ‘bed in’ the Cambridge research facility and contributed greatly to the culture of the enterprise. He prompted and contributed to major supplements within Business Weekly to help Microsoft Research Cambridge gain early traction at a time when the University was being less than co-operative – seemingly resentful of the talent-magnet that was Microsoft.
He ensured the culture would endure with his appointment of Roger Needham as inaugural MD – a true gentleman, the sharpest of brains and a man committed to engendering an inclusive and open culture.
So it was nice to see that Gates, despite a dizzying humanitarian schedule, remembered those roots and put his name to the foreword in a book local entrepreneur Charles Cotton is producing on the Cambridge Phenomenon next spring http://www.cambridgephenomenon.com/initiatives/book.
Ah, the Cambridge Phenomenon. Now there’s the rub.
To continue to make progress in an intensely competitive world, clusters of business or technology need to remain fluid, dynamic – and above all move forwards. Cambridge needs to do more than simply lean on its legacy – it has to leverage it and put in place a meaningful and sustainable growth platform for future generations to build on.
That platform lies in the startup world. Which is why Business Weekly has spun out the new social network for startups,CambridgeElevator.com. It brings startups from around the world together to share experiences and then hooks them up with experienced entrepreneurs who have been around the block a time or two. These entrepreneurs are working with CambridgeElevator and Business Weekly to provide increasing hands-on help for startups.
A glance at the Cambridge serial entrepreneurs - the ArchAngels as we have dubbed them – who have joined the expert panel on CambridgeElevator shows that they recognise the need to nurture the new generations of inventors and thought leaders.
For these – generally young – people, tags like the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ drawing on a commissioned report from decades ago will not hold much relevance.
The future generations are currently coming home from primary or early secondary school to play whizzy games on their itouch or tablets. Just as teaching aids and technology gadgets keep evolving so must our approach to passing on tricks of the trade to a startup community desperate to succeed against an historic backdrop of failure.
They want to pick what’s left of our brains before we shuffle off this mortal coil and sit down with the ‘ancients’ to learn by word of mouth – as youngsters have done for centuries in the wise civilisations of the American Indians, the Russians and Chinese.
But first they need us to understand their culture; their language – their terms of reference. We cannot inspire them unless we appreciate, respect and understand them. One only has to look at the new shorthand language used on Twitter and in emails to appreciate that the Oxford dictionary rarely applies.
If the Cambridge Phenomenon is to mean anything in the futuristic world into which upcoming generations will be born it has to be transmuted into a new form using new semantics – above all it must remain relevant as timelines continue to march on.
The present collective passion to start your own business rather than rely on working for others, the exciting startup culture that has gripped the globe and the opportunity to drive that spirit of entrepreneurship down to younger and younger people is the new ‘phenomenon'.
We will have to change our rigid, exam-driven curriculum in schools to accommodate lessons in enterprise; that will mean encouraging more ad hoc discussion between students and educators – as encouraged in American schools – rather than a ‘silence in class’ approach. But those are challenges we should welcome and embrace.
In 50 years time a new e-publication entitled ‘The Enduring Phenomenon of Cambridge’ will contain a foreword by A.N.Other – a genius whose identity is not yet known – and there will be a recurring theme. “Startups continue to drive Cambridge growth.”