Cambridge technology cluster thriving thanks to university dynamism
It was once considered sage to observe that ‘All Roads lead to Rome’ – indicating that all paths or activities lead to the centre of things regardless of the startpoint.
In the case of the Cambridge technology cluster and its evolution, all roads lead back to the university.
If that appears to be stating the obvious, the routes by which technology businesses have emerged from the university and the manner in which they have negotiated the road to commercialisation are many, varied and have often been complex.
It is also important to remember that Cambridge University brainpower dates back over eight centuries and its inventions and knowhow were impacting on the way people live and work long before there were identifiable – let alone sophisticated – business networks or communities.
While the Cambridge hi-tech sector began to form an identity in the late 1960s, Maurice Wilkes, Alan Turing and others had laid the foundations for computer science discovery and evolution much earlier.
Just as Cambridge Wireless, now among a world elite of networks, is in its relative youth although Pye in Cambridge was using wireless innovation to help British troops in World War II. By the same token, the Cambridge biotech cluster only became recognisable after Genentech blazed the trail 30 years ago – prompting Sir Chris Evans, Alan Goodman and Andy Richards to produce a string of cutting edge Life Sciences businesses in their wake.But the fact is MRC and Cambridge University scientists had been racking up the Nobel Prizes for decades and pushing inexorably at the frontiers of medical science. Crick & Watson had co-discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 – building on the work of many others in previous years.
Shai Vyakarnam and Yupar Mint at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School have been working on a series of family trees showing the roots of various technology sectors and social networks. They remain works in progress and there are bound to be oversights or omissions – but they represent the first credible attempt at establishing genealogy for businesses in the Cambridge technology cluster.Some of them are reproduced in the latest edition of Business Weekly for the first time – for which Business Weekly is grateful to CfEL – and they remain strictly the copyright of the authors. Hopefully other organisations or individuals in the cluster will play ‘Techipedia’ and help fill in any blanks.
The importance of the exercise should not be underestimated. ‘Where we have come from’ is just as important as ‘Where we are headed.’ The former informs the latter. Using Biblical terms, if we know who begat whom in the Cambridge technology family, it helps us identify trends – the most likely fountainheads for tech businesses; longevity and sustainability; which companies secured exits and in what format. Whether acquirers were overseas players; repeat investment patterns and much more.
These charts are only illustrative but they at one stroke hold up a mirror to the past and set out a template for the future. What have been the most successful, sustainable models? What trends can we identify in the types of technologies emerging from academia.
Cambridge technology consultancies have been an important source of new enterprises – chief among them Cambridge Consultants but also TTP, Generics (Sagentia), PA, Team, Plextek and latterly 42T and Cambridge Design Partnership. But Cambridge University remains the mother ship around which all these satellite enterprises spin and sparkle.
The university has provided the facilities for the research that has led to discoveries and spun out businesses. Its academics and students have provided brainpower and impetus. Its ongoing collaborations with global companies and other centres of research have informed best practice and facilitated faster and more sustainable technology transfer.
The role of serial entrepreneurs in enhancing the cluster can barely be disputed. You will see certain names recurring throughout the family trees – and again their roots are deep within the university – chief among them Hermann Hauser, Andy Hopper, Chris Evans, Chris Lowe, Richard Friend, David Cleevely and Greg Winter. Between them they have helped create scores of multi-millionaires and gelled with investors to ensure the best Cambridge ideas are on the investment radar.
In the case of Messrs Hauser and Evans, both were prompted to march out of their comfort zones and challenge the City to fund Cambridge innovation.Both founded their own investment vehicles to provide backstops to a fickle and risk-averse VC community.
Life Sciences finds a lion in Winter
For all the billions pumped into the local biotech cluster, only one blockbuster drug has ever emerged stamped firmly with a Cambridge kitemark.The accolade belonged to Cambridge Antibody Technology – a company founded by Life Sciences serial entrepreneur Sir Greg Winter in 1989.
CAT, a former Business Weekly Business of the Year, was one of the early commercial biotech companies involved in antibody engineering. One of the most successful antibody drugs developed was HUMIRA (adalimumab), which was discovered by CAT as D2E7 and developed and marketed by Abbott Laboratories. HUMIRA, an antibody to TNF alpha, was the world’s first fully human antibody which achieved annual sales exceeding $1bn therefore achieving blockbuster status.
Cambridge Antibody Technology was subsequently acquired by AstraZeneca in 2006 for £702m and merged into MedImmune, which retains a major operation in Cambridge.
For Sir Greg, the success with CAT was a tale of mice and men. A biochemist and pioneer of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, Sir Greg invented techniques to both humanise and later fully humanise using phage display, antibodies for therapeutic uses. Before his groundbreaking work antibodies had failed to live up to their potential because they had been derived from mice.
Cambridge has now become a global focal point for antibodies research. Many companies in this field have become established at Babraham Research Campus where another of Sir Greg’s business interests is based. He climbed back into the saddle with Bicycle Therapeutics – a biotechnology company developing a platform technology that enables the creation of a new generation of biotherapeutics which combine the desirable features of small molecules and biopharmaceuticals to create highly specific and highly stable drugs.
Applying phage selection techniques to repertoires of chemically constrained cyclic peptides allows the identification and optimisation of molecules with high target specificity and binding affinity that are also stable to unfolding and to the action of proteases. These peptides could be regarded as a mini-antibodies with covalent organic cores, and as such should overcome the weaknesses of previous generations of peptide based therapeutics.
Bicycle Therapeutics is a spin-out from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, based on the pioneering work of the founding scientists Sir Greg and Dr Christian Heinis.
In 2000, Sir Greg founded Domantis to pioneer the use of domain antibodies, which use only the active portion of a full-sized antibody. Domantis was acquired by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in December 2006.
A graduate and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Greg has been named as the next Master. He remains Deputy Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Medical Research Council, and Head of the Division of Protein and Nucleic Acids Chemistry.
In 1995, he won several international awards including the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine (Molecular Immunology) and in 1999 the Cancer Research Institute William B. Coley Award.
Lowe hits the highs with unwavering flair
Named the UK’s most entrepreneurial scientist in 2006, Professor Chris Lowe remains the epitome of a generation of Cambridge ‘dontrepreneurs.’
Director of the university’s Institute of Biotechnology, Professor Lowe has always maintained a very strong interest in creating a seamless interface between academia and industry.
At the time he won the entrepreneurial award he had been responsible for spinning out eight companies employing over 200 people and estimated to be worth in excess of £500 million. The companies included Prometic Biosciences Inc, Affinity Sensors, Cambridge Sensors, Purely Proteins, Lumora Ltd, Smart Holograms, Psynova and Bright Solutions and that list now numbers 10 via fledglings Paramata and Rebha. Business Weekly understands that Professor Lowe has a few more aces up his sleeve for a new wave of commercialisations.
Prof Lowe holds a number of non-executive directorships and actively promotes the entrepreneurial ethos within the university and wider community. In Business Weekly’s publication commemorating the university’s 800th anniversary, Prof Lowe said: “The Institute is much more than a specialist research centre, since the entrepreneurial culture imbues all of its activities.
“This organisation is able to promote cutting edge science while also responding to UK government and EU aspirations for an entrepreneurial bio-economy based on knowledge-driven industries in which biotechnology will play a leading role. I believe fundamentally that universities exist for the common good of the nation and that our role is to act as over-the-horizon developers of fundamental, applied and strategic science. We should not be working for industry but with industry to capture the next generation of science and technology.
“Furthermore, and a direct consequence of this ideology, we have an obligation to train new young scientists and to protect our innovative science and exploit it for the benefit of the UK and ultimately mankind.”
Prompted to identify a few research highlights in recent times, Prof Lowe said these would include improving the thermostability and pH tolerance of firefly luciferase, the development of a number of acoustic, amperometric, microelectronic and holographic sensor technologies, contact lens sensors for diabetes management, novel purification technologies for immunotherapeutics, identification of serum biomarkers for neuropsychiatric disorders and unravelling the mechanisms of dessication resistance and of plant cell cycle control.
Computer Lab the fountainhead
From Media Dynamics in 1968 to Acorn Computer Ltd in 1979 – and to the latest shooting star, Bromium – 188 companies have been founded by Cambridge University Computer Laboratory staff and graduates to date.
The Acorn legacy has endured through the world leadership of its own spin-out, ARM, and through the Stan Boland connection via Element 14 and now Icera.
A host of other global worthies such as Virata, ANT, nCipher, Zeus, Amino, Bango, Cambridge Broadband, Datanomic, Jagex, Linguamatics, CacheLogic, DisplayLink, blinkx, Camrivox, XenSource, RealVNC and Ubisense are all in the Computer Lab’s hall of fame. And they are in elite company.
Professor Andy Hopper, who heads the Laboratory, shared the full glory of the cross-generational successes with Business Weekly. Their names have been carved with pride in a roll call at the revamped entrance of the Laboratory. Hopefully they will act as a testament in perpetuity to the enduring quality of the Laboratory’s research while inspiring future generations. Certainly when placed side by side they present a powerful testimony to the wealth and job generation capacity of the Laboratory.
The companies and year founded are as follows.1968 – Media Dynamics Ltd 1974 – Shape Data Ltd 1976 – Micro Focus 1978 – Orbis Ltd 1979 – Acorn Computer Ltd; GST Technologies Ltd1984 – Camdata 1985 – APM Ltd; First DBS Ltd; Global Software Publishing; PC Communications Ltd; Qudos Technology Ltd; SRI Cambridge1986 – Olivetti Research Ltd; Perihelion Software; Three-Space Ltd; Xi Software Ltd1987 – Equisys; Sophos Plc1988 – Cunning Running Software Ltd; NextBase Ltd; Questionmark; Software Integrators1989 – JMEC Ltd; Leading Technology Inc; Rubicon Software Group plc; Software Solutions; Yudkin Consulting AG1990 – FORE; Iridian Technologies1991 – Digital Mail; Perfect Image1992 – ANT Ltd; KBW Consulting1993 – Electronic Share Information Ltd; Jobstream Group plc; Metrica Systems Ltd; OptionExist; Virata Ltd1994 – Creature House; Evertrack Ltd; Nemesys; Patientline Plc; UK Online1995 – Active Media Solutions Ltd; ART; Cedalion Ltd; Muscat Ltd; NetChannel Ltd; SoftForum; Zeus1996 – Digitivity (APM spin-out; Ionysys Technology Corporation; IPV Ltd; Kavanagh; Mitcham Technologies; nCipher; Skygate; Spark! Data Systems; Tarragon Embedded Technology1997 – nGame; Nine Tiles Ltd; Objectronix; Operis Group plc; Simulacra; Sintefex Audio1998 – Adaptive Broadband Ltd; Amino Communications; Basis Communications; Elixir Studios; Genius 2000; Midsummer House Ltd1999 – Anondesign; Apama; Applied Generics; Bango.net; Center for Internet Studies, University of Washington; CPLANE; Curious Software Company Ltd; Envisional; Fecilite.com; Invention Marketing; MessageLabs; MobIsle Communications Ltd; ObjectSecurity Ltd; PSDT; Shopfitter; Sociality; Survey Online2000 – Cambridge Broadband Ltd; Filonet Korea Incorporated; FiloSafe Corporation - formerly Filonet Corporation; Metanate Ltd; Tenison Technology EDA Ltd; Xandera; Zoonami2001 – Blue technologies; break-step productions; Business Web Software; Datanomic Ltd; Governor Technology Limited; Grex Games Ltd; Interactive Digital Television Ltd; Ionsquare ; Jagex Ltd; Jawasoft; Lemur Consulting; Linguamatics; Linguit GmbH; Micropraxis Ltd; Paradigm Design Systems Limited2002 – Ubisense; Azuro; Bid Management Limited; CacheLogic Ltd; Cambridge Internetworking Ltd (Level 5 Networks); Cotares Ltd; eCosCentric Ltd; Fraser Research Inc; Great East London Software; Invest Solutions Limited; Masabi; Ndiyo; RealVNC Ltd; Saviso Group; Tideway; UK Broadband Ltd; Xynchron2003 – Artimi; blinkx; Blue Compass; Censeo Systems Ltd; Codian; DisplayLink; ELECtric SOFTware; Encoded Media; Netronome; Seventh String; SmartInfoSearch; Trampoline Systems; VeriQual2004 – Exbiblio; Innonation Productions; Insight Studios; Omnipotent Software; StegoStik Ltd; Sygneca2005 – Adventiq; Camrivox; Cronto; Packet Ship; PCF Ltd; Projected Games; STARFISH; Trinamo Ltd; True Knowledge; Vipadia Limited; XenSource; High Energy Magic2006 – Global Inkjet Systems; Innovation Framework Technologies; LogicIQ; Powerset2007 – AQrex; Cambridge Visual Networks; Cantab Wireless; Ept Computing; GradFutures Ltd; Hubdub; In-Silica2008 – Embecosm; Red Beacon; Spektrix Ltd; ThatsMyFace.com; TouchType; Transentia Ltd; Transport Telematics; Xsilon2009 – Ashima Arts; Acunu; FusePump; Green Custard2010 – Eluceda; Rapportive; ePlantData Inc; Eshinui Inc 2011 – Bromium