31 October, 2018 - 15:30 By Tony Quested

Look left field in Cambridge to sight genuine tech unicorns

Recent research produced for the Government’s Digital Economy Council joyously proclaimed that Oxford and Cambridge combined had produced more fast-growing technology companies than both Paris and Berlin. 

“The two cities have produced nine unicorns (billion dollar businesses), compared to Berlin’s eight and five in Paris,” said the research. 

This was the second global report in a month that had failed to record the fact that Cambridge in fact has spawned 16 billion dollar businesses in its own right either based on technology or harnessing it – and there is a case to argue for a 17th.

The first erroneous outpouring came from a tech-based research organisation in the US. In both instances we supplied names of the Cambridge unicorns and emphasised the inaccuracies but the releases were neither withdrawn nor corrected.

So in the interests of accuracy let’s go through the Cambridge-born unicorns, A-Z, one more time. Oxford is big enough to look after itself! Abcam, Arm, Autonomy, AVEVA, Blinkx, CAT, Chiroscience, CSR, Darktrace, Domino, Improbable, Ionica, Marshall of Cambridge, Prometic, Solexa, Virata, Xaar.  

And then there is Johnson Matthey, a multibillion turnover innovator rooted in the Cambridge cluster but which started life in London; founded by Percival Norton Johnson in 1817.

The Cambridge-based research behind this definitive listing has been collated, checked and re-checked by Business Weekly, Arm & Acorn Computers co-founder Hermann Hauser and Charles Cotton, the inspiration behind the Cambridge Phenomenon book. 

So poor Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was sent into his first meeting with the Digital Economy Council with the backside hanging out of his figurative trousers.

I won’t burden you with the figures for the other major UK cities because the accuracy cannot be verified; what was manifestly obvious in the report was that world-leading academic institutions across Britain were consistently helping to create pioneering new technology companies. Cambridge and Oxford Universities are prominent among these.

The report to DEC was also correct in pointing out that while London had produced most billion dollar businesses in the UK hall of fame, increasing numbers were being created in the regions.

I will have to take the Government at its word that its research has identified that the UK leads Europe by number of potential future unicorns. The report to DEC says the UK has 54 potential tech sector unicorns compared to Germany’s 28 and France’s 27. 

‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ was a phrase popularised in the US by Mark Twain and attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Stats can be legitimately mined and used to shore up pretty much any reasonable argument but in the case of potential unicorns beware false sightings.

A couple of months ago I would have put hot money on both video games developer Frontier Developments and gene editing world leader Horizon Discovery in Cambridge bombing past the $bn valuation in 2018. Each has slipped back at various times and has more work to do.

But on a very clear day, should you happen to glance left field, you might just spot a whole herd of fledgling unicorns getting ready to prance out of the long grass into full view.

They will be Artificial Intelligence and life science innovators backed by battle-hardened global investors. I will let you know as soon as the sightings are confirmed as unicorns.


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