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15 November, 2013 - 14:31 By Tony Quested

Acorn legacy still earning billions


Fifteen years after its demise, Cambridge UK technology pioneer Acorn Computers remains the most influential business in the innovation cluster’s history, fresh analysis has revealed.

Laid to rest in 1998, Acorn is still generating billions in revenues through its spin-outs, leading the world with legacy technology innovation and making millionaires of its major ‘heirs.’

Information told to Business Weekly by technology entrepreneurs Hermann Hauser and Stan Boland shows that Acorn spinout Element14 is dominating one market segment perhaps like no other player on the planet.

“While ARM’s market cap and performance to outmuscle Intel are prodigious make it the obvious standout company in Cambridge, an argument could be made for Element14 as the main Acorn spinout. People forget how influential Element 14 was – its technology powers 90 per cent of broadband to home content in the entire world.”

Boland, former CEO at Element14 and now in a similar role with Cambridge wireless startup Neul, confirmed: “Yes Element14 was significant, its FirePath is the core of BRCM's DSL technology and does power therefore approximately 90 per cent of home broadband.

“FirePath is a well-tuned wide DSP which can also process scalar instructions. Sophie Wilson originally conceived of it as a Long ARM - 128 bits of execution width but with DSP Instruction Set suitable for multimedia.

“She christened it ALARM but we renamed it FirePath. It got repurposed and made minimal by tight engagement between her, John Redford and Simon Knowles. It also got better at DSL-type processing through ISA modification during its design.”

Boland, who was brought in fairly late in the piece to maximise core value from Acorn’s splintering empire, adds another jewel to the crown – Acorn lit the touchpaper to the current set top box explosion.

He said: “We also sold Acorn's set top box business to Pace. I’m not sure they did that much with it, but it was way ahead of its time and IP set top boxes are probably one of the hottest categories today. Add ARM’s superb performance to the Acorn case file and you get a fairer measure of how influential Acorn has been in the continuing development of the cluster.”

ARM has gone from $1.54 billion market cap in mid-January 2009 to a high of $24.16bn on October 21, 2013. It now has 2,800 employees, is influential in every continent and in a vast range of devices and outships Intel with regularity.

But there is even more ammunition in the Acorn armoury. Dr Hauser reveals that Acorn supplied technology that helped kickstart the career of a genius – Stephen Hawking.

Acorn supplied Professor Hawking with his first voice synthesiser, which was built into a BBC Micro. “That was in 1985-86 – the computer was incredibly flexible but no doubt Steve took the voice synthesiser element and adapted it.

“And, of course, the BBC Micro is credited with inspiring the arrival and sensational global success of Cambridge’s new microcomputer company, Raspberry Pi. On top of all of this, research by the university’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Judge Business School shows that more than 100 successful companies can trace their origin back to Acorn.

“Acorn, Cambridge Consultants and the University are the three main drivers of the Cambridge Phenomenon. And I would say that in terms of businesses there is no doubt that Acorn and Cambridge Consultants are the most influential in Cambridge’s history.”

Acorn, Cambridge Consultants and Business Weekly are all in a list of the 125 most influential Cambridge businesses of all time published by the Cambridge News to mark its own 125th anniversary. The full list can be accessed on the Cambridge News website .

• PICTURED: Hermann Hauser and Stan Boland

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