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23 July, 2008 - 08:08 By Tony Quested

Patrick Horsley of Cambridge Visits

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Cambridge Visits specialises in providing information to overseas visitors about Cambridge and the East Region, and also plans and hosts such visits.

 

Managing Director Patrick Horsley had been involved in the Foreign Office’s Sponsored Visits programme for many years, and became aware that there was a demand for an organisation to cater for visitors who were not invitees of the FCO, but nevertheless wanted to come to the region to find out what had contributed to its success. Cambridge Visits was set up in 2001 with the idea of filling this perceived gap in the market, and trying to offer a more coordinated approach to international visits. Since 2001 Patrick has looked after over 250 separate visits, and his company now acts as an independent agent for the Foreign Office. He talks to many groups visiting the Cambridge Science Park.  He has also worked with most of the regional government bodies, including EEI, EEDA, UKTI, and the British Council. Cambridge Visits collaborates with the University of Cambridge’s Executive Education programmes and the VC’s office. 1) Why did you decide to form Cambridge Visits? In September 2000, Walter Herriot wrote to a number of local organisations to express his and the Cambridge Network’s concerns about whether international visitors to Cambridge were being properly handled, and whether the right messages were being taken back to their countries. A brief survey was carried out, and a meeting followed in December to discuss its conclusions. It was as a direct result of the meeting that St John’s Innovation Centre formed the Cambridge Technopole, consisting of the SBS franchise holder, the Enterprise Agencies, the Chamber of Commerce, the Cambridge Network, the then Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre, and the Institute for Manufacturing. One of the problems identified was the handling of international visitors, and I set up Cambridge Visits to try to address this issue. It was felt that an organisation was needed to ensure that there were no missed opportunities for sub-regional or regional economic development or for B2B contacts. Walter was a great help and encouragement – as he has been for so many other initiatives in the area. 2) What kind of co-operation do you receive from key players locally when you arrange these visits? It is part of Cambridge’s charm that so many of the key players locally give their time to overseas visits, even when they are aware that there is no evident or direct benefit from doing so. There is a spirit of hospitality and openness about Cambridge that is refreshing and pleasing. I have only ever had one company turn a visit down flat, saying “there’s nothing in it for me.” So many people are willing to do ‘something for nothing’ in a pro bono spirit, and I believe this is one of the elements that has contributed to the success the Cambridge cluster has enjoyed. Among many other organisations that have been particularly helpful, I would pick out St John’s Innovation Centre, Library House, the Babraham Institute, the Institute of Biotechnology, and the Cambridge Science Park – all have hosted and continue to host visitors who come to learn from their models – but just as impressive is the number of companies and individuals in the region who generously give their time to visitors without expecting anything in return. It’s an attitude that makes me proud to be associated with the place. 3) What ingredients make Cambridge especially attractive to foreign businesses and Governments? Most governments are interested in how economic regeneration works and Cambridge has been recognised as one of Europe’s most successful hi-tech regions; the fact that this cluster developed from the bottom up and not the top down, seems to fascinate visitors, particularly those from Asia who are perhaps more used to central planning. That the Greater Cambridge region has had 80 per cent job growth over the last 30 years, where the UK average has been 16 per cent, and that Greater Cambridge’s GDP growth is nearly twice the national average are compelling reasons for other governments to take a close look at the causes. Certainly the Cambridge brand is a big draw, too, and people want to know about the relationship between the university and the cluster; knowledge transfer is increasingly on the agenda, and I believe that the mechanisms being developed in the university are better than most in the UK. Another reason that brings government visitors to Cambridge is the number of science parks that have developed round it;  the Cambridge Science Park in particular, because it is the oldest and largest in Britain, is an attraction. Foreign businesses are interested in a variety of elements; principally the new technologies that are being developed, not just within the university, but as a result of the region’s broad research base; they also like the postcode, the availability of a pool of specialised labour and bright graduates – for example in the biotech sector – and, of course, companies always seem to want to be located near other companies in the same industry. 4) Has the global economic downturn ended interest in this region? No. So long as the research coming out of the area remains as strong, there will always be interest in the region, both from governments and from businesses. It’s often been said – and is no less true for it – that Cambridge punches above its weight. The institution that has produced giants like Newton and Hawking, and has more Nobel prizewinners than any other university in the world, is going to help the region survive economic troughs. There are developments – the West Cambridge site, the Biomedical Campus at Addenbrooke’s, the campus at Babraham, and the continuing success of companies like Cambridge Consultants – that will help maintain the flow of good new ideas and maintain interest in the region. But we have to ensure that the university continues to attract the best overseas students, and to do that there needs to be more funding. Government continues to pay lip service to the value of higher education;  the “education education education” mantra of New Labour was not accompanied by hard cash. Cambridge’s funding base is still a fraction of its rivals in the States, and despite the ambitious and laudable target of £1bn being raised at the moment by the University Development Office, much more is needed to safeguard the future, and the current economic climate undoubtedly makes it much more difficult to raise money both from philanthropic individuals and from companies. 5) Which countries are showing most interest in Cambridge? A couple of years ago there were dozens of groups from South Korea, all wanting to learn how to develop regional clusters, and all trying to build Rome in a day. At the moment, however, much of the interest is coming from China, although there is a temporary lull due to the Olympics as much as to the terrible earthquake earlier this year. The increasing disposable income of middle-ranking and senior officials and businessmen in China, and their increasing interest in learning how Europe works, has produced large numbers of visitors recently. As well as the more obvious targets, they come for a wide variety of reasons, and I’ve organised recent visits to the police, to hospitals, water companies, local authorities, a children’s home, and to discuss sustainable development with academics. Sadly, the flow of visitors sponsored by the FCO is drying up;  savage budget cuts allied to short-termism have ensured that the Foreign Office has chosen to restrict its programme to a narrower set of objectives than previously. The generation of goodwill and good relationships for the future has been supplanted by more hard-headed goals such as reducing and countering terrorism. 6) Are any of the countries looking at this region either new or more prolific on the radar? There has been a flurry of interest from Finland; and the recent enlargement of the EU has resulted in increased attention from Eastern European countries, with a visit from the President of Latvia, for example. 7) What kind of reaction do you get from visitors – positive or negative – and what are the most positive and negative reactions you have received to date? Mostly they are enchanted by Cambridge; even in the rain, it  works its magic on them, particularly if there’s time to do a bit of sightseeing!  The openness of the people they meet creates a good impression, and the architecture is always impressive. The most positive reaction so far? Perhaps a visit organised by the British Council for Korean journalists – the Council identified 35 articles published as a result, all providing good press for the region. The most negative is much easier to select;  the Foreign Minister of a republic in the Caribbean was chauffeured down from London and arrived with his nose already out of joint because Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, had been unable to see him. He returned to London in an even greater huff, much earlier than scheduled, because one of the main people he had come to see was five minutes late for the meeting! 8) Is there anything you wished this region could provide visiting governments or companies that it doesn’t already? A truly international airport. The second runway at Stansted is essential, too;  it’s a pity government is so afraid of using its right to push through developments of national (as well as regional) importance. Then there’s the shortage of good (and sensibly-priced) hotels. And those of us who regularly see international visitors need a good brochure and a regularly-updated DVD about Cambridge to hand out to them; not yet available, despite the best efforts of the GCP. Every single Chinese sub-region and sub-sub-district that sends officials to visit us equips them with these tools to spread the word. Cambridge remains terminally shy about itself… 9) How sustainable is the growth of the Cambridge technology cluster over the long term? It isn’t; government seems to have taken the view (with the exception of Lord Sainsbury when he was Science Minister) that a successful region needs no further help. It’s ridiculous that EEDA’s annual budget is still so paltry – less than the research budget of most sizeable pharmas. Central government should put its weight behind a long-term plan to improve the region’s infrastructure – public transport and housing are the most obvious targets, but more funding for postgraduates and research would be welcome too. Cambridge is still a minnow when compared for example to Silicon Valley. Despite their success, ARM and CSR still employ fewer than 1,000 people each, whereas Intel, the biggest hi-tech employer on the West Coast has nearly 100,000. Venture Capital funds are small by comparison, and early-stage funding is still a problem. Chris Lowe once told me that 30 per cent of his time at the Institute of Biology is spent fund-raising – a sorry indictment of the lack of support offered to his and the Institute’s success. I think the future of the cluster must lie in linking up the corridors between Cambridge, Ipswich, London, and Oxford, and creating the sort of critical mass that has been achieved on the West Coast. Having said that, there are many positives, too. There are still lots of plus points for companies who want to set up here. Cambridge is still a great place to live, with good quality schools for in-moving families, and one of the best hospitals in the country. The pace of life is still pleasant, and the community’s flourishing networks attest to an optimism that bodes well for the future. 10) Where do you think Cambridge rates in the world pantheon of knowledge-based economies? I think it’s first class – simply by virtue of the great science that keeps flowing out of it;  despite its size, Cambridge still manages to have a very international feeling. Sixty-seven per cent of the occupants of the Cambridge Science Park have facilities outside the UK, for example. There’s still huge potential here if there is the will – and the cash – to address the shortcomings we’ve identified.

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