23 July, 2015 - 14:47 By Tony Quested

David Gill, managing director of St John’s Innovation Centre

Soraya Jones and David Gill of St John’s Innovation Centre Cambridge

St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge provides early stage knowledge-based companies with tailored business services and flexible accommodation. It was the first innovation centre of its kind in Europe and has become widely known for its success as a business incubator offering experience, contacts, resources and a presence in the community. 

The Centre supports high growth businesses across the region and aims to provide the best strategic business advice, training and introductions for start-ups, micros and SMEs, particularly through the recent GrowthAccelerator programme and Understanding Finance for Business.

It is a new partner in the Enterprise Europe Network, designed to help businesses innovate, grow and succeed in the European marketplace through technology transfer or by finding new customers, suppliers or commercial partners.

The Centre is also currently delivering SJIC Training services via a combination of leadership and management training courses, bespoke training, masterclasses and workshops on topics relevant to growing businesses.

Tony Quested puts the questions to David Gill.

1. Can you outline your role at SJIC?
I took over in October 2008. Running a business incubator is a combination of general management and being a bridge between different worlds – for instance, getting large and small firms to talk to each other, or business and academia. 

General management matters because with a small team you can’t hide behind job titles, and making sure the building functions as well as possible is as important as providing useful, timely advice to startups. When I took on the job I thought it would be similar to being a management consultant, but in reality it’s closer to being a GP or headmaster. A lot of people stepping into my office simply need to talk and be listened to with respect, so that they can work out what to do for themselves with just a little prompting, rather than be told the answer.

2. What are your priority strategies at present?
Our key priorities remain pretty constant. The St John’s Innovation Centre exists primarily to provide a dynamic and supportive environment for accelerating the growth of ambitious, innovative firms in the Cambridge tech cluster. 

We can’t do everything ourselves so we are proud of the club-like atmosphere in the Centre: a lot of companies help each other, formally or informally – ‘peer mentoring’, in the jargon. We’ve also been increasing both training and social events to energise the networking, from the Expresso Business Insight evenings and Mid-month Mingles to providing croquet and table tennis, both of which are increasingly popular middle day. 

The Centre is full, so we can’t easily increase the scale of what we do, but we can try to deepen the experience a little.

3. What different programmes and initiatives is SJIC steering or partnering in?
We are partners in the European Enterprise Network or EEN, which consists of two complementary projects – one providing information and advice to improve innovation among SMEs, and the other account management assistance to SMEs under an access to finance banner. EEN enables us to provide considerable public-sector-supported help to tenants and other high-potential firms. 

Back in February, the work we did for Nesta analysing a wide spectrum of different programmes for SMEs was published. The field research was done last year, mainly in Israel and Germany, where we interviewed dozens of accelerators, incubators, seed funds and others with a view to making clear what are the fundamental differences between otherwise similar-sounding schemes, especially at a  time of hype – there are over 5,000 (alleged) accelerators in the world right now, up from a mere handful 10 years ago. 
The analysis and resulting taxonomy enables us to understand our own business better and to advise other incubators.

4. Do you have a role in international ventures and if so what are the chief ones?
We have a number of roles in international ventures. First, for the past five years we have been a Business & Innovation Centre accredited by the European Business Network, which helps us have a sense of what centres like ours in other tech clusters around Europe are doing. 

Secondly, beginning in March 2014, we hosted a cohort of 21 graduate students (mainly engineers) from Libya on a training programme designed to improve their understanding of business in general and innovation in particular. 

Their ability and commitment were both exemplary, not least because they had to study in full knowledge of how rapidly the situation back home was deteriorating,often badly affecting their families. Their skills will be essential in building a planned technology park as part of Libya’s economic regeneration when peace eventually returns.

We are about to start delivering a series of training courses in innovation, incubation and finance to a group of research scientists from Poland. And every month we host numerous delegations from overseas seeking to understand the Cambridge Phenomenon. In the past two weeks, I think I have spoken to 10. Some visits are no doubt little more than innovation tourism (which is particularly painful if my talk is the final stop before the coach heads off to Bicester designer-outlet village) but most are genuinely interested in developing a practical understanding that might be applied back home.

5. In terms of property, is SJIC full and do you have a waiting list? And looking at the wider St John’s Innovation Park is it still expanding? 
We are full and have been full for a while in the Innovation Centre. The St John’s Innovation Park is also now full – I think the final remaining unit in Edinburgh House was let last month. We have a waiting list that on current levels of churn reaches out a year ahead. 

Of course, I believe that part of this is down to the professionalism and service at the Innovation Centre but at the same time everyone who works in Cambridge must recognise that the cluster is a magnet for talented and ambitious businesses from round the world. 

The largest brownfield site in Cambridge – the Northern Fringe East – is on our doorstep. The eventual construction of the new train station should be transformative for how Cambridge operates. But the time it has taken to advance the station plans this far reminds us not to underestimate the complexity of turning vision into reality. 

Earlier this year, I was working on a short history of the St John’s Innovation Centre with our founder, Chris Johnson, who reminded me of the difficulties created by the Innovation Park falling in two planning jurisdictions.

6. What breadth of technologies is covered by tenant companies at the Innovation Centre and on the Park generally?
Cambridge’s own version of the north-south divide seems to have emerged naturally, with life-science firms congregating round the Babraham campus in the south and more software, hardware and engineering firms in the Science Park and St John’s Innovation Park. We have 87 companies on site.

Just to give a flavour of the range, among our current tenants are: 

  • Cambrionix, which has just won the Queen’s Award for the export success of its multiple synching and charging platforms. 
  • Bactest, which makes devices for monitoring microbial activity to enable quick decisions on issues such as water potability, won the Telegraph award for SME of the year in 2014 and has just won a Shell Springboard low carbon award.
  • Rosemary Francis, the CEO of Ellexus (which makes tools to facilitate Linux products), was the keynote speaker last month at an event organised by the British Embassy in Croatia to encourage more women into entrepreneurship.
  • And VetCT is a specialist telemedicine provider helping vets using MRI, CT and digital radiography services.

7. Can you name some of the notable businesses that SJIC has sheltered and nurtured over the years and their impact on the global corporate scene?
Running an incubator is like running a school: you can’t take credit for the exam results of those you shelter, and good pupils always move on. Undoubtedly the largest company ever to move on from here is Autonomy, which started in a tiny unit on  the first floor in 1996 and was sold to HP in late 2011 for over $10bn. Mike Lynch, the founder, came back to speak to a packed house at our 25th anniversary event, and also insisted on being photographed outside his old unit.

More recently, Owlstone moved in around 2004 and had to move out to larger premises on the Science Park as they occupied three adjacent units here. Owlstone has progressed from button-sized programmable chemical sensors to trialling lung cancer breathalysers. RedGate, which makes tools for SQL servers and has been shortlisted as one of the best companies to work for (it now employs 275 people) was housed in the Jeffreys Building next door until it ran out of space. 

8. What do you see as the role of the Innovation Centre and Park generally in the success of the Cambridge Cluster?
Our core constituency of tenants consists of late-stage startups taking an innovation to market. A typical tenant moving in might only consist of the two or three founders initially, but by the time they reach here they usually have a product, a plan and some funding. In all likelihood, they will move up in size a couple of times so that by the time they leave us the team is 12-15 people and sales have been established, if not necessarily profits. 

Our second biggest function is to serve as an informal clubhouse for the Cambridge entrepreneurial community. Especially with the refurbished Bistro, the Innovation Centre has considerable convening power. Throughout the day, you will see our tenants round the table with investors and advisers, who meet here for convenience. And while they are here, visitors talk to each other. 

In theory, Cambridge should see a natural progression from early-stage firms at ideaSpace, to later-stage ones here, to large ones needing their own front door on the Science Park. It is a decidedly mixed blessing that we are all full, so the growth journey has slowed down. For that reason, I am also involved in planning for the future, for instance through the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership. 

The St John’s Innovation Centre is a spontaneous living laboratory of entrepreneurship and so a useful source of data for researchers and policymakers alike. 

9. How do you think Cambridge ranks in world terms as a science & technology cluster and could anything be done to improve it? If so what?
Just about any international league table shows the University of Cambridge in the very top bracket of research institutions. Last year’s survey by MIT of 200 sites concluded that three universities were consistently cited as world leaders in creating entrepreneurial ecosystems – MIT, Stanford and Cambridge. 

What is highly unusual round here has been the coming together of blue-skies research and commercial application, often stimulated through the presence of numerous technology consultancies. 

Entrepreneurial culture has been transformed in the past 20 years, too, with high degrees of participation in student entrepreneurship through Enterprise Tuesday, the business plan competition and iTeams, where volunteer students look for commercially-viable strategies for ground-breaking research. As a result, Cambridge has become a safe place to do risky things, to borrow a phrase from Andy Richards.

Improvement will require a better understanding of our relative strengths and weaknesses, which in turn calls for considerably better capture and analysis of the underlying data. This is a long-term project, requiring rigour and reflection to turn basic information into knowledge and wisdom. The outcome should be enhanced insight into what works and what more needs to be done, with a conceptual framework supporting the ‘fingertip knowledge’ of practitioners.

10. A new town is underway, there is talk of more science parks being built and where London has its pigeons Cambridge has its cranes, albeit metal ones. How much more growth can it stand?
The key challenge for the next few years is how to manage expansion without losing the intimate and approachable nature of Cambridge. For perhaps 50 years, success has been the outcome of numerous uncoordinated initiatives coming together, guided by nothing more tangible than the benign vision of numerous influential people for whom the good of the cluster was a superordinate goal – John Bradfield, Chris Johnson, Alec Broers, Hermann Hauser, Matthew Bullock, David Sainsbury, Charles Cotton, David Cleevely and others. 

If today’s arguments over expansion make it difficult to see the wood for the trees, remember that we have been here before and found a way out of the impasse. In the 1960s, tight planning caused IBM’s scheme to move its European research HQ here to be cancelled. The ensuing furore triggered a major rethink, headed by Sir Nevill Mott, the Cavendish Professor of Physics and Nobel laureate. Mott pointed out the huge potential for applying University know-how in an industrial context. 

The subsequent loosening of the planning regulations swiftly led to the creation of the Science Park (1970) and the St John’s Innovation Centre (1987). The rest is history, but not just a history of commercial success. Ideas turned into products by Cambridge companies have changed (even saved) the lives of millions: think of gene sequencing, monoclonal antibodies, semi-conductors or complex digital search. 

Quality matters at least as much as quantity for expansion. Think of how well-respected a landmark Botanic House in Hills Road has become, despite its greater than average height – thanks to quality of design and construction. Science Parks old and new will need to integrate densification with quality. And the debate on transport needs new terms of engagement, with less ritual vilification of cars (the only realistic choice for many who do not have the privilege of living in the city centre) and instead greater joined-up thinking – and action – on public transport. 

With a combination of vision, quality of design and creative thinking on services, more growth is both realistic and desirable.

• PHOTOGRAPH: David Gill, Managing Director of St John’s Innovation Centre with Dr Soraya Jones, Entrepreneur in Residence


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