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7 December, 2016 - 14:31 By Tony Quested

Cambridge now world’s third most innovative region says new CIC investment director

A Cambridge University alumnus is bringing US-honed tech savvy back to his alma mater after being appointed as an investment director for Cambridge Innovation Capital. And Dr Andrew Williamson is tipping the Cambridge cluster to commercialise a new wave of IP stemming from the university and its spin-outs.

In a massive show of faith for the innovation hotspot, Dr Williamson says: “If you look at where new startups are being created from fundamental research coming out of universities, the most innovative regions are: number one Silicon Valley, number two Boston, and now number three in the world is the Cambridge cluster.”

He joins CIC from True North Venture Partners in Chicago where he was a partner in its $300 million venture fund. Prior to this, he spent 10 years leading materials science and semiconductor research in US government research laboratories, followed by managing director positions at venture capital funds, Physic Ventures in San Francisco, and MalibuIQ in Los Angeles.

He studied at the University of Cambridge as both an undergraduate and a graduate, receiving an MA in Natural Sciences and a PhD in Physics. He also holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

Victor Christou, chief executive officer of CIC, said: “We are very pleased to welcome someone of Andrew’s experience and calibre to the CIC team. He brings a perfect combination of the ideal attributes for a CIC investment director with hands-on experience building deep technology businesses, coupled with a venture investing background and an understanding of Cambridge and its academic institutes.

“Taken together these position him ideally for a role investing in the most exciting cluster in Europe.”

Dr Williamson added: “It is wonderful to be returning to Cambridge and to be joining such an impressive organisation and team. There is an enormous number of potentially world-leading businesses emerging from the Cambridge Cluster.

“Working at CIC will provide me with a great opportunity to work with these businesses to grow them into the global category leaders of the future.”

Dr Williamson has significant experience in helping to build businesses on ‘deep technology.’

“My preference is to work at that interface between early stage innovation and creating startups and growing them,” he says.

“I was looking for an opportunity to bring what we have learnt in America back to the UK and Cambridge is an exciting place to be right now.

“The nice thing about working in a venture capital firm is that you get to work on lots of technologies, as opposed to if you're in a startup you only get to work on the one you're doing. I'm always looking for the new thing and VC gives the opportunity to continually refresh and find new technology, and I like that.”

Dr Williamson’s first position in the States was working on next-generation solar power at a research institution called the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and he says the falling price of the technology is driving its adoption across the world despite the fall in oil prices.

He believes that CleanTech is moving beyond the need for regulatory support and incentives: “The technology can stand on its own two feet and work. I'm bullish on that.”

CIC has already invested in smart-grid innovator Origami and is looking at other opportunities in the renewable energy area, but Dr Williamson’s knowledge of ‘deep technology’ companies is wider than this. His interest in material science has included high performance semiconductors and he has started companies that are commercialising gallium nitride semiconductors.

These companies are based on hundreds of millions of dollars of fundamental research and need significant funding to move those new advanced materials to the point where they can be exploited commercially.

Looking at the Cambridge cluster he sees technologies with equivalent potential: “I think wireless technology is a very exciting space. We just made an investment in PervasID, which is offering super low cost, super high efficiency ways of using the latest semiconductor chips for tracking objects in the real world.

“We are seeing a move completely out of semiconductors into new even lower cost materials, and one of the most exciting investments we've made at CIC is in PragmatIC Printing, which is making chips out of plastic so they're flexible, so you can put them on your clothes or your shampoo bottle – something you could never do with silicon because it cracks and it's too expensive.

“I think there are lots of things going on in Cambridge that are building on these fundamental electronic materials for the 21st century.

“Technology of this sort takes a long time to come to fruition. I would say that all nanomaterials take a long time to find their application. I worked on quantum dots 10 years ago and now some of the highest-end TVs you can find are using quantum dots to give you the best colour reproduction, but it took them 15 years to find that application.

“Then came carbon nanotubes and they sort of struggled to find an application. They're a very interesting material but I wouldn’t say they have found their so-called ‘killer app’ just yet. Graphene is in that same category – I think it is still waiting for the killer app as well. It's one that we would track but we haven’t seen anything to invest in yet.”

With talk about the need to find the next ARM, Dr Williamson sees the potential to grow big businesses in Cambridge: “At CIC we can invest in anything that is commercialising intellectual property created at the University of Cambridge, or any company that is located here in the Cambridge Cluster geographically. I got to see the pipeline when I arrived and we've got several hundred interesting companies.

“We're out there talking about what makes a good business and encouraging people to come to us with ideas; we don’t always invest first time, but hopefully we give constructive feedback and over time that enriches the whole community and improves the investment opportunities that we see – it’s a marathon not a sprint.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Dr Andrew Williamson

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