Cambridge or California: Building a business is all a matter of symbiosis

27 Mar, 2024
Tony Quested
As a former executive at Qualcomm and ex-resident of California, Secondmind’s American CEO Gary Brotman is supremely qualified to comment on plans by the Government to make Cambridge the Silicon Valley of the UK.
Gary Brotman. Image courtesy of Secondmind.

As he builds Secondmind into a world-class automotive engineering influencer from a Cambridge launchpad, Brotman prefers to eschew an ‘either-or’ approach to the debate – and the company’s own growth strategy – and pursue a policy where symbiosis reigns.

Brotman is a great believer in harnessing the best of all worlds in terms of recruitment, investment and tech progression. So in terms of the Cambridge-Silicon Valley debate, he believes there is most to be gained by both territories building on their own respective strengths and if they dovetail to produce collaborative ‘gold’ then so much the better.

Secondmind is the optimisation engine for the software-defined vehicle. From reducing design simulation time and calibration overhead, to continuously improving energy efficiency and performance throughout the vehicle lifecycle, Secondmind cloud-native optimisation solutions give engineers the tools and confidence to re-imagine the design, development and experience of driving, and accelerate the transition to carbon-neutral mobility.

Brotman has brought an enlightened approach to the development of the business, turning raw potential into a much more rounded, sophisticated proposition.

He says: “I understand why the Government talks of Cambridge as a UK Silicon Valley if one starts from the perspective that Silicon Valley is a global pinnacle of innovation-fuelled commercial excellence, judged by a number of metrics, not least the numbers of multi-unicorns it continues to produce.

“My homebase was in Southern California but I spent many years with my customers and partners in the Valley so I can well appreciate why it is held up as such an attractive model to replicate in some ways.

“Different regions have different strengths when it comes to building a business, products, securing investment and recruiting the top talent. One has to consider your long-term objectives.

“Are you setting out specifically to build a unicorn business or is your primary motivation to build something that solves a real problem you are passionate about, knowing that if you pull it off you may have a unicorn at the end the journey?

“Do you want to sprint for a technology-led exit or put the time and effort into building a real product of enduring commercial value and impact? Where is the best region to achieve these objectives and others?

“For AI the US is number one, China number two and the UK is fourth but each country has different areas of strength; within the UK, Cambridge is probably best for AI research and innovation, and Oxford second.

“Then you have to determine where to recruit and attract the best talent to turn the innovation into commercial reality. Cambridge may not have all the talent you need on your doorstep now, experienced business leadership and product talent for example, but there is a tremendous opportunity to attract top talent from elsewhere to fill these gaps because Cambridge is rich in culture and has so much to offer professionals and their families.”

Partly because of the University but also because of its schooling generally Brotman finds Cambridge a dream city for education and says this excellence was a key factor for him and his family when deciding to move to the UK, and it helped them settle as seamlessly as possible.

He is also impressed with the efforts of the University to engage more widely with other areas of the UK to counter physical growth problems and foster the development of innovative, commercially viable businesses – symbiosis again.

And, as a mentor to the University-backed incubator, Deeptech Labs, and signing up Secondmind as a charter member of the Innovate Cambridge initiative, Brotman applauds the continued drive to encourage more startups and spin-outs to learn more about the journey of taking innovative research and technology and turning it into commercial reality through business and product examples and best practices.

Brotman practises what he can be persuaded to preach: A good listener and fast learner, he has recruited some superb executives to strengthen Secondmind’s hand, packing it with aces. He hasn’t been suckered into a numbers game, preferring quality to quantity and ensuring new arrivals are the right fit and ADD something unique to the business.

And right through the Secondmind philosophy one sees a strategic drawing of a roadmap, investors who share the vision for progress and are a good fit, employees treated as people rather than numbers, customers that like dealing with the business and appreciate its willingness to lift up the hood so they can see how the engine works, metaphorically speaking. And, whether or not this is because Secondmind is steered by an American-reared executive is a matter of opinion; the company cares about HOW it grows and makes a difference.

So we go back to the future: Symbiosis: Securing corporate success isn’t an either or. This is not a question of Cambridge having to ape Silicon Valley to be regarded as the UK equivalent.

Brotman is growing Secondmind as he believes a business in the sector should be developed and that means keeping an open mind and being guided intellectually rather than geographically: An intelligent approach rather than a purely indigenous focus.

That kind of savvy cannot be stitched into a brain in this writer’s opinion – just like the growth of Secondmind from Cambridge will be dictated by Brotman’s broad minded philosophy regardless of whether Cambridge is artificially steered towards a more Silicon Valley style model.