Thousands of miles from the technology epicentre of Silicon Valley, the Cambridge Hub continues to give birth to a steady stream of groundbreaking technology research projects. PC Pro was recently invited to the St John’s Innovation Centre at the very heart of the Cambridge Enterprise Hub, to witness first-hand the “smart technology” that’s under development. During the course of our visit, we were introduced to a host of pioneering projects, some already to market and others still in the product-testing phase. What they all have in common, however, is the ability to prove that Cambridge is still very much the beating heart of technological innovation in the UK, drawing together entrepreneurs, businesses, research institutions, universities and venture capitalists. Plus, the odd mad scientist.
In this feature, we’ll take an in-depth look at the most exciting and innovative products on display, ranging from plastic electronics to a virtual gut (but perhaps, thankfully, not the “waterproof football sock” that was a no-show on the day), as well as exploring the technologies behind them. We also have an exclusive interview with Dr Hermann Hauser, the legendary Cambridge-based tech innovator behind Acorn Computers, who went on to become one of the UK’s best-known venture capitalists. Dr Hauser explains what it takes to innovate, why Cambridge does it so well and answers the question of whether the Silicon Fen (as the area is often called) can be a viable rival to Silicon Valley.
Silicon Fen vs Silicon Valley
The Cambridge phenomenon can be dated back to 1970 and the founding of the Cambridge Science Park as part of a Trinity College initiative. Before this, there was no great start-up cluster in Cambridge; today, the estimates vary between 500 and 1,000 such companies in the CB postcode area. Of course, the majority will remain small businesses, but there have been some major multinational success stories to emerge from the Silicon Fen.
ARM (Advanced RISC Machines), a joint venture between Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers and Apple Computer, now accounts for processors inside 80% of the world’s mobile phones as well as devices such as the GameBoy and the iPod, making it the most widely used 32-bit microprocessor family in the world. Autonomy, spun out of Cambridge University research and now with an estimated 16% market share when it comes to Enterprise search technology, has a market capitalisation of some $1.6 billion. CSR (Cambridge Silicon Radio), another venture funded by Hauser’s Amadeus Capital Partners business, provides more than half of all the Bluetooth chips on the market courtesy of being the first to come up with a single-chip solution. If you use a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, hands-free set or laptop, there’s a good chance it’s powered by CSR.
What makes Cambridge tick? A self-sustaining pool of talent on tap from Cambridge University obviously helps. Cambridge itself is home to 72 Nobel Laureates, a figure that can only be bettered by the UK and US as nation states (only 768 people have ever been given Nobel Laureates). The resilience to bounce back from disappointment is another key factor – it isn’t unusual for people to hop from a failed start-up to an emerging one on a fairly regular basis.
There’s also its location, being close to London and with Stansted Airport on the doorstep. But some of the factors that once helped Cambridge to compete for start-up business, such as low rent when there was no great industry focus to be found, are being eroded. Indeed, move outside of London and you’ll find Cambridgeshire has one of the highest costs of living in the UK.