Andy Neely is Cambridge’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations, a role which oversees the University’s activities in innovation, commercialisation and entrepreneurship. After six months in the role, he sees an entrepreneurial ecosystem that may appear complex at first - but a deeper examination reveals a combination of knowledge, expertise, support and infrastructure that makes Cambridge one of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial cities in the world.
More than 60,000 people are employed in the so-called ’Cambridge cluster’ of companies, and in excess of £12 billion in turnover is generated annually by the 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in and around the city. The innovation that underpins the cluster is impressive - the city publishes 341 patents per 100,000 residents (that’s more than the next four cities in the UK combined).
In my role, I am in the privileged position of having a general overview of how Cambridge’s entrepreneurial ecosystem works. When I took up this new post, I had heard that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambridge is complex, fragmented and difficult to navigate. But now, I would argue that there is a logic and coherence to the Cambridge ecosystem, and what makes it work is that the structure exists, yet it is constantly evolving.
As one of the world’s leading universities, we are a big part of the cluster and we have a long tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship: there are more than 40 different programmes, groups and activities run by students, researchers, departments and Colleges, to support enterprise at Cambridge. These fall into five broad categories: research & people, finance & IP, space, skills and capability development, and networks.
Research & People
The foundation of everything we do is great people doing great research. Through their work, people at all levels in the University, from students to postdocs to faculty, are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.
Finance and IP
When research leads to new ideas and insights, Cambridge Enterprise , the University’s technology transfer arm, helps staff and students find the best way to turn their ideas into reality for the benefit of the global community. Cambridge Enterprise provides IP protection when appropriate, helps individuals undertake consultancy for external organisations, protects and licences technologies, and invests seed funds in new companies.
As a company grows, it will need additional financing, and Cambridge-based funders such as Cambridge Innovation Capital , Cambridge Angels , Amadeus Capital Partners , Cambridge Capital Group , IQ Capital or the IP Group , can all provide support.
Organisations don’t just need money: they also need space to grow. When entrepreneurs are first thinking of a business model, they can take a desk in ideaSpace. We have three ideaSpaces across the University - each provides space for a community of entrepreneurs who can assist each other as they develop their ideas. If the organisation is successful and starts to grow, there are follow-on spaces around the city, such as St John’s innovation Centre or the Bradfield Centre. The Babraham Research Campus provides space for bio-medical firms - currently, there are 60 firms on the Babraham site, with a waiting list. Eventually, a growing organisation might move to the Cambridge Science Park.
Of course, there are other types of space that matter. Makespace provides a community workshop where people can create prototypes. The local consultants, especially the technology consultants, provide prototyping and design support. Cambridge Consultants and The Technology Partnership both play a crucial role in the Cambridge ecosystem.
Skills and capability development
Departments and groups across the University run programmes and initiatives to help entrepreneurs develop their organisations and their personal capabilities. Lectures and networking are provided by Enterprise Tuesday , a scheme run by the Cambridge Judge Business School. Cambridge Judge also runs Accelerate , a start-up accelerator programme, and Ignite , an intensive one-week training programme for aspiring entrepreneurs and corporate innovators to trial and prepare business ideas for the commercial environment.
The Maxwell Centre runs Impulse , a programme designed to help entrepreneurs translate their ideas into reality. Increasingly, groups are seeking to run scale-up programmes, supporting businesses as they grow. Cambridge Judge runs a scale-up programme in collaboration with Barclays, while Cambridge Network runs a school for scale-ups.
The final element is the multiple networks in Cambridge that bring people together. For example, Cambridge Wireless connects people interested in the Internet of Things; Cambridge Network connects local businesses, and Cambridge Ahead supports the long-term growth of Cambridge.
Of course, our students are a vital source of ideas, and student societies and associations - including CUE - Cambridge University Entrepreneurs , CUTEC - Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and EPOC - Entrepreneurial Post-Docs of Cambridge - bring our entrepreneurial students and postdocs together.
These and other networks and initiatives all help bring the community together and support people as they seek to make the right connections. In Cambridge it is relatively easy to reach others - entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and academics - because of the interconnected nature of the city and the institutions it houses.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem works in Cambridge because it contains all five of these elements. But this isn’t the whole story. Cambridge is also successful because the people within the ecosystem are constantly innovating to improve it. Whenever somebody spots a gap - or a perceived gap - they try to fill it. We have a Makespace in Cambridge - a community workshop where people can make and repair things. Entrepreneurs use this to create prototypes for new products. Recently we launched a Biomakespace - in recognition of the need for a bio-prototyping facility. Cambridge Judge, in collaboration with Cambridge Enterprise, runs a Social Venture Incubator to help people grow social ventures.
Each of these new initiatives was launched to fill a perceived gap in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and by filling this gap the ecosystem becomes stronger. This innovation in the ecosystem means that we are always trying to make the ecosystem in Cambridge better. We are constantly experimenting with the ways in which we work.
The cluster is now so well-established that the level of entrepreneurial activity in Cambridge has become self-propagating. The fact that so many people are involved in enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation encourages others to participate. This makes Cambridge "a safe place to fail" - a phrase coined by one of our local entrepreneurs, Andy Richards. The level of activity means that even if your first venture fails, there will always be something else for you to go and try, so in essence, the entrepreneurial ecosystem provides a safety net for those who choose to get involved in it. This is what makes Cambridge such an interesting and welcoming place for enterprise.