Cambridge: a city of startups, enterprise and innovation

Cambridge: a city of startups, enterprise and innovation

  • This is why Cambridge is the new centre of the universe

Illustration by Marion Deuchars

Forget London. Bangalore, Beijing, San Francisco are nowhere. Meet Cambridge – officially the new centre of the universe.

Cambridge: city of bicycles, punts and...cranes. Loads of them. Maybe you’ve heard about all the tech and pharma companies moving to Cambridge – or that property prices are going through the roof – and wondered what was going on. The answer is, quite simply, success. Commercial success. 

Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic and Head of the School of Clinical Medicine, who came to Cambridge four years ago from UCL, couldn’t be clearer. “Part of my aim for the School is that it should be highly entrepreneurial. I am, of course, a very strong believer in the importance of fundamental scientific research, but anyone working on this campus needs to understand that the space they occupy is in very short supply. We enjoy an extraordinary location, sharing a site with a comprehensive hospital. Our scientists have a clear eye on their research going on to have an impact on peoples’ lives.” They do not, he says, need to do that themselves – “not everyone is an entrepreneur. But they should take a positive view of commercialisation.”

Victor Christou, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Capital, the £50m venture capital fund in which the University is the largest shareholder, feels that Cambridge is on the cusp of a new era. “When I came here three years ago, we all knew Cambridge could become this huge centre for development. Now the question is just how big it will become. The machinery, the infrastructure and the capital are being put into place at once. You only have to look at all the cranes to see it is real. Someone remarked to me recently that the number of construction cranes reminded them of Dubai.”

That might be going a bit far (thankfully there is no need to irrigate Grantchester Meadows) but there can be no doubt that the face of Cambridge is changing rapidly. One sign of that is the growing biomedical campus which recently attracted pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to establish its global headquarters in the city.

There can be no greater enthusiast for this change than Tony Kouzarides, Deputy Director of the Gurdon Institute, who has made it his mission to help academics work with the pharmaceutical companies flocking to Cambridge. Kouzarides has had his own share of success, co-founding Abcam, a supplier of protein research tools, with his post-doctoral student Jonathan Milner.

Abcam is now worth more than £1bn on the UK stock market; its protein tools enable researchers around the world to do life-changing research and it employs more than 800 people in five countries, “which is amazing, given that we started with just a bucketful of enzymes.” As well as providing investment for UK startups, Jonathan Milner is still on the Abcam board and together with Kouzarides has founded a new theraputics institute in Cambridge – the Milner Institute. And Kouzarides is working with a former PhD student and group leader at the Gurdon, Eric Miska, to set up a new drug discovery company.

Translating research into therapeutics

In fact, Kouzarides believes that the future lies in the worldwide drive to therapeutics – something which Cambridge has the potential to be at the very core of. One of the things that makes this possible is the University’s recent – and unique – agreement with a consortium of pharmaceuticals which allows confidential material transfer of information. “Nowhere else in the world is there such an overarching agreement,” says Kouzarides. “It is a huge step in allowing the translation of research into therapeutics.”

Time and again those in the know mention the University’s generous attitude to intellectual property, which leaves many of the rights with the initiator of the research. As Christou says: “By its nature Cambridge can be seen as quite insular but, in fact and from very early on, when it comes to commercialisation the University has been both ambitious and open-minded, while never losing sight of its stated agenda of allowing academic freedom.”

All the major ingredients have always been there: but now we have reached critical mass and the mechanisms are in place to make things happen.

Shirley Jamieson, Head of Marketing for Cambridge Enterprise

Seed funds

It is 21 years since the University began seed funding, which is now run by Cambridge Enterprise. An evergreen policy of reinvestment has grown the fund from an initial £4m to £16m today, a rather better rate of return than many more aggressive venture capital companies achieve. Looking at very early stage investment means that, as Head of Seed Funds Dr Anne Dobrée explains: “We simply can’t tell who will be the winners, we just have to go with the gut and look for a credible team.” She believes that, these days, starting a company is just another part of Cambridge life. “Nowadays, entrepreneurship is seen as a natural progression for research,” she says.

Dr Robert Tansley (St Catharine’s 1993), Investment Director for Life Sciences at Cambridge Innovation Capital, agrees. “When I was working at Addenbrooke’s some 20 years ago,” he remembers, “there was definitely a degree of suspicion about those seeking to gain commerical funding to bring their research to an application. Now, however, my sense is that the translation element of research, which inevitably requires commercialisation, is not only much more acceptable but actually welcomed.” Indeed, this is something we all have reason to be thankful for – it is that translation of research into medicine that has the potential to make such a difference.

Commercialisation has also become easier, as Head of the Computer Laboratory Andy Hopper notes. He is proud that half of the 250 or so startups emanating from his lab are still going today – a success rate most VCs can only dream of – but he also sounds a note of caution. “When I tell student hopefuls that I almost went bust personally it does make them think twice,” he laughs. “There are plenty of people here to talk to who have already done it and who are here to give advice. We don’t take the rose-tinted view you might find in other universities, but if you have a good, marketable idea with a realistic valuation there are plenty of business angels based in Cambridge to help you out.” This wasn’t always the case, as Hopper, who worked with Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry to found Acorn Computers back in the 1970s, well knows. 

College dons have always exchanged ideas at high table and cross-fertilisation has long been the norm here. But these days, it seems it is more likely to lead to an actual business. Last year alone Cambridge Enterprise put £3.8m into 13 startups and supported the commercial ambitions of 1,400 researchers.

Shirley Jamieson, Head of Marketing for Cambridge Enterprise, believes that rather than a rapid shift in momentum, Cambridge is seeing the benefits of organic growth in terms of realising its potential for marketable innovation. “All the major ingredients have always been there: but now we have reached critical mass and the mechanisms are in place to make things happen.”

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The capacity to scale up

That is a view echoed by Stelios Kavadias, Margaret Thatcher Professor of Enterprise Studies in Innovation and Growth at the Cambridge Judge Business School. “We are finally bringing together what was missing, which is to create the capacity to scale up the good ideas into startups that have the potential to be successful on the international stage. Managing a startup is no longer an art form in Cambridge – instead it is part of a codified process which we can help with.”

Two PhD students whose company has benefited from that very process are Rebekah Scheuerle (St John’s) and Theresa Maier (St Catharine’s), founders of JustMilk Limited, a venture that, with the US non-profit JustMilk, has developed the technology to deliver drugs and nutrients to infants during breastfeeding. Recent winner of the Pitch at the Palace awards for budding entrepreneurs, JustMilk is part of the School’s Accelerate programme, which provides mentoring and technical expertise.

Last year, JustMilk set up the for-profit arm of the business and its founders have high ambitions – for social, rather than financial, gain. As Scheuerle, a Gates Scholar, explains: “We want to see the technology used in a low-resource setting, where the lack of access to potable water makes it difficult to give medicine safely. And to achieve that we have to scale up.” 

Meanwhile, there is the small matter of finishing the PhD. “It’s all about good time management,” says Maier, “and, anyway, the research we are doing is influenced by the next steps necessary for the development of the prototype, which will be tested in clinical trials at Addenbrooke’s next year.”

Cambridge is essentially a village, where everyone is constantly recycling skills. It’s just that they are very special skills with very special people.

Tony Raven, CEO of Cambridge Enterprise

In the heart of the village

The pair are grateful that the facilities are on their doorstep, a point not lost on Tony Raven, CEO of Cambridge Enterprise who was struck recently by a conversation he had with a German engineer studying at Cambridge. “He said: ‘Why on earth would I want to go back to Munich when I can cycle to meet anyone I need to, right here?’ And he’s right: Cambridge is essentially a village, where everyone is constantly recycling skills. It’s just that they are very special skills with very special people.”

One such is Ed Rex (King’s 2007) of Jukedeck, a company bringing artificial intelligence to music composition that was Cambridge Enterprise and Cambridge Innovation Capital’s first joint investment. As Victor Christou remembers it: “Ed came to us with an interesting idea in a very rough form. But we felt he, as an individual, was hugely backable.”

Rex says now that “Jukedeck simply would never have happened without Cambridge.” As a chorister at King’s, he benefited from Director of Music Stephen Cleobury’s teaching of not just the choral tradition but also of music theory. Later, as a choral scholar at King’s on his way to a First class degree, he studied for a paper on music and science and became fascinated with the way in which our brains learn music.

But it took a lecture in computer science at the other Cambridge over the water to make him ponder the possibility of writing code for the composing of music. Many would just have left that as an idea; Rex decided to teach himself to code. Supporting himself by singing in choral gigs, he sat in his bedroom until he had cracked it.

Then he wrote a business plan and, he says, took it to, among others, Cambridge Enterprise who “as luck would have it, had someone on their team who had worked in this field and so understood what I’d built. And because it is Cambridge they were brilliant at understanding the need for R&D costs and helping us with the intellectual property rights.” Rex enlisted the help of his fellow chorister Patrick Stobbs (King’s 2006), who had helpfully gone to work for Google after leaving Cambridge. Together the pair went on to make Jukedeck such a successful proposition that Cambridge Innovation Capital recently put in another £2m of venture capital funding.

Everyone hopes that Jukedeck will be a great success, but no-one knows how long it will take for Rex’s vision of personalised music to become commonplace. It’s just one of those brilliant ideas which is well on the way to reality. But, above all, Tony Raven believes that in its commitment to the translation of ideas into practice, the University is supporting its mission to contribute to society through education and research. If that makes money as well, all to the good. Because, as Andy Hopper says: “If you don’t launch, you’re guaranteed to fail.”

Article by Sarah Woodward 

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 78. Find out how to receive CAM.