In this series we explore some of the world’s most successful tech hotspots, examine how they came to be, and look at what the future holds for these pinnacles of innovation.
Cambridge’s ‘Silicon Fen’, known locally as the ‘Cambridge Cluster’ is a place where tech workers enjoy average earnings of £40,000 per annum – higher than anywhere else in the UK. So what is it about this picturesque and idyllic location, 62 miles north of London that makes it the European hub for innovation, science, and technology-based companies.
What is Silicon Fen?
Silicon Fen is the name given to an area in Cambridge that is home to new high-tech and innovation companies. This area has no exact boundaries but is located within a 20 mile radius of Cambridge City Centre. It consists of over 2100 tech and innovation companies that include Amazon, Apple, AstraZeneca, Huawei, Microsoft Research and Samsung – to name a few. Silicon Fen is said to currently generate over £14 billion in revenue per annum.
The area was given its name because it lies on the southern tip of English Fenland and an analogy with California’s Silicon Valley, home to hundreds of successful tech start-ups and technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook.
A large number of the tech companies situated around Cambridge were founded by graduates and academic staff from the renowned Cambridge University. Thanks to a highly networked business community, world-class university and innovative financing model, Silicon Fen has flourished and given birth to what has been dubbed ‘The Cambridge Phenomenon’. Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of its growth is it has been achieved, in the main, without borrowing money or investment from those running the City of London. It is the result of academics with ground-breaking ideas who have attracted their own financial backers.
Latest data released by Cambridge Ahead, working with Dr Andy Cosh at University of Cambridge’s Centre for Business Research reveals Cambridge’s massive growth.
With particular reference to the knowledge intensive sectors of computing, life sciences, research services and high-tech manufacturing, which make up 30% of employment and 33% of turnover, have grown steadily over the last four years, with a compound growth rate of turnover of over 7.9% per annum to £11 billion and employment growth of 4.5% to 58,000.
What is striking about this data is that 2014/15 was just another typical year judged on Cambridge’s recent performance. Over four years (2010/11-2014/15) the turnover of Cambridge companies has grown by 31%, employment by 26% and the number of companies by 25%. To put this into an international context, over the same four years’ total employment grew in China by 1.5%, in the US by 1.3%, and in the UK as a whole by 6.2%.
How did Cambridge become a tech phenomenon?
The Cambridge Phenomenon didn’t happen overnight; entrepreneurial behavior has been taking place in Cambridge for hundreds of years. Early examples include the founding of the Cambridge University Press in 1534, and the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company established by Charles Darwin’s son, Horace in 1881.
However, today’s vibrant community may not have been realised if it wasn’t for Tim Eiloart, Rodney Dale and David Southward, three graduates from Cambridge University who founded ‘Cambridge Consultants’ in 1960. Cambridge Consultants was one of the UK’s first technology transfer businesses with the ambition to “put the brains of Cambridge University at the disposal of the problems of British industry to provide solutions to real world problems.” The Cambridge Consultants early work laid the foundations of the Cambridge Phenomenon.
Inherently linked with Cambridge University, much of Silicon Fen’s growth can be traced back to 1970 and the birth of the Cambridge Science Park, an initiative of Trinity College, which aided the move away from the traditional low-development policy adopted by Cambridge at the time. Cambridge University continues to support tech growth within Silicon Fen and has invested over £1bn in more than 500 tech and innovation based companies over the past few decades.
Looking to the future
Silicon Fen continues to attract the attention of venture capitalists, bankers, consultancy firms and other specialist organisations that nature growing firms within the tech and innovation sector. It looks like the Cambridge Phenomenon is set to continue increasing employment with recent estimates suggesting that the city’s life science and technology companies could employ another 250,000 people over the next decade.
By Roger Mills, Co-founder of Think IT Recruitment.
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