The ancient English city has transformed into one of Europe’s leading tech hubs, and a hotbed for startups. But are the comparisons with Silicon Valley valid? Dr Tim Guilliams, Co-Founder and CEO of Healx, explores the answer.
Once little more than a suburban hotbed for garage engineers and computer scientists, the US$3trn Silicon Valley now plays host to some of the world’s largest technology giants. Within a 15-mile radius, Google, Apple, Facebook and countless smaller firms innovate shoulder to shoulder, shaping almost every aspect of our interconnected lives.
But although California’s Bay Area has experienced an era-defining transformation over the last half-century, the rise of Silicon Valley is by no means unique. In fact, just a mere 50 miles north of London, the 800-year-old university city of Cambridge is rapidly becoming known as the tech capital of Europe.
With a startup scene burgeoning over the past decade, Cambridge is home to 5,000 tech companies, employing around 68,000 employees, and generating over £12bn in turnover every year. This melting pot of tech innovation, also dubbed the ‘Cambridge Cluster’, dates back to the 1960s and is one of the oldest and most successful concentrations of tech companies in Europe.
Today, the cluster has become more commonly known as the ‘Silicon Fen’, in reference to both the fenland on which the city was built and the American cousin with which it competes. But what is driving the city’s success?
Silicon Valley has Stanford University, but Silicon Fen has the University of Cambridge. Founded in 1209, the historic university has consistently ranked within the top five universities in the world and, in 2021, was named the best university in the UK by the Times Good University Guide. With Cambridge’s brightest minds already in situ, local tech companies have the luxury of being able to recruit not only the best homegrown talent straight out of university but also exceptional educators who serve to inspire the next generation of tech innovators. Many of these educators are specialists in their field, leading top-tier research next door to the tech giants that rely on or even foster their work. Indeed, the university has recognized the potential of these people and has established its own Enterprise programme to help spin out promising research into commercial ventures.
Cambridge also lies within the commuter belt of another of the largest tech hubs in the world, London. With an increasing number of companies shifting to hybrid work, business leaders are electing to broaden their search for talent further than was possible before the pandemic. This means that Cambridge-based companies are able to recruit from a wider talent pool, including candidates from across Europe, the capital, or even Brighton on England’s south coast – another burgeoning tech hub accessible by direct train.
Twin tech specialisms
Whilst the city’s tech sector straddles many industries, Cambridge is renowned for specializing in two fields in particular: biotechnology and artificial intelligence. In both cases, this not only encourages startups within the two fields to set up offices here, but also attracts companies across Europe and the world to have a base in the city in order to access the talent and expertise on their doorstep.
Just head to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus to see this in action. Located to the south of the city, the campus hosts a number of major research hospitals and laboratories such as AstraZeneca and MedImmune’s Strategic R&D Centre as well as GlaxoSmithKline’s Experimental Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology Unit and other industry leaders like Abcam. A home for academics, scientists and teachers alike, this collaborative space allows for ideas and talent to be shared amongst industry leaders, offering the perfect environment for pioneers to drive innovation in biotechnology.
Mirroring the flourishing biotech industry, Cambridge-based artificial intelligence and computing companies are also rapidly becoming an essential component of the city’s technology ecosystem. AI is set to underpin the next major evolution in tech, and many companies within the industry are migrating to Cambridge to work closer to some of the most important contributors to the sector, such as Arm, a global leader in semiconductor and software design.
Interestingly, Arm is currently undergoing an acquisition by one of the world’s largest artificial intelligence computing companies, Nvidia. Upon completion of the buyout, Nvidia’s CEO, Jensen Huang, has expressed his desire to open a centre of excellence in AI near Arm’s headquarters in Cambridge. It’s not hard to see why, with over two hundred AI-focused startups in the city already using machine learning to help improve everything from self-driving cars to quantum computing. The centre will only help to attract yet more of the greatest minds in the industry to develop their ideas, collaborate and conduct ground-breaking work across all areas of technology.
Our very own technology company, Healx, is also situated in Cambridge and sits at the intersection of biotech and AI. Founded in 2014, our company accelerates the discovery and development of rare disease treatments, with the mission to identify and progress novel therapies for the 95% of rare diseases currently without approved therapies. Organizations such as ours have benefitted from the rich talent pool, cutting-edge research and network of investors that come from the city.
Investment in expertize
As a hub for biotech and artificial intelligence research, it’s no surprise that Cambridge attracts a lot of investment. In fact, according to a recent Tech Nation report, it’s one of the top five cities for venture capital investment in the UK. That, in turn, has its own benefits for tech companies choosing to base themselves in the city, since investors often choose to base themselves here too. Over a dozen top investment firms and funds have a presence in the city, with some of the most prominent – such as Cambridge Capital Group and Cambridge Angels – being headquartered here too.
Top VC firms and investors of course bring more than their wallets: they often bring decades of industry experience, guidance and contacts as well, and are essential in helping their portfolio companies grow. In Healx’ case, Jonathan Milner and Hermann Hauser, KBE from Amadeus Capital Partners co-invested back in 2016. Amadeus has an office in Cambridge, and that proximity is invaluable in terms of opening up conversations and opportunities that simply wouldn’t arise otherwise, even in an era of Zoom conferences. It’s a positive feedback loop, in other words, and one that will only help Cambridge grow and grow as a tech hub.
- How Cambridge Analytica changed the practice of using customer data for good
- Will London remain the fintech capital after Brexit
- TCS launches innovation hub to boost sustainable development in Europe
- Apple launches 3D maps
It’s no mere clone
In truth the term Silicon Fen might be a little unfair to Cambridge. Even though Cambridge’s tech heritage dates just as far back as Silicon Valley’s – chiefly with Clive Sinclair and Sinclair Computers, and then Acorn Computers in the 1970s – the city shows no desire to be a carbon copy of Silicon Valley. Cambridge’s tech scene has charted its own path and forged its own distinctive culture. It may not steal headlines quite like the giants of Silicon Valley – yet – but there’s a sense of purpose and mission that you won’t find anywhere else. Between its talent pool, investment opportunities and specialisms in biotech and artificial intelligence, don’t be surprised when people start comparing other tech hotspots to Cambridge.