Cambridge phenomenon punching above its weight

Cambridge phenomenon punching above its weight

“Cambridge will never rest on its laurels, there’s just too much going on,” says Kate Kirk, co-author of Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact. “There’s a strong pipeline of young companies across a variety of cutting edge sectors that will be the success stories of tomorrow. Of the 4,369 knowledge-intensive companies with headquarters in Cambridge, over a third were created in the last four years.”

Kate explains that a strength of Cambridge is its compactness which encourages interaction between different disciplines: “It is a small city that punches above its weight. The intriguing mix of technology sectors that make up the Cambridge cluster serves as a catalyst for all kinds of exciting innovations. Digital healthcare is a growth area, and draws on existing strengths in genomics, biotechnology, bioinformatics, computing and telecommunications, where companies such as Horizon Discovery and Congenica are leading the way.”


Congenica is an early-stage growth company bridging the large and growing digital healthcare and genomics markets to deliver improved health outcomes for patients. In two years its genome analysis and clinical decision support technology has transitioned from a research project, to everyday use in NHS clinics, and is attracting global interest. The American CEO, Dr Tom Weaver, says Cambridge was the best place to establish the company.

“Genomics is reclassifying medicine by explaining the causes of disease. It requires sophisticated DNA sequencing, scalable data aggregation, bioinformatics, machine learning and software engineering to interpret the genome of a patient, in order to make medical insights to understand the implications. In Cambridge, world-leading expertise in all these areas is available within a few miles. It is magnet for talent, which makes it easier for innovators and early-stage companies to attract the best people.”

Another high growth sector identified by the authors is the development of new materials and electronics that underpins the wearable technology in the emerging ‘Internet of People’ (IoP).

 Simprints are implementing their first commercial system in Nepal

Professor Chris Lowe, voted the UK’s ‘most entrepreneurial scientist’, has many companies to his name, including £1bn Cambridge-based ProMetic Life Sciences, which develops filtration technology now used worldwide by blood banks.

He is a strong believer that IoP has a role in keeping people healthy. His department is working on ‘smart tattoos’ and holographic contact lenses that give early warning of blood glucose levels to allow diabetics to live more normal lives. He says he ‘loves this place, there is so much going on. It is the best place to get new ideas off the ground.”

This is evidenced by the success of a former student, part of the founding team who set up Simprints. Just three years after the founders won a student project supported by ARM they are now implementing their first commercial system in Nepal. Their technology creates a unique electronic identity for a person based on their fingerprint, allowing health workers to access health records in the field using a mobile phone and a simple, affordable digital reader.

The development was accelerated by weekly “Hack_Nights” where 20 volunteers from neighbouring tech companies get directly involved in Simprints projects. Sebastian Manhart, Director of Business Development says that being based in Cambridge has been invaluable: “Cambridge is a special place, with a close knit tech community. Local mentors like Dominic Vergine from ARM and Darrin Disley from Horizon Discovery as well as partnerships with technology companies like Fen and Searan have been critical to our success.”

Cambridge was the first to develop graphene ink, which can be used to replace metals

Graphene is a new material that offers huge potential for the IoP. It is a naturally occurring form of carbon that consists of planar sheets just one atom thick. This gives rise to special properties such as high strength and conductivity.

Cambridge was the first to develop graphene ink, which can be used to replace metals, for example to allow the printing of conductive tracks on flexible surfaces including plastics. The recent opening of the Graphene Centre is the culmination of more than a decade of work in this area showing that technology development needs long-term investment.

Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre says: “Graphene is making its way from the lab to the factory floor, creating jobs and growth for Cambridge and the UK

“The work we are doing in Cambridge is in high value, commercially significant areas. It will take about 20-40 years to get some of these new materials from lab to mass market so we are just at the beginning of the journey.”

Graphene can be spun into fibres for wearable electronics, printed 3D to enhance properties of composites, and layered to create switches that respond to light. Work in Cambridge has included the development of a lithium air battery. Local companies in the value chain include: Aixtron, Cambridge Graphene, Cambridge Nanosystems, Dyson, FlexEnable, Nokia Technology and Novalia.

Cambridge phenomenon punching above its weight

Chris Jones of Novalia says the company wouldn’t be the same elsewhere: “Being based in Cambridge offers a fantastic advantage; we belong to a network of companies working in related research areas. The close geography allows for a cross-pollination of ideas and capabilities. In particular our relationship with the Graphene Centre has given us access to world class facilities, equipment as well as academic expertise and a pragmatic input into research. We have worked on a number of collaborations with them to produce graphene based versions of our drum kit poster, the transparent piano and our joint developments of graphene based flexographic ink systems.”

Cambridge entrepreneur William Tunstall-Pedoe launched the voice recognition personal assistant Evi in 2012, based on his highly successful True Knowledge technology, an intelligent search engine.

Evi achieved significant interest from multinationals and Amazon subsequently acquired the company. The multinational has created a European R&D Laboratory in Cambridge and as Product Manager, Tunstall-Pedoe played a leading role in the development and launch of the new Amazon Echo and the Alexa software that powers it. He says: “Evi is a good example of a Cambridge start-up that has attracted millions of dollars of inward investment, providing a good return for investors and creating many high value jobs in the cluster.

“Amazon’s investment in the technology has helped to secure the city’s position at the forefront of voice controlled computing.”

Kirk Kirk comments: “The Cambridge Phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain.  Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

Authors Charles Cotton and Kate Kirk at the launch of The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact

Charles Cotton, co- author of the Cambridge Phenomenon, believes that the cluster is maturing but this progress has not been recognised by many commentators. He says:

“The ecosystem is proving to be successful in producing viable companies. The success rate is higher than the national average and there has been an increase in the stock of companies in each of the last ten years.”

He offers a number of reasons for this: “Soft-starts that have been incubated within a corporate or academic research setting and have been given the opportunity for early beta testing with potential customers before spinout are growing. The companies also focus early on international markets, and the internet has lowered the barriers for entry, making it easier to go global without a physical international footprint.

“Additionally, we now have good sources of patient capital that will allow companies time to grow, and we have seen the growth of corporate venturing by companies that understand the risks inherent in disruptive technology. The funding is therefore more resilient, for a longer term and doesn’t require an early market exit.”

The Cambridge Phenomenon - Global Impact

The Cambridge PhenomenonMore information about the growth of the Cambridge cluster and predictions for the future are available in the book: “The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact”, which launched on 1st June 2016 and is available from all good book-sellers.

©2015 Holdsworth Associates