Countries and cities across the world are busily trying to build tech clusters. Partly this is due to the sexiness of tech (expect the UK election to feature plenty of photo opportunities of candidates with startups), partly down to the fact that it seems easy to do, and a lot to do with the benefits it delivers to a local economy. In an era where technology is radically changing how we work, play and live, high value tech companies are always going to be prized.
But how do you build a tech cluster? It may seem easy to do on the outside – set up some co-working spaces, provide some money and sit back and wait for the ideas to flourish, but it is actually incredibly difficult. This is demonstrated by the diverging fortunes of the locations of England’s oldest universities – Oxford and Cambridge. As a recent piece in The Economist explains, over the last few years Cambridge has added more well-paid jobs, highly educated residents and workers in general than its rival. This prompted a visit last October to the city from an Oxford delegation, with the leader of Oxford City Council admitting that “Cambridge is at least 20 years ahead of us.”
Given the longstanding competition between the two cities, it is easy for people in Cambridge to sit back smugly, pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. However, a better course of action is to take a look at what is behind Cambridge’s success, and see what can be done to improve things. After all, there are startup and tech clusters around the world – competition is global – so there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurs setting up in Silicon Valley, Munich, Paris or London rather than Cambridge.
I see five factors underpinning the success of any tech cluster:
1. Ideas and skills
The first thing you need to build any business is obviously a good idea. Universities, particularly those involved in scientific research such as Oxford and Cambridge have plenty of these. But you need a specific type of person to be involved with the research – with a mindset that goes beyond academia and understands how a breakthrough idea can be turned into a viable business. You then need to be able to access the right skills to develop the idea technically, whether through commercial research or programming.
2. Support infrastructure
This is where Cambridge scores highly in being able to commercialise discoveries, through a long-established support infrastructure. The Cambridge Science Park opened in the 1970s, while the University has put in place teams to help researchers turn their ideas into businesses. Research-led consultancies, such as Cambridge Consultants, provide another outlet to develop ideas, as well as helping to keep bright graduates in the city. There is also a full range of experienced lawyers, PR people, accountants and other key support businesses to help companies form and grow.
Obviously without money no idea is going to make it off the drawing board. Cambridge has attracted investment from local and international venture capital, and has a thriving group of angel investors, who can share their experiences as well as their funding. Due to the length of time Silicon Fen has been operating, investment has been recycled, with successful exits fuelling new startups that then have the opportunity to grow.
4. Space to expand
Cambridge is a small city, and the combination of its green belt, lack of post-industrial brownfield sites and an historic centre owned by colleges, puts a huge pressure on housing stocks. As anyone that lives in Cambridge knows, house prices are not far shy of London – but spare a thought for Oxford residents. In 2014 an Oxford home costs 11.3 times average local earnings, nearly double the British norm of 5.8 times. Additionally, as The Economist points out, there is space outside the Cambridge greenbelt for people to build on, with South Cambridgeshire Council, which surrounds the city, understanding the importance of helping the local economy. In contrast, Oxford has four different district councils, and a powerful lobby of wealthy residents who want to keep their countryside pristine, hampering housing development. That’s not to say that Cambridge is perfect, far from it. More can be done to improve transport links to reduce commuting time and to spread the benefits of Cambridge’s economic success.
Ultimately tech clusters are judged by the success of the companies they produce. And Cambridge, partly due to the longevity of the cluster, has created multiple billion dollar businesses, from ARM to Cambridge Silicon Radio. This not only puts the area on the map for investors, but attracts entrepreneurs who want to tap into talent and spawns new businesses as staff move on and set up on their own. You therefore see sub-clusters in particular areas of tech develop as specialists use their knowledge to solve different problems. This then further strengthens the ecosystem.
Tech clusters are slow to build and can’t be simply willed into existence by governments opening their wallets. They need patience, a full range of skills and co-operation across the ecosystem if they are to grow and flourish – as the relative fortunes of Cambridge and Oxford show.