Is Cambridge the UK’s most successful city?

Cambridge has become a breeding ground for billion-pound companies, spurred on by a unique culture defined by generosity and ‘dogged determination’

Home to one of the world’s best universities, beautiful scenery and some of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, Cambridge has long had a reputation as one of the UK’s most-loved cities.

Its charm and laidback pace appeal to people looking for both a decent quality of life and an area with exciting career opportunities.

Compared to London, the home of many digital start-ups, Cambridge has remained relatively under the radar, quietly letting the capital grab the attention when it comes to tech innovation.

But Cambridge has become the city to watch. The group of technology and bioscience companies in the city is now one of Europe’s most successful and best known clusters of its kind.

David Cameron recently announced a long-term £12bn economic plan for the East, saying that Cambridge is key to keeping Britain in the global economic race. Drugs giant AstraZeneca is currently planning a £330m global research headquarters on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus in the south of the city.

In some ways, Cambridge has been a victim of its own success. Government investment in early stage start-ups has often been lost as the companies have been unable to grow and instead have ended up being bought by overseas investors.

But the city’s officials say this is changing.

Cambridge Innovation Capital is one new investment fund that has launched in the past year to provide finance for firms in the “Cambridge cluster”, home to around 2,000 businesses with 57,000 staff.

“Seed funding is really well served here,” says Victor Christou, the fund’s senior investment director. “But there is a view that people have to leave the cluster to get further funding. We want to keep people here. People in Cambridge are very tech-savvy and there’s lots of talent here that doesn’t exist in many other places.”

‘Dogged determination’

Twenty years ago, there were no billion-dollar companies in Cambridge. But in the past two decades it has become a hotbed for firms of that size, with 14 created, including chip designer ARM, software firm Autonomy and technology group Aveva.

The recent boom is due to three factors, says Charles Cotton, co-author of the book The Cambridge Phenomenon.

First came a cultural shift in views about commerce when academics at Cambridge University were allowed to pursue non-academic roles, with many turning to entrepreneurship.

Second, the dotcom crash and its recovery changed perceptions about fear of failure and entrepreneurs started taking greater risks.

Finally, the “Cambridge Spirit” – with people in the cluster willing to share knowledge – has created a unique culture defined by generosity and “dogged determination”, says Cotton.


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