In Cambridge, ancient colleges, modern laboratories and commercial impact coexist harmoniously, and science-based start-ups often develop world-changing products.
Cambridge does not fit any conventional mould. This small city in a rural setting has generated, and continues to generate achievements out of all proportion to its size. Its 800 year old University was home to Francis Bacon, Mary Beard, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking among many others, and 121 University-affiliates have won a Nobel Prize (one twice), for work as diverse as splitting the atom and unravelling the nature of DNA. Always strong in mathematics, the University educated the pioneers of its modern metamorphosis, computer science, including Charles Babbage in the nineteenth century and Alan Turing in the twentieth. Cambridge graduates have won 80 Olympic gold medals. The modern rules of association football were devised here in 1848. We constantly look to the future. Cambridge will be one of the first places in the UK where autonomous vehicles will be tested as part of the public transport network.
Cambridge affiliates awarded the Nobel Prize (one twice)
Olympic gold medals won by Cambridge graduates
The disparate worlds of ancient colleges, modern laboratories and commercial impact coexist in remarkable harmony. Indeed, an unusual feature is the extent to which leading researchers are also prominent in start-ups, which may even develop into global corporations. The early prominence of information technology is now matched by rapid growth in life-sciences, with new sectors benefiting from the tangible legacies of their forerunners (computational power, artificial intelligence) and the intangible cultural transformation of the cluster.
employment growth per year in Cambridge since 2011
of the workforce has a higher education qualification
unicorns (companies valued at more than $1 billion) based in Cambridge
Consider how Humira® (the best-selling drug in the world, used to combat numerous inflammatory conditions) emerged out of Cambridge Antibody Technology Ltd, founded by three research scientists from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1989. The discovery at the LMB in 1975 of monoclonal antibodies earned Cesar Milstein and Georges Koehler a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (1984). Then, one of the co-founders of CAT and also a research scientist at the LMB, Sir Greg Winter, pioneered phage display of monoclonal antibodies for human therapeutic use, earning the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Academic excellence, transformative impact and commercial success are held together by the bridges across disciplines that the city’s culture fosters. Similar stories apply in physics or computer science.
Measures, not targets
A quirk of the Cambridge mindset is that worldly success is often a by-product of achieving more oblique goals. Research teams and start-ups alike measure their attainment, according to one leading academic entrepreneur, by their ability ‘to make a dent in the universe’, rather than by conventional ‘KPIs’. Cambridge has generated remarkable financial returns, including 20 billion-dollar corporations, 2 of which have been valued at over $10 billion, but its distinctive appeal is to those who seek to create real value rather than financial valuations.
Now that several generations have navigated the twin-tracks of academic excellence and entrepreneurial endeavour, being at ease in both worlds has become baked into the Cambridge culture. New students sign up for training and coaching to enable them to raise funding and build products and solutions customers will use. Teamwork is valued as much as individual excellence. Many who achieved success in an earlier generation return to mentor and fund their aspiring successors. Cooperation, accessibility and a spirit of ‘pay it forward’ are as much part of the ties binding Cambridge together as are more tangible assets such as laboratories or incubators. Large enough to matter on the international stage, Cambridge nevertheless remains sufficiently compact to foster the intimacy that favours creativity across conventional boundaries.
Fortune favours the prepared mind but Cambridge counts itself incredibly fortunate with its recent ‘godparents’. The modern technology cluster emerged in the 1960s, with numerous successful academics, entrepreneurs and national leaders who – instead of retiring to enjoy fame and leisure, have given back to Cambridge their experience, wisdom and treasure. Not least the liberating insight that honest endeavour in a worthwhile cause will never count as failure, whatever the outcome. ‘Cambridge is a safe place to do risky things’ as life sciences entrepreneur, Dr Andy Richards CBE memorably expressed it.