Margareta Pagano: The Cambridge phenomenon must be harnessed to inspire nation

Midweek View: The difference here is that there is an ecosystem in which ideas get put into practice. Everyone learns from each other

Outside it was the usual grey Fenland sky but inside the Senate House in Cambridge yesterday it shone with some of the smartest brains in the world; 250 of them in total –a mix of chip experts, computer scientists, biologists, geneticists, physicists and mathematicians. As well as the geeks, there were angels and multi-millionaire entrepreneurs who have created what is known as the Cambridge Phenomenon. There were more companies represented here than people; for each of the 250 brains present are linked to hundreds of other companies spawned in Cambridge. It's this extraordinary network, or cluster, that has turned the city into such a phenomenon.

The brains were celebrating the launch of a new book – Cambridge Phenomenon; 50 years of Innovation and Enterprise – by Charles Cotton, who came to work with the "Micro-Men" of the early 1980s, Clive Sinclair of the eponymous car and computer and Hermann Hauser of Acorn Computers. Mr Cotton cottoned on to the Phenomenon tag and he, with co-writer Kate Kirk, has written about the people behind the 5,000 companies that have emerged from the Fens.

It was in Cambridge that Concorde's droop nose was designed, that ARM Holdings came up with the chips found in 90 per cent of all mobile phones, where Bluetooth was put on a single chip and Pipex became the world's first commercial internet service provider. The city is best known for being home to sequencing the human genome. Less well known is that the Clear Blue pregnancy test and the Strapless Wonderbra also came out of the Fens; but not by the same inventor. That would require more than magic.

To those who say the UK can't create a Microsoft or a Google, the Cambridge record is not bad; the list includes 11 $1bn dollar companies and two $10bn companies – Autonomy and ARM – as well as hundred of tiny highly specialised ones. Today there are around 1400 technology companies employing some 40,000 people.

Just imagine if one could replicate this phenomenon around the country. How could it be done? Mr Cotton puts the city's success down to what he calls the impact of "Brownian motion", combined with the stimulants flowing freely in the local pubs and coffee bars; pubs such as The Eagle where Francis Crick and James Watson announced they had discovered the secret of life in the structure of DNA or the pub where Mike Lynch of Autonomy met a stranger who lent him the first £2,000 after hearing about Mr Lynch's "meaning-based" computing concept.

As Mr Cotton says, the Brownian motion of the random jiggling around of particles suspended in a fluid or a gas has much to answer for. He adds: "Ideas are cheap. The difference in Cambridge is that there is an established ecosystem in which ideas get put into practice. Everyone learns from each other. There are only two degrees of separation from someone else you know who can help you. It's the intensity of the place that makes it work."

Warren East, Arm's chief executive, an Oxford graduate who has been in Cambridge for 29 years, has a similar view. For him it's the sharing of problems and of knowledge that gives the city its edge, and the many dinners and ballroom dancing classes where he met fellow-collaborators. Another entrepreneur, David Braben of Frontier Developments, is also co-founder of the new Raspberry Pi, an ARM-powered and low-cost education computer. He tells me Raspberry should help teach children write programmes as well as read them. Mr Braben came up with the Raspberry idea because of difficulties recruiting new computer scientists to write software for his computer game business, which he blames on declining numbers studying computer science and an exodus of talent abroad for tax reasons.

Mr Cotton says by far the biggest reason for the revolution taking off was when the university changed its attitude towards commerce. The university encouraged academics to start their own businesses, or combine both. Secondly, came a shift in attitude towards risk. Due to early successes, people stopped fearing failure. many failures have led to success with soft-starts coming out of failed companies such as ARM out of Acorn.

Thirdly, he says the Cambridge spirit – the willingness to share knowledge – has been a huge catalyst. Now Cambridge calls itself a multinational and global city and international companies such as Microsoft and Nokia are choosing to locate their research labs there to be close to other scientists. Success breeds success. It's time for the coalition to sequence the Cambridge Phenomenon; time to head to the Eagle pub for inspiration.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all