5 October, 2011 - 13:20 By Tony Quested

Cambridge Cares

A young turk on a Cambridge startup programme revealed that his fledgling business was based in Silicon Roundabout and asked why he should entertain thoughts of setting up in Cambridge when his venture could be based in London.

Whether through over-confidence or an unfortunate manner, the air was thick with hauteur.

His standpoint begged an immediate question, Why was he on the Cambridge programme? Answer: He was hedging his bets.

In any case, the answer to his own question had already been supplied many times over by a parade of leading entrepreneurs from Cambridge and internationally who, at their own expense, gave their time to offer startups on the programme free advice.

Collectively the advice proffered would have cost many thousands of pounds had it been sought professionally. This was expert advice on a plate, freely garnished with goodwill and served with a side dish of experience.

And this is the point about Cambridge. Look at the busy, successful entrepreneurs who find time in their hectic schedules to support the University’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning through its Ignite summer school and Enterprise Tuesday sessions. They don’t have to do it but they want to put something back to help the next generation.

As did Neil Davidson of Red Gate Software and Cambridge Angel, Robert Swan, when Jon Bradford was seeking finance for the inaugural Springboard Cambridge programme in the summer and was starting to get more ‘no’s’ than Cyrano de Bergerac.

A few years ago, Cambridge was obsessing that if it didn’t get the Government to widen the A14 all life as we knew it would cease – at least innovation would die.  PR practitioner Lindy Beveridge, who at the time was looking after the interests of Cambridge Science Park for Trinity College, David Cleevely Hermann Hauser and myself agreed to meet at a local pub to try to thrash out some ideas on a transport policy for the city.

Hermann had earlier that afternoon sold one of his businesses for around $65m as I recall. Many influencers, given the circumstances, may not have bothered to turn up.

The western saloon-style doors suddenly swung open and in walked Hermann. I said: “Champagne?” “No, I’ll have a pint of bitter,” he replied. He proceeded to sit down on a rickety old chair, clapped his hands together and said: “Right - what are we going to do for Cambridge?”

When Business Weekly started life over 21 years ago, the acronym SIG stood for Self Interest Groups. Cambridge was dominated by them. Then a new generation of younger entrepreneurs and companies bust the cliques and cartels wide open.

What you see in Cambridge today is a community of entrepreneurs generous in spirit, inclusive in strategy and altruistic in outreach. We used to have 3i in Cambridge - now we have 3E: Enterprise, Enthusiasm and Ethics. Startups are cradled and nurtured in this bosom of bonhomie.

The American tech giants largely remain sceptical over the likely sustained success of Silicon Roundabout so the jury remains out. Meanwhile, they engage openly with the Cambridge technology cluster.

No doubt London entrepreneurs will prove to be as generous with their time as their Cambridge counterparts but there are no guarantees.

The cocksure young man who preferred life at Silicon Roundabout may well find the metaphorical traffic whizzing pretty swiftly past him in all directions and not showing a particular willingness to stop if he tries to hitch a ride.

That certainly wouldn’t be the case in Cambridge. When it comes to entrepreneurialism and our own particular brand of corporate venturing, Cambridge has shown time and again that it really cares.

The wish has to be for Silicon Roundabout to be as successful as the Cambridge Tech Cluster –  they are only 50 miles apart and culturally much closer – and for the UK to leverage their combined power to attract more investment into the national economy from around the world.

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