9 May, 2012 - 10:10 By Tony Quested

Cambridge University regains ‘missionary spirit’

Heard the one about the two Englishman, the German, the Austrian and the two Poles?

They’re all influencers based in or around Cambridge University in the UK – and collectively they have the willpower and firepower to break Ivy League balls, metaphorically speaking.

For the first time in its 803-year history, the University has the people in all major positions of power to unleash the full force of its intellectual capital armoury.

And the really good news is that they are not only working in unison within the university but also engaging and collaborating with the big hitters in the Cambridge technology cluster.

This acknowledgement that commercialising Cambridge’s intellectual capital – seeking gain from brain – is not tacky or akin to selling one’s birthright is to be welcomed with a fanfare of trumpets.

The new mood of bristling intent was evident among the university and tech cluster influencers who attended the launch of Charles Cotton’s Cambridge Phenomenon book yesterday at the University’s Senate House – ‘the soul’ of the university as vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz put it.

Professor Borysiewicz is the right man at the right time holding the reins – a passionate evangelist for industry and technology and highly supportive of the university’s many dontrepreneurs.

Highlighting the multicultural diversity of the university’s leading lights, Leszek was born in Wales but of Polish parents.

Christoph Loch, new director of the university’s Judge Business School, is a  German national and is already showing massive ambition for the Judge and its Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. A new entrepreneur incubator, announced here last night, is just the start.

Austrian-born Hermann Hauser is the entrepreneurial face in the technology community cross-pollinating the university’s engagement strategy with corporate heavyweights globally and working with Cambridge Enterprise and Judge to make the university as highly regarded as Harvard for open innovation and commercial savvy.

Andy Hopper, born in Warsaw, is leveraging a never-ending talent pool at the university’s Computer Laboratory, to produce a steady stream of globally-influential technology businesses.

The two Englishmen at the heart of the new drive are David Sainsbury as Chancellor and Tony Raven as new director of the university’s commercialisation arm, Cambridge Enterprise. Dr Raven has co-founded a major tech consultancy in the cluster and built international commercial businesses from a Cambridge springboard.

He told me: “We are aiming to be bigger and bolder – to show more ambition.” Lord Sainsbury told Business Weekly when we campaigned for his election last summer that it was time the university punched its commercial weight.

As a champion of Cambridge and UK technology and a keen supporter of and investor in life science, Lord Sainsbury has the political muscle and industry credentials to elevate the Cambridge cachet to unprecedented heights.

Professor Borysiewicz made it clear at the Cambridge Phenomenon book launch that the technology cluster wasn’t some inconsequential bolt-on that just happened to share the same geographical footprint as the university.

He said: “To our students and faculty, the Cambridge Cluster is not some external thing. It’s the air that we breathe.”

Together, these emperors of enterprise, present a battery of brainpower capable of emulating their major research rivals in an intensely competitive landscape. More than that, their united show of force sends a message to industrial collaborators that they shouldn’t expect to ‘hire’ Cambridge University brainpower on the cheap.

We don’t want to lose top dons to other universities because companies won’t pay the going rate for some of the most innovative thinkers on the planet.

The collegiate nature of the university has, in the past, often militated against a 1Cambridge approach – triggering a failure to pool capability to market the full catalogue of what it has to offer. Cambridge University graduates have changed the world – improved lives and saved lives and living standards –with groundbreaking medical, engineering and other discoveries over eight centuries.

Whether through fear, suspicion or a misplaced sense of grandeur, the University as an entity has too often failed to leverage its achievements and capabilities for the greater good. It is a torchbearer for excellence in academia; it is an effective bridge-builder with the corporate community that feeds off its intellectual core; no institution is better placed to take a message of inspiration to the wider world.

In its formative years the fledgling Cambridge University was given Papal permission to take its teachings to other countries as missionaries of the mind. Eight centuries is too long to have waited for that missionary spirit to be revived.

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