3 February, 2012 - 13:18 By Tony Quested

Time to create a real Cambridge technology supercluster

New research on the Cambridge technology cluster reveals how wireless and BioMedTech are driving research and product advances, cash generation and jobs growth for the local and UK economies while the CleanTech segment blinks in their vapour trail.

Figures garnered for Business Weekly by membership organisations Cambridge Wireless and One Nucleus highlight the massive strides Cambridge CleanTech needs to make to form anything resembling a cluster.

The new Cambridge Cleantech members’ organisation recently published what it called a ‘Fast 50’ of local CleanTech businesses. But only 18 of the 50  were actual CleanTech companies – the rest were service providers.

Business Weekly’s own instant research shows 39 thriving clean technology businesses in the Cambridge technopole – some of them tangential to the wireless sector – but even that figure is dwarfed by the number of game-changers in both BioMedTech and wireless.

It highlights the obvious fact that you can’t force independent companies to join a members’ body so the networks’ stats will only reflect their membership rather than the full power of their respective segment.

Even so, the figures are a reliable guide to strength and influence. And as Dwight Eisenhower said: “Only strength can cooperate. Weakness can only beg.”

The rise of digital healthcare plays has boosted the local BioMedTech cluster, which now boasts over 250 biotech companies plus 100 medical technology businesses. But even that number – comfortably the largest co-ordinated cluster in Cambridge – is outstripped by the number of service companies in the sector; 370.

Cambridge Wireless research shows a membership of 324 companies – 313 of them in the UK (319 in Europe), four in North America and one in Asia.

The East of England supplies 54 per cent of the membership (162 companies) and Cambridgeshire provides 111 (68 per cent) of those.

The split between actual technology companies and service providers is again instructive. Ninety-one of the Cambridgeshire number are wireless technology companies and 71 non-tech. There are other wireless companies in the East of England outside of the Cambridge Cluster but who piggy-back its credentials.

Cambridge Wireless chairman, David Cleevely has previously told Business Weekly that ARM Holdings’ sensational progress in fast-growth technology segments could push the value of the local wireless cluster past the £10 billion mark in the next couple of years.

Cambridge Wireless companies have raised more cash than CleanTech plays, although Nujira – which investors love – straddles both segments.

The fundraising records of Cambridge BioMedTech companies is patchy but the best businesses within digital healthcare plus the personalised medicines arena, antibodies and oncology, are starting to generate more backing.

Consultants and networks of service providers are clearly essential to the growth of any cluster – but they need some bones to put flesh and muscle on. Which brings us back to the Cambridge CleanTech sector.

Enecsys, Nujira, CamSemi and Polatis, which have produced the biggest fundraisings in the segment, are already world class and ploughing their own furrow. At the time of writing none were members of the new Cambridge Cleantch organisation. Nor were the exciting Cambridge Carbon Capture or Green-Tide Turbines, which we understand is on the cusp of big things.

As we have written before: Cambridge CleanTech as a sector needs a big exit before it starts attracting fundraising on a scale that can act as a catalyst for a genuine cluster.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly confusion over what Clean Technology actually entails. Equally, VCs (as opposed to savvy on-the-ground angels) are increasingly risk averse and – possibly without justification – regard ‘green’ technology plays as higher risk than even biotech.

That’s saying something considering the Cambridge bio cluster, for all its other glories and a stack of Nobel Prizes, has still only produced one blockbuster drug – HUMIRA from the erstwhile Cambridge Antibody Technology.

Of course its the quality of the science and cutting edge research from Cambridge allied to the financial clout of Big Pharma that holds the real value in the drug discovery process – especially in the post-genomic era.

The new Cambridge Cleantech organisation has given the ‘sector-that-would-be a cluster’ a focus that will help generate publicity and boost the prospects of funding.

For their part, CleanTech companies clearly face a challenge of explaining better to investors what their technology does and the potential payback.

Over time, CleanTech will prove to be the new wave but here in Cambridge it clearly needs a helping hand.

There has been much talk about a so-called Cambridge Supercluster – although putting shape and substance to the hype is another matter: A proper supercluster would by now be demonstrating more evidence of technology convergence.

Wireless has a role to play in future healthcare as do energy-efficient technologies. If Cambridge Wireless, One Nucleus and Cambridge Cleantech formed a mutually-dependant body – say Convergence Cambridge – to explore and exploit synergies; and harnessed the brainpower of Cambridge University and the global sustainability nous of Aled Jones’ team at Anglia Ruskin University, then we would have the foundation of something really special.

Whether we like it or not, part of the investment equation comes down to scale. It is no coincidence that China has overtaken the UK in terms of VC investment and now has the US in its sights. Scale counts and without the ability to scale up fast exciting innovation can perish on the road to commercialisation.

The Cambridge technology cluster’s scale doesn’t match up to Silicon Valley, the wider US, China or Asia. In terms of landmass it will forever be geographically challenged – but its brainpower has no boundaries or borders. It’s time to collate and optimise the grey matter for the greater good.

As Martin Luther King said in a vastly different and much more important context: “We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”

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