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Why is Cambridge known as the Silicon Valley of the UK?

5 months ago - Mark Ashton

According to Wikipedia, along with a number of other notable sources, the Cambridge Cluster, AKA Silicon Fen, is a name that has been aptly given to a broad region in-and-around Cambridge, that has a focal network of businesses who are predominantly within the electronics, software and biotechnology sectors.

Of course, everyone who reads this will know about Silicon Valley, and this is precisely where the inspiration for the name was derived from.   As a technology recruitment professional in Cambridge, with just a couple of decades’ experience under my belt; I have seen the changes in the region, along with some substantial start-ups in the sector. I must say, it excites me to the point that I am assured there will be plenty of jobs in technology in Cambridge for many decades to come.

Where Did It All Start?

In the case of Silicon Valley, it began as early as 1939 with two well-known entrepreneurs; William Hewlett and David Packard. Who would have known that their small electronics business which was set-up and ran from a tiny garage in Palo Alto would set the wheels in motion for what is today, one of the largest, if not the largest technology hub for businesses?

Ironically, Silicon Fen has a similar story, except this one is linked back to the University. In the early stages of the 20th century, lobbying by the University resulted in Cambridge having no specific industries which could be regarded as legacy sectors. Unlike Oxford, there was no manufacturing business to speak of or industrial industries at all. It was mostly in so-called ‘clean’ spaces such as broadcasting, scientific instruments, and consumer technology.

It was during the beginning of the 1950’s when the University started to grow and traverse its way to becoming an intellectual powerhouse that things really started to change. What became the Computer Lab, (formally known as the Mathematical Lab) was actually quite significan and it really did kick off the scientific and technology sectors in the region. First of all, it was Maurice Wilkes’ company that made a specialist technology available quickly, which then has a knock-on effect, and resulted in a significant number of breakthroughs scientifically.  One of which being in the field of earth sciences and the discovery of plate tectonics, which was huge. This firmly established Cambridge as a pioneering region in the Computing and Information Technology sector, not just In the UK or Europe, but globally as well.

Later that same decade, another significant discovery was made by two scientists named Crick and Watson; the structure of the DNA molecule. This is the reason that Cambridge has a whole range of biotechnology companies in the region today.

Another significant development with specific relation to the IT sector was the creation of a company called Cambridge Consultants. This was founded by a group of Alumni from the University of Cambridge and played a crucial part of providing high-quality academics from the University into business. One significant company I mention a lot in my post, CSR (Cambridge Silicon Radio) can be traced back to this business.

The final element, which is significant to the rise of the technology companies in Cambridge was the attitude of the public sector, specifically local government and the University of Cambridge. There was much push from engineering, physics and computing researchers whom all wanted to see local development in their respective fields for a number of reasons. How better a way to get exposure for their research than using start-ups as a testing grounds, along with a constant resource of funding and cooperation. They were savvy enough to know even way back then that this would elevate the opportunities for their students. Moreover, the Univesity was a lot laxer back then, intentionally so, regarding their IP and any associated rights to that.

Some of the similarities between Silicon Fen and Silicon Valley include having a prominent research university at its disposal. They both have decent travel links, along with healthcare, international finance, and accounting businesses, education, hotels, and culture all play an important part too.

Cambridge Technology Jobs

As to whether Cambridge will ever be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Silicon Valley remains to be seen, as an optimist, I hope in the future it can. For now, I am proud to work in the technology recruitment sector in Cambridge and understand why technology businesses have been drawn to the region.

I recall an article published in The Guardian a while ago that I read with great interest.  It spoke of the special powers that Cambridge has, which were in most, responsible for the rise of the numbers of companies in technology looking to be based on the region.  As of five years ago, there were five companies who had a billion dollar price tag attached to them.

The result of the article was that in fact, there was no secret weapon or formula. Just like with Silicon Valley, there is no single factor that makes it the best place (in my opinion) to get a job in the technology sector. It has happened organically. I do believe the significant number of top-quality graduates the region produces has in some way been a driver for these businesses, but the growth of businesses in Cambridge has almost happened organically, over a period of many years following the historical landmarks in business that occurred around 60 years ago.

2017 Figures for Silicon Fen are More Than Impressive

Earlier this year, The Cambridge Independent released figures which stated that a large number of businesses who are in the technology sector in Cambridge had forecast healthy growth plans for the year ahead, with many looking at figures of between 10-20% growth in 2017 alone.

Separately, again in Cambridge Press, but this time in the Cambridge News, they have produced figures which state that technology businesses in Cambridge alone are worth around £2.1bn to the total UK economy.  That’s a pretty impressive figure.

Another figure that’s impressive is the 30k+  employees that work in the technology sector in the region, earning an average salary of around £46k.