Nurturing Spontaneous Innovation at Cambridge Knowledge Cluster

roger_casale_lfig-150x150

At 9.30 am we jumped into taxis outside Cambridge station and headed to Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group or MADG (www.marshalladg.com).

 

Marshall ADG is still innovating today, playing a central role in the Cambridge community, while exporting its services all over the globe.

We were welcomed by CEO Steve Fitz-Gerald and MD Nick Whitney and given a brief on MADG today, which included a discussion about the huge value of apprenticeships to developing the skills base, much needed to sustain a company like Marshall.

“If you have apprentices you can skill them up and develop them into type-trained engineers.” (Lord Young, Shadow BIS).

Taking the long term approach, Marshall does its best to look after its employees in the down times, sometimes taking on work at cost to avoid redundancies. This allows them to grow again when demand recovers.

Amongst the significant achievements of Marshall over the years are how they developed the Concorde nose in the 1960s, re-fitting a C130 transport aircraft for air-to-air refueling in only 10 days so it could fly to the Falklands in 1982, and recently winning the Queens Award for Innovation for a mobile MRI Scanner.

By the time we left, we could see why Marshall regards itself as a national treasure. It still innovates and supports an eco-system of SMEs, skills and apprenticeships, and is deeply embedded and committed to its local community and exporting its services all over the world.

Like many companies in this sector Marshall ADG faces further challenges, which it confronts with the same values and commitment to its employees that have driven its success up to now. We wish them every success for the future.

Our next stop was Cambridge Enterprise (www.enterprise.cam.ac.uk), the incandescent hub of the University’s drive to push science, research and innovation into commercial and industrial applications.

Consider one staggering statistic – 89 Nobel prize winners are from Cambridge, more than anywhere else in the world. They even have an Oscar winner for sound systems.

Cambridge has more patents per head than the next ten cities combined.

ARM Holdings ( www.arm.com ), a multinational, microprocessor IP company, with a staggering 98% share of the chips in smart phones and tablets, started here and is still based in Cambridge.

One of the most recent and best-known success stories was the launch of Raspberry Pi ( www.raspberrypi.org ), which designed a credit card-sized computer that can be plugged into a TV. The creators hope it will help children worldwide to learn programming.

Dr Tony Raven, CEO of Cambridge Enterprise taught us much about the Cambridge success story but two points stand out for me.

First, the Cambridge Cluster occurred spontaneously. It’s an eco-system that can be nurtured rather than planned and it shouldn’t be meddled with.

Second, government matters.: “We put much down to the emphasis Labour placed on the knowledge-based economy” (Dr. Tony Raven).

What holds Cambridge back now is the city’s lack of affordable housing and the need for infrastructure investment.

We heard from Alex Plant, Cambridge County Council, about the plan to raise £ 500m for Cambridge’s transport infrastructure.

The investment would be clawed back through higher tax revenues from the extra growth that would be the consequence of such investment.

Yet such is the grip of austerity on the Treasury that even this seems difficult to achieve.

Before leaving Cambridge Enterprise we met with Stew McTavish of Idea Space ( www.ideaspace.cam.ac.uk   ), a human version of the particle accelerator, where the energy of innovators spins off the next wave of high impact innovations.

“In Cambridge, you have a lot of bright people occupying the same space –Idea Space takes that space and compresses it”, said Stew McTavish, Director.

Our visit to the Cambridge Cluster was rounded off with a visit to Owlstone Nanotech ( www.owlstonenanotech.com ) hosted by co-founder Dr.Billy Boyle.

The company produces a sensor that can detect and identify smells. This has security but also medical applications. A GP can now detect whether a patient has lung cancer from that patient’s breath.

This was a great example of how the ideas that come from research at the University are translated into new enterprises, investment and jobs.

At the end of our meeting, we watched as Billy Boyle jumped on his bike and headed off, we presumed, to a local pub, to meet some fellow innovators and entrepreneurs or possibly even his next major investor.

It is a serious point – in Cambridge, the quality of the local lifestyle helps keep the innovators in town as well as forming part of the extended space which allows them to get together and achieve great things.

For our part, Labour PPC Daniel Zeichner took us to the excellent “Bills” in Green Street and then on a city walk to Clare College.

The day finished with a joint meeting at Clare College of LFIG and the Cambridge Fabians, with Daniel, Iain Wright and Tony Young. We were joined by LFIG Chairman, David Offenbach.

Then it was back to Kings Cross on the 9.15 pm train.

Many thanks to all who helped make the day such a success, especially James Gill and Daniel Zeichner for their great support.

Next stop Harwell – Oxford. Watch this space!

Roger Casale is an independent consultant working in industry. He proposed and organized the Cambridge Visit on LFIG’s behalf

REF:http://lfig.org/nurturing-spontaneous-innovation-at-cambridge-knowledge-cluster/