Named after the flat lands in the area, Silicon Fen can trace its roots back to when Cambridge University academic Maurice Wilkes and colleagues built one of the first computers in 1949—the Edsac, which was used widely for research and established the university as a leader in computing.
Cambridge’s academics were keen to monetize their research; as a result, many small, specialist companies emerged. Contributing to the growth of the tech sector was the presence of “angel investors” ready to invest in and mentor these start-ups, long before venture capitalists were interested. These new ventures were powered by a network of specialists who remained in the area, and the exchange of ideas has continued with the establishment of organizations such as Cambridge Wireless.
At the same time, one of the initial research projects run at Cambridge University by biologist James Watson and physicist Francis Crick around the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 created a complementary ecosystem of biotechnology companies in the area.
Economist Alfred Marshall (a Cambridge student himself) observed that workers in skilled occupations tend to cluster in areas where their peers live and work. Microsoft and Toshiba both have their major European research labs in Cambridge. AstraZeneca is moving its R&D and corporate headquarters there. There are more than 1,500 science and technology-based companies in and around the city, including global market leaders like ARM—one of the UK’s most successful companies and a leader in the smartphone and mobile device processor chips markets.
And among the tech start-ups is Raspberry Pi, the credit-card sized computer that has inspired youngsters to learn how to code; the Raspberry Pi Foundation is engaged in a wide range of activities from developing educational materials to lobbying the government. The company’s founders were already based in Cambridge and benefited from the region’s ability to attract the most talented graduates to the area.
To build spectrum in the area, UK regulator Ofcom announced at the end of 2013 Europe’s first major pilot of an innovative new wireless technology “white space,” which could help support the next wave of wireless innovation by utilizing the gaps, or “white spaces” that sit in the frequency band used to broadcast digital terrestrial TV. White space devices would communicate their locations to a database designed to minimize the risk of interference from any existing users.
The Internet of Things is a key driver in the growing demand for spectrum, and the “Cambridge Cluster” is playing a key role in ensuring that the significant benefits can be effectively realised in the future. Once again, Cambridge features large and over 1,000 members (including Accenture) are now co-operating in the Weightless Special Interest Group (SIG) on a not-for-profit basis, led by Cambridge tech luminary William Webb as CEO.
Author: John Roe is himself a Cambridge University graduate and is now responsible for Mobile Technology Planning in Accenture Digital.
1. MIT Skoltech Initiative Technology Innovation Ecosystem Benchmarking Study, January 2013
— Ruth Graham
2. They call it Silicon Fen. So what is the special draw of Cambridge? John Naughton, The
3. Ofcom reveals participants in wireless innovation trial, October 2013
4. Weightless Special Interest Group — www.weightless.org
5. Cambridge Wireless — Cambridge Wireless