Australasian Biotechnology, Vol. 11 No. 6, 2001, pp. 34-35
BIOTECH IN THE UK
Letter from Cambridge
Code Number: au01074
In 1996 I spent the best part of a day in Cambridge. Like millions before me, I was rather dazed by the beauty of this jewel of East Anglia. In particular I remember being overwhelmed by the high gothic architecture and choir of Kings College Chapel.
Then a law student in Australia whose principal aim in life was to leave university well and truly behind, Im sure I would have rated the chances of my studying here as being, to a first approximation, zero, had the thought even crossed my mind. And yet here I am, a student rather than a tourist, for a year not a day.
How it is that I returned to Cambridge is worth telling. But first, some recent local history, which will hopefully interest you further in the Cambridge biotech success story.
High-tech Cambridge: the 1960s and 1970s
The Cambridge area is home to a huge number of technology-based companies. No one knows exactly how many there are, but estimates range from 1,200 to 1,600. This number is thought to be increasing by about one company each week. Many of these companies are in the fields of communications, internet and information technology, but of course one of Europes largest biotechnology/ pharmaceutical clusters is also located here. The creation of this Cambridge Phenomenon has been the subject of several studies, which I will come back to shortly.
The recent chapters in the story begin around the mid-1960s, when the university came under both internal and external pressure to strengthen its links with science-based industry. Internally, the pressure came from key researchers, particularly in the physics and engineering departments, who were galvanised by the commercial benefits they saw being made at places like Stanford and MIT. They took the view that a strong local industry presence would both be a source of research funding and an employer of university graduates. Externally, pressure was applied by Harold Wilsons Labour government, with its rhetoric of a white-hot technological revolution situated at the interface of science and technology. Presumably the government hoped such a revolution in innovation might reduce the need for more painful and wide-ranging economic decisions. In any case, the university responded by establishing a subcommittee of the university senate to examine its relationship with industry.
The outcome was the 1969 Mott report, recommending that the relationship be strengthened. One of the reports more concrete recommendations, the establishment of a science park, was picked up by the wealthy Trinity College in 1970. Whilst for the best part of a decade after its construction in 1973 the Cambridge Science Park remained practically vacant, a range of other initiatives and entrepreneurial activities went on, including the establishment of a major computer aided design centre. This centre attracted extremely talented people and led to many new companies starting up in the area.
The Cambridge Phenomenon: the 1980s and early 1990s
By the early 1980s, Cambridge had two very successful high-tech companies, Sinclair Research Limited and Acorn Computers, creator of the BBC microcomputer, then a world leader. The total number of technology companies in the area grew into hundreds and, although most were very small, people were beginning to talk fo 'the Cambridge Phenomenon'.
In 1984, the university commissioned a small and little-known consultancy recently arrived in the area, Segal Quince Wicksteed Limited, to survey the local industry and produce a comprehensive report. SQW's 100-page report, entitled The Cambridge Phenomenon: The Growth of High Technology Industry in a University Town, was delivered in 1985. The report is generally very highly regarded as an excellent analysis of a clustering phenomenon in progress and as a narrative of this era of Cambridge history. Its delivery is seen a milestone in the development of the Cambridge technology cluster.
Apart from taking the initiative in commissioning the report, the university's approach to the phenomenon was still very hands-off. The then vice-chancellor, himself a leading authority on diabetes, wrote the foreword to the 1985 report, in which he said that the university's role was to allow 'creative individuals' the academic freedom they desired - providing at all times that the university's cultural traditions and academic standards were upheld. This approach was well supported at the time by the university's approach to intellectual property ownership. This approach had long been that, subject to any contrary agreement with the company or agency funding the research, intellectual property belongs to the scientist concerned.
Under new leadership: The late 1990s to present
Although the University of Cambridge, with its mix of departments, colleges and associated reserach institutes, is less coherent than most organisations, the benefits of strong leadership are still apparent. To explain - historically the vice chancellorship of the University of Cambridge was a part-time position, held by the masters of the various colleges on a rotating basis. In 1996, this system changed, and a new, full-time vice chancellor was appointed for 5 years. His name is Sir Alec Broers.
Once a student of Physics and Electronics at the University of Melbourne (to the Council of which he was appointed in April 2000), the new vice-chancellor is an authority in the field of nanotechnology. Unusually for an academic, he has a wealth of commercial experience, with a 20-year career at IBM before moving to Cambridge in 1984. He has been widely credited with bringing new energy to the campaign for the university to strengthen further its ties with industry. For one thing, he symbolically endorsed a greater commerical focus across the university - in my one conversation with him, he told me the story of his first official dinner as vice-chancellor. He had invited senior figures in British industry, and as he tells the story, he concluded his maiden speech with the grand pronouncement, "Ladies and gentlemen, the University is open for business!"
In addition to this symbolic support, the new vice-chancellor has played a clear role in creating a local networking organisation appropriately called 'The Cambridge Network', of which he is still chairman, and in commissioning SQW in 2000 to redo their earlier survey to reflect the immense changes since 1985. This result in a two-volume report entitleld The Cambridge Phenomenon: Revisited. (In a future letter, it would be good to discuss some of the key findings and recommendations in this 2000 report - it gives a good picture of where Cambridge is really at, and why).
This brings us to the present, fortunately due to there being only limited space - except briefly to finish off the story of how I came to return to Cambridge.
In 1990, apparently heavily influenced by the momentum building up in the technology sector in the region, the university founded a business school. The school is named the Judge Institute of Management Studies, after its main benefactor. Its reason for being, to a large extent, is to support the local industry, through developing managerial expertise with an entrepreneurial and technological focus. As a result of working as an intellectual property lawyer, with particular focus on biotechnology, I had the opportunity to join the MBA program here, as part of which students generally take part in two consulting projects with local companies. Next time, I'll try to say something brief but interesting about the biotech companies in the area which I have come across since September.
Editor's Note: Keir Bristow has been a regular contributor to Australasian Biotechnology as a lawyer with Mallesons, and has agreed to provide a new series of 'Letters from Cambridge'. We hope you enjoy this insight into business at one of the world's leading universities.
Copyright 2001 - AusBiotech