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Why Cambridge Continues to be at the heart of the Golden Triangle

Blog, Cambridge

Cambridge is an international destination for knowledge based businesses in the UK, famous for its prestigious universities, its history of commercialising research and the quality of lifestyle that the region offers. We spoke with Aline Charpentier, Head of Innovation at Melbourn Science Park in Cambridgeshire and Senior Development Manager for Bruntwood SciTech, Zoe Peace, to discuss the status of Cambridge’s ever-growing reputation as a centre for technology and science.

What is Cambridge’s Status as an International Tech and Science Hub?

Cambridge’s tech and science cluster is world class, underpinned by the university and a set of institutes which fuel the research and talent that have resulted in 33.8% population growth of the city since 2000.

Aline  shares: “Cambridge is considered as a world leading Tech and Life Science cluster. One of the pillars of innovation clusters is the quality of the academic research, and the University of Cambridge has played a pivotal role in establishing Cambridge as a global centre of innovation. 

“The University is ranked number one in Europe by the Shanghai 2023 Academic Ranking of World Universities, and fourth globally behind Harvard, Stanford and MIT. There are 121 Nobel Prizes affiliated with the University since 1904 and it is a pioneer institution in its approach to translational research and technology transfer activities. 

“Some of these Nobel Prizes paved the way to the biggest developments in modern life science research. This is now reflected in the network of academic and research institutions Cambridge built its reputation on. In addition to the University of Cambridge, there is Anglia Ruskin University, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and the BBSRC Babraham Institute.”

“The University of Cambridge also remains in the top three in the UK and top 23 globally for biomedical and health science publication citations (Leiden Rankings 2023) underpinning its status as a powerhouse in the life sciences industry and a key driver for locating in this region.”

What are the Key Benefits for Science and Tech Startups Basing Themselves in Cambridge?

In addition to access to some of the brightest graduate and research talent, startups basing themselves in Greater Cambridge have access to a range of benefits through mature networks of investors, advisors, innovation facilities and clinical facilities.

Zoe offers: “Greater Cambridge has a strong ecosystem around the growing number of startups and scaling businesses which includes access to research resources, finance and talent, the supply of specialist real estate and infrastructure, as well as a thriving start-up and spin-out community. 

“Cambridgeshire has all of these elements in abundance with the exception of the quantum of specialist real estate that is needed to support scaling the cluster further. JLL reported a 45% increase in the number of life science startups between 2014-2018 and 2016-2020, which is second to London in terms of percentage growth, demonstrating the continual growth of the start up community in the region.”

What Are the Key Challenges Cambridge Faces in Maintaining and Continuing to Build on its Reputation?

Despite its prestigious reputation as an established global player in the science and tech industry, Cambridge still has some challenges in creating an innovation cluster on the same scale as its international counterparts. 

Aline explains the obstacles it faces: “Cambridge's biggest challenge is probably its management of growth. It has seen a 17.6% increase in population over the past ten years, yet, though it is an established global player, its current supply of specialist workspace for science and technology businesses to grow or relocate to the region doesn’t fulfil demand for the critical mass of companies, talent and funding to be sustained. This is a challenge faced by all UK innovation hubs but is exacerbated here by Cambridge’s starting point.

“Cambridge is sometimes considered as a 'big village' - in 2022 its population was only 145,700, which on one hand accounts for its success (the density of networks and innovation) but on the other hand brings about the challenge of lacking a 'big hub' infrastructure that enables population and economic growth.

“Cambridge may be perceived as very ‘past focused’ with its 800-year-old institutions, regular references to past Nobel Prizes and a continued emphasis on the company success stories it promotes, some of which are over 20 years old. In order to maintain its position on the international stage, Cambridge needs to be more future looking, which is an area beginning to be addressed by a cluster-wide initiative called Innovate Cambridge, and is aimed at defining the cluster strategy moving forwards.”

The current lab space challenge in Cambridgeshire

There has been much media discussion around the lack of lab space in the UK, and Cambridge and the wider Greater Cambridge region are no exception to this. 

Aline offers: “The lack of lab space available in Cambridge has always been an issue and directly correlates to the growth challenges the city is facing. The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic, when companies raised record funding due to increases in capital available. This consequently increased their ability to invest it back into research capacities. This has created inflation in the demand that was meeting an already scarce market.

“It’s a real problem because the companies needing lab space are often under pressure to develop their science and technology to avoid losing competitive research advantage. Their investors may have placed deadlines on them too.”

We’ve already touched on Cambridge’s limitations from a geographical size perspective, and it stands to reason that as more high-profile tech and life sciences businesses want to lay roots in the city or wider Greater Cambridge, there will be inevitable increasing strains placed on the infrastructure without more space becoming available. 

Zoe adds: “Savills has reported c700,000 sq ft of demand for lab workspace in Cambridge alone that cannot currently be fulfilled, and this in turn is impacting businesses’ growth, and consequently has a knock on effect on their ability to function to the full extent of their capability. 

“In efforts to tackle the lack of specialist infrastructure available in the region, one opportunity is to expand what is currently seen as the city limits of the science and tech ecosystem and to consider Greater Cambridge as part of its core community. There are several innovation campuses on the periphery of the city, with excellent connections to nearby village communities, transport links to London, Stevenage and Cambridge, property prices at less of a premium for attracting next generation talent, and critically, space available for world-class, specialist lab space and office workspace for science and tech businesses. 

“Melbourn Science Park is one of these places and is only nine miles from the city centre - or a 20 minute drive or train journey. It is home to an established science and tech community that includes the likes of SPT LabTech, TTP, Lex Diagnostics and Syndex Bio. Bruntwood SciTech is addressing the current challenge of creating specialist lab space that is available to rent by transforming the campus through a £250m, 10 year masterplan. The masterplan will see the park expand from 180,000 sq ft to 390,000 sq ft and see the delivery of world-leading, highly specialist lab and office space for startups, scale ups and global businesses to co-locate and be presented with collaboration opportunities. 

“The redeveloped campus will offer wet and dry labs including chemistry and biology labs, office space, and incubator facilities. Lab workspaces are typically higher in energy usage than their office counterparts, however, Bruntwood SciTech has committed for all of its new builds, including its labs, to be net zero carbon both in construction and operation in their shared spaces.”

What next for Cambridgeshire’s Science and Tech Ecosystem?

Cambridgeshire is often defined as a ‘safe place to do risky business’, with well established support systems available for startups to take advantage of, and Bruntwood SciTech, since joining the ecosystem in February 2021, is playing its part in this too.

Aline adds: “There is a lot of support available for entrepreneurs, for example, you have accelerator programmes like Illumina for startups, StartCodon, Impulse from Cambridge University, Ignite, and established networks such as One Nucleus, Cambridge Ahead, The Cambridge Network, Cambridge Wireless and an array of specialist meetup groups. Sometimes the challenge, particularly for small businesses, is to find a way to navigate this wide ranging support system which can seem complex. Bruntwood SciTech helps with this through the relationships, partnerships and network it offers by its Innovation Services team. By locating to Melbourn Science Park in Greater Cambridge, science and tech businesses are provided with direct access to highly skilled talent, funding and finance support, new market opportunities and a large professional services support network.

“We’ve also identified a small gap in follow-up support for start-ups and post accelerator businesses and they are offered much needed space in which they can grow, alongside the specialist support we offer. Life science businesses looking for lab space at Melbourn Science Park can additionally access our ‘LifeSpace’ programme, which in addition to commercial guidance, includes regular specialist networking events to help businesses innovate, scale and grow.

“If the Cambridge ecosystem is to continue to grow in its current trajectory, it is crucial that it works inclusively, and is community-oriented. And this is exactly where Bruntwood SciTech can play a role. Community engagement is at the heart of how we develop our campuses, like that which we’re doing at Melbourn Science Park, and we feel that there is opportunity to weave some of the examples of this inclusive collaboration more so within the broader regional cluster overall.”

Greater Cambridge continues to be a very attractive destination for tech and life science startups, with its local highly skilled talent, exceptional facilities and expert deep-rooted academic knowledge and research capabilities. Find out more about Bruntwood SciTech’s commitment to supporting the growth of the life sciences and tech sector across Cambridgeshire here

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