Cambridge Ideas Change The World
The secrets of Cambridge’s successful technology cluster are being revealed today at the launch of the book ‘The Cambridge Phenomenon 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise’.
The term Cambridge Phenomenon was the title of a report by SQW to describe the emergence of a group of some 350 high-tech firms in and around Cambridge with origins that could be traced back to the University and the local research community.
Now thirty years on there are now about 1400 technology companies in Cambridgeshire employing more than 40,000 people and a new perspective is possible.
A clear lesson is that ideas take time to evolve. The breakthroughs that we are seeing now are built on the work of many generations of scientists from a wide variety of disciplines.
A good example is biotechnology. This lucrative industry has been responsible for a new generation of medicine and blockbuster drugs that have repaid the original investors several times over. However, its origins can be attributed in part to work of Cambridge scientists over 50 years before who cracked the code of life itself and secondly to a cultural change within the academic institutes, which has allowed academics to progress commercial goals along with scientific recognition.
It was in 1953, that Francis Crick and James Watson famously announced in the Eagle pub that they had uncovered the double helix structure of DNA. But it was to be nearly a quarter of a century later that Fred Sanger produced the first DNA whole genome sequence for a virus.
From then the race was on, government backed projects particularly in the UK and USA aimed to be the first to sequence and identify all three billion chemical units in the human genome.
The breakthrough was to come in another Cambridge pub – the Panton Arms – when Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman devised a new, lower cost and faster method of gene sequencing. Solexa, the company they founded, was acquired in 2006 by US company Illumina for $650M.
The development of the Cambridge biotech cluster has benefited from institutes such as the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), established by a trio of Nobel Prize winners.
It was at the LMB that César Milstein and Georges Köhler found a way to identify and isolate the antibodies made by the immune system to fight disease. This work created the potential to create a new generation of drugs based on antibodies.
The value of this work has been stressed by Sir Gregory Winter, the Deputy Director, LMB who has commented that already there are six antibodies in the top 20 best-selling pharmaceutical drugs – by 2014 it is predicted that the first three slots will be occupied by antibodies.
This is significant, as Winter invented techniques to both humanize and, later, to make fully human antibodies for therapeutic uses and his technology is used in over two-thirds of the antibody products on the market, including Herceptin, Avastin, Synagis and the first human antibody (Humira) to be approved by the US FDA and achieved global sales of $7.9 Bn in 2011.
Charles Cotton who is behind the launch of the new Cambridge Phenomenon book argues that it is the creation of an ecosystem in which these developments can be made that is the success of the Cambridge Cluster.
He says: “Cambridge keeps evolving. 800 years of history and 88 Nobel Prize winners affiliated with the University of Cambridge, is obviously an advantage but in some industries it is the ‘personal brand’ offered by an entrepreneur or scientist that is important.
“We are seeing how serial entrepreneurs such as Greg Winter (Cambridge Antibody Technology) and Shankar Balasubramanian (Solexa) can also be active professors inspiring the next generation of students.
“This is providing real benefits to the economy as increasingly companies are staying in Cambridge after acquisition and international companies such as Amgen and Medimmune are choosing to locate their research labs here to be close to these people.
“Although Cambridge has produced eleven billion dollar tech companies, equally important is the diversity of smaller companies employing highly skilled individuals. This continually evolving community is like a ‘perpetual motion engine’ attracting fresh, bright people inspired to do things differently; creating not just embryonic companies but entirely new industry sectors.”
For more information on the Cambridge Phenomenon see www.cambridgephenomenon.com/book.