A Web 2.0 Perspective from Cambridge and the Silicon Fen

“Will it change the world?” This is the question that he always asks when looking at a business. Shai Vyakarnam is the Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

Cambridge was recently placed in a Financial Times ranking as the 2nd top university in the world, after Harvard and in front of Oxford. So, the university is a magnet for global, and particularly European, talent. And Vyakarnam parses out advice on where bright minds should focus their energy.

His Centre is all about spreading the spirit of enterprise and to be a catalyst to grow world-changing businesses in Cambridge and beyond. Vyakarnam has seen a lot of business ideas in his day. He has been an entrepreneurship educator and inveterate global networker for longer than the life span of Mark Zuckerberg.

Vyakarnam recalls vividly how the dot com boom and bust was all about eyeballs and traffic—but where was the business model? While a number of solid companies emerged, too many ended up on the venture capital scrap heap. Cambridge is a great environment to observe high-tech growth developments generally and Web 2.0 trends specifically.

Cambridge is located by “the Fens,” also known as the Fenland. The Fens are like a low lying flat wetland, subsequently drained, and converted to agricultural use. Cambridge is sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Fen” as it is one of the leading high tech centres in Europe. Add this to your web lexicon along with “Silicon Alley” in New York and “Silicon North” which is seemingly claimed by all parts of Canada.

Silicon Fen is home to a large cluster of high-tech businesses, especially those related to software, electronics and biotechnology. Vyakarnam refers to this as “deep technology”—intellectual property that takes years of “slow burn” to develop. Many of these start-ups have connections with Cambridge University, and the area is now one of the most important technology centres in Europe.

How did high tech start in the Fen? The so-called “Cambridge Phenomenon,” giving rise to start-up companies in a town previously only having a modest light industry related to the electrical sector, is usually traced back to the founding of the Cambridge Science Park in 1970. The university at that time moved away from a traditional low-development policy and invested in high tech.

The Judge Business School estimated in February 2006 that there were around 250 active start-ups in the Silicon Fen directly linked to the University, valued at around US$6 billion. Silicon Fen has not seen the same focus on Web 2.0 companies, whose strength is often in a unique, first to market utility, rather than grounded in complicated software.

But Judge Business School at Cambridge is connecting itself more closely to Silicon Valley trends. Oxford and Cambridge (often grouped as “Oxbridge”) cooperated in a program last year which important key industry types from Silicon Valley for a venture conference. The Silicon Valley stars, meanwhile, were eager to tap meet some of the leading minds in Europe.

It is also important for Vyakarnam to stay in touch with Silicon Valley as some of the Cambridge graduates end up in that environment pursuing their dreams. As Cambridge celebrates its 800 year anniversary, Vyakarnam helps his students put their quest in a balanced context.