Wed, 02 March, 2022
St John’s Innovation Centre managing director, David Gill is delivering his presentation, ‘From Start-up to Scale-up: The Entrepreneurial Journey’ at Research for Impact 2022.
Based in Cambridge, UK, the St John's Innovation Centre provides a dynamic and supportive incubation environment to accelerate the growth of ambitious and innovative firms in the region.
We spoke with David to find out more about the Centre and the importance of innovation…
Hi David, can you start by letting us know a bit more about the St John’s Innovation Centre and the type of businesses you have there?
Most of the companies on site at St John’s Innovation Centre are looking to commercialise some form of innovation – broadly defined – and are in the early stages of scaling up. We are not sector-specific, but tenants tend to specialise in software, hardware or engineering. We are also home to a smaller number of service-based companies, generally providing skills useful for the more tech-based innovators: marketing, design, legal or accounting services.
Major reasons why companies move to SJIC – as we are generally known – include the ability to operate confidentially behind a closed door in your own unit, great flexibility in moving up or down in unit size, and the all-inclusive nature of the offer; innovative firms can concentrate on building their business, without the distraction of facilities management. We also have a team of advisors onsite to help with issues such as grants, access to finance and internationalisation.
When SJIC started, this part of the city was somewhat remote, even neglected. In the intervening 35 years, the Centre has become surrounded by a thriving Innovation Park, with six additional buildings for established or expanding companies, and exciting plans for the future as the whole of North East Cambridge is transformed over the next decade.
Being based in Cambridge, what do you think it is about the area that makes it such vibrant area for innovation?
Tech clusters or innovation districts evolve over a long period and have more in common with the slow food movement than a microwave ready meal (unfortunately for impatient policy makers the world over). Cambridge didn’t start aligning its research strengths with commercialisation opportunities in an appreciable way until the 1960s. Even then, it took a quiet revolution in planning rules to allow suitable infrastructure to be built to house tech businesses capable of scaling. Cambridge Science Park – the first in Europe, I think – started in 1970, and SJIC (another pioneer) in 1987.
Only in the early years of the 21st century did the momentum of the Cambridge Phenomenon became self-sustaining. Nowadays, a whole range of investors, professional advisers, sector networks (biotech, cleantech, IT or comms), research institutes, corporate edge teams, accelerators and science parks serves just about every stage and sector of the innovation ecology. Of course, being home to an international research university and containing the right mix of infrastructure both matter, but the transformative elements are – first – making sure that all players interact creatively and – second – having a sense of mission, of building a better tomorrow, not just building a balance sheet, which flows from the fundamental impact of new business creation.
This sense of mission, instilled by early leaders of the cluster (such as serial entrepreneur Hermann Hauser, or Alec Broers, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge around 2000) lives on, for instance through the impact of Cambridge Angels, the 60 or so successfully exited entrepreneurs who now reinvest not just their funds but their practical wisdom and connections into the rising generation of innovative scale-ups.
Can you give us a little insight into what you will be speaking about during your presentation at R4i?
My starting point was a conversation a decade ago with a leading tech-transfer specialist, who commented that the fundamental challenge for Cambridge start-ups is that the founders lose interest once they can no longer fit all the team round one large conference table. His remark seemed both true and wrong – our cluster didn’t need to be like that. Fortunately, in the intervening years much has changed in the outside world as well as specifically in Cambridge; more role models of successful scale-ups to inspire the next generation, more growth capital, a more international mindset, better (larger!) facilities for most sectors to expand into.
However, not everything is rosy; it seems as if every year one of the largest companies based in Cambridge is acquired by an overseas purchaser, so strategic management moves away from here. And we have collectively reached the point where a much more joined-up approach to transport, housing, schools and other services is a pressing need if Cambridge is to remain a vibrant home for scale-ups.
R4i is concerned with collaborative research and development activities that align with the wider strategies of the European Commission and the UK, why do you think this is important and why did you decide to get involved with R4i 2022?
No innovative firm – or cluster – is an island, entire unto itself. Over the decades that Cambridge has become a tech hub, we have clearly seen the critical importance of international collaboration to push the boundaries of research, innovation, commercialisation and impact. One of the ways in which we all stay sharp and ambitious is working with our peers in comparable economies. While my professional life has enabled me to see innovation in action in the US, Israel, India and South America, we still have so much to learn through cooperation and competition with our closest neighbours in Europe, in both research and the practical implementation of new knowledge.
You can register to attend Research for Impact 2022, here.