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AlertMe makes smart home applications for the consumer. Last year it announced a breakthrough deal with British Gas, “the last major piece in the jigsaw of Smart Energy,” according to founding director, Pilgrim Beart. This year it plans to move its London office to ‘Silicon Roundabout’ to go with the one it already has in Silicon Fen – the combination of Cambridge and London is a natural one for the tech industry says Beart.
The UK enjoys a well-deserved reputation as the birthplace of world-changing ideas, and Cambridge has a strong claim to be the epitome of that inventive spirit. Residents proudly point-out that there are more Nobel prize-winners living in the little Cambridge village of Shelford than in the whole of France, and that in the history of mankind more computing cycles have been executed on the city’s ARM processors than on all other processors combined. This spirit was well captured in the city’s recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cambridge Phenomenon.
However the UK also has a reputation for not being very good at making money from its ideas, at marketing and selling them, and here too perhaps Cambridge is the epitome. Everyone here is super-bright and not afraid to try the impossible before lunchtime, but sometimes that can be a curse too: We re-invent wheels just because we can.
We forget that buy-in from the rest of the world is often more important than whether ours is indeed the very best mouse-trap. I’ve certainly had that accusation levelled at me, probably with good justification. Reflecting on the 15 years since I returned to the city, in each venture I notice a strong correlation between the moment we stopped trying to be so damned clever and started just doing a simple thing really well and the moment that we started to get traction and make money. The isolation of the Ivory Tower is an excellent place for thinking, but to change the world you do have to connect up with it.
People have occasionally made attempts to connect up Cambridge with its neighbours: one hears hopeful phrases like “We’re located at the Ipswich end of the Ipswich-Cambridge corridor” and my favourite “Luton – on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc” (it’s hard to resist pointing-out that, mathematically, everywhere can make the same claim!).
We had a direct railway connection across to Oxford until Beeching had his way in the 1960’s, and shortly after this I remember my father starting to make his slow and unreliable daily railway commute from Cambridge down to London Liverpool Street.
CB1 to W1 and EC1
Fast forward 50 years and AlertMe opened its first London office in Regent Street W1, so I started to make the commute myself, although thankfully not every day. With fast trains twice an hour, it’s a transformation from the 1960’s – with today’s longer trains one can even now usually get a seat! AlertMe opened a London office because London is clearly the best UK hub for international travel, and for finding great sales and marketing execs.
But it’s also a focus for the digital economy, especially the social media vitally important for a consumer-oriented company like ours. Silicon Roundabout at the heart of Tech City EC1, the home of Last.FM, MOO and dopplr, is fashionable and social media giants like Facebook & Google are starting to develop a presence there. Commentators like Rory Cellan-Jones might be sceptical that Tech City will come to rival Silicon Fen, but it is growing as fast as its social media base.
From Idea to Execution
The kinds of offering in which Silicon Roundabout specialises might be seen perhaps as trivial, and from a technology perspective many are – but perhaps that’s the point. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram … technology has now evolved to the point where the barriers to building a scalable consumer offering like these have become almost non-existent.
They’re doing a simple thing really well and making money. Despite the differences, Cambridge and London have a lot in common. A strong university presence, a cosmopolitan, international crowd, net immigration of excellent people – and no place for cars.
We’re seeing hybridisation too – companies like AlertMe, Magic Solver, Jagex and Frontier are “London” type companies based here in Cambridge. There’s no doubt that Cambridge has the edge on deep, broad, revolutionary technologies – but revolutions are often social rather than technical.
Two ends of the line
In 2012 we moved the AlertMe Cambridge offices to Thirty Station Rd, opposite the new Microsoft Research building, just 100m from the railway station. Now mid-conversation someone will break off with “sorry, can’t talk now, I’ve got a train to catch in five minutes” and yet reappear a short time later having been down to London and returned.
The train journey is becoming the equivalent of the water-cooler – a great chance to catch-up with old colleagues and overhear interesting snippets about the latest startup. Having lived in the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley, I am in no hurry for Cambridge to merge into London physically. But intellectually we’re a great match for each other.
This article first appeared in Cambridge Tech Quarter, Q3 2012.
I’ve always believed that people who take part in daytime phone-ins either have too much time on their hands, don’t have jobs or don’t get out of the house enough. Which of these apply to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I’ll leave to the audience to decide, but his strategy to take part in a weekly phone-in on London radio station LBC looks like a mark of desperation.