The chairman said it wouldn't be a repeat of the confrontation of three years ago, Silicon Valley versus Europe.
However, when business leaders from both sides of the pond met at this year’s SVC2C panel and were asked by Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC the night's central question, 'What will be the most groundbreaking technology of tomorrow?', a fundamental difference in interpretation and culture became evident: Cambridge’s answers focused on the end, Silicon Valley’s on the means.
While Cambridge answered the question, was concrete and focused on existing technologies, Silicon Valley assiduously avoided singling out anything specific. Instead the US entrepreneurs focused on the process that would lead there and in doing so appeared more innovative and aspirational, telling us the future was only limited by people’s imaginations.
The difference was not only between interpretations, but technologies, Cambridge ‘hard’ and Silicon Valley ‘soft’. It is an issue first raised in the Cambridge Cluster Report 2007 and which the region has been gradually addressing, but here it looked like web innovators particularly still had ground to make up.
Reid Hoffman, executive chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn as well as SVC2C's co-chair, said the web companies that have emerged over the years have made it easier than ever for individuals to create their own opportunities by offering a suite of ‘enabling’ tools.
He said: “New products and services make individuals more efficient. Paypal makes every individual capable of being a merchant, Ebay provides a market reach.”
Creative Commons is such a tool, providing individuals with the ability to protect their ideas. “We do not know what will be successful, but innovation is the key technology,” said Creative Commons CEO, Joi Ito.
He added: “It's not where we are going, I'm more interested in the process. For example it was the scientific method that shook religion.”
Ito pointed to the fact that low cost innovation “on the edges” of new technology allowed many more people to innovate: “practitioners modifying tools themselves.”
Megan Smith, who runs Google's philanthropic division Google.org, said the important thing was the fast and easy communication made possible by the internet, “adjacency.”
“There's no particular topic, the most important thing is to choose the things you are most passionate about,” she said, adding that working hard at it would help: “Practice is permanent, have business competitions, try things.”
The difference in approach was even in evidence among the money men. Panellist and prominent Cambridge VC, Hermann Hauser declared that regenerative medicine and plastic electronics were the big opportunities of the future, while Rob Wylie of Wheb Partners plumped for cleantech.
David Hornik however, who works at one of Silicon Valley's leading VCs, August Capital and lectures at Stanford Graduate School of Business, said rather than shaping an investment strategy for the next year, he wanted to find out what the next big thing is from the people creating them: “I want you to come to me and tell me what you think are the important things,” he said.
Perhaps this inclusive, people-powered vision of disruptive technology is one of the reasons that Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Retail, sees so much of this region's brightest talent heading to Silicon Valley: “One of the things that struck me in Silicon Valley, was that there's an awful lot of Europeans over there and a lot of Cambridge graduates. The challenge is to reverse that trend.”
It should come as no surprise then that many of the new local initiatives aimed at business creation in the ‘softer’ areas of technology are either inspired by, or directly delivered by Silicon Valley. Springboard relaunched last week, hoping to emulate US incubator successes such as Y Combinator and TechStars and Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) is reportedly closely eyeing a move into Cambridge.
Neither of these developments, nor SVC2C, are being driven by government, it's Cambridge University and business, a fact that won't be lost on those following the growth of the UK's technology clusters.
Covered at the SVC2C event, the extent to which a world class technology cluster can be constructed artificially rather than organically is a popular subject for debate (members) right now, particularly since David Cameron's decision to champion London's East End as the UK's future Silicon Valley.
The rights and wrong of backing London financially ahead of less advantaged but highly innovative areas in the UK is perhaps a fair point for discussion, however, Cameron's decision to link it to the thriving but relatively small 'Silicon Roundabout' (subscription) has led advocates of the Cambridge Cluster's to ask why the money isn’t being invested here when many of the ingredients necessary for a fertile technology ecosystem already exist, as Ito pointed out.
On the night of the debate, Cambridge University vice chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, quoted Robert Metcalfe's popular phrase: “Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become the next Silicon Valley.”
With the recent Springboard and SVB developments the Cambridge proposition has been further enhanced, growing stronger for web entrepreneurs too. Mentoring opportunities are also strengthened by the likes of the high-calibre SVC2C delegation, who not only offer valuable advice, but perhaps more importantly, inspiration.
Sherry Coutu, the other SVC2C co-chair, tweeted on Friday about event speakers Reid Hoffman, Julie Hanna and Nancy Lublin mentoring three 14 year old girls. Perhaps they will be the next big thing.
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