Charles Cotton on The Cambridge Phenomenon and the next 50 years

PUBLISHED: 08:59 19 September 2016

Charles Cotton, author of The Cambridge Phenomenon. Picture: Keith Heppell

Charles Cotton, author of The Cambridge Phenomenon. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

The man behind the Cambridge Phenomenon says the city has ‘stickability’ - and predicts a bright, innovative future.

"Nobody knows, for example, that 98 per cent of the world’s mobile phones are based on ARM processors, which were invented in Cambridge. It does not have ARM on the outside, but it certainly does on the inside"

Charles Cotton

Charles Cotton has good reason to believe the city will remain a global powerhouse of research and innovation for at least another half-century.

He founded his not-for-profit company in 2009 to celebrate 50 years of Cambridge Consultants – regarded by many as the catalyst for the phenomenon.

The impact of Cambridge’s contribution to science, medicine and technology goes back centuries but over the last 50 years, the resulting commercialisation has enabled the city to become a global success story.

Cambridge companies and institutions have provided inventions and research that have, collectively, transformed all our lives.

From the first computers to smartphones, from gene sequencing to personalised medicines, and from Bluetooth to satellite communications, Cambridge has been at the forefront of it all.

Now Charles, 69, a serial entrepreneur in his own righ, believes that even in the light of Britain’s decision to pull out of the European Union, innovators, scientists and companies are ready to unleash more products in sectors that will continue to transform and, in many cases, prolong lives.

His new book, co-authored with Kate Kirk, The Cambridge Phenomenon – Global Impact, follows on from the first incarnation in 2012, which was a celebration of everything good to come out of Cambridge under the leadership of the late Tim Eiloart of the original Consultants.

> He believes the next five decades remain full of promise even though EU funding may not be as forthcoming as it once was.

Charles says: “I think the dynamo for what happens in the next 50 years will come from the university. You can see the evolution of many of the science elements that will come through the university, whether it is in the physical sciences, biological or agricultural.

"The success of Cambridge is also one of the best kept secrets. As a city we are doing extraordinary well, all those knowledge-intensive companies provide £11billion worth of revenue"

Charles Cotton

“The germ of good ideas very often starts in the university and we are seeing huge benefits with some of the biggest companies in the world having their origins in Cambridge.

“The university will remain the spark for the future. The great thing about Cambridge is what I call the ‘stick-at-it-ability’ – people are very loath to give up.

“In 1985 there were 400 technology companies but the emergence of the bio-science companies added a second leg and it has grown and grown from there. Today there is 4,500 knowledge-intensive companies in the Cambridge area. It is incredible that it has grown tenfold.

“The wonderful thing that has happened is the turnaround in the university. In the 60s, 70s and 80s the university was very anti what they saw as commercialisation.

“But then when Lord Alec Broers became vice chancellor of the university in 1996 he had a background in IBM and said they should be open to opportunities to convert the research into technologies and products.

“In the early days it was very much information technology, then at the end of 1980s and into the 1990s, it moved into bio-science and bio-medical and more recently clean technology.

“One of the things I love is that Raspberry Pi, another Cambridge innovation, has gone into space with astronaut Tim Peake. That says something about what is happening in Cambridge but most people don’t know.

“Nobody knows, for example, that 98 per cent of the world’s mobile phones are based on ARM processors, which were invented in Cambridge. It does not have ARM on the outside, but it certainly does on the inside.”

So what can we expect next?

“One of the biggest things in the future is gene-splicing,” says Charles. “This is where people with bad elements in their gene sequences could have them removed and replaced by better genes. It means we could tackle diseases like sickle-cell anaemia and change someone’s life.

“The success of Cambridge is also one of the best-kept secrets.

“As a city we are doing extraordinarily well – all those knowledge-intensive companies provide £11billion worth of revenue and they employ 58,000 people.

“The phenomenon will go on and on. I think it will be admired in places with fast-growing economies like China and India and I am sure we will see more companies from there wanting to be close to Cambridge.

“People will want to support what comes out of Cambridge, so I still think we will be able to attract funding.

“There will be some hiccups and disappointments but a new pattern of investment will emerge.

“Back in 1960 being an entrepreneur was a lonely place but now there is a massive network support and they are not alone anymore.”

FACTFILE: Charles Cotton’s career at a glance

Charles Cotton is an experienced director of public companies listed on Nasdaq, Euronext Amsterdam and the London Stock Exchange as well as private companies in the USA and Europe.

His business passions include building successful global technology companies and spreading the word about the Cambridge Phenomenon.

His engagement in high technology dates back to 1983 when he was sales and marketing director at the computer company Sinclair Research Ltd. After graduating, he worked in the automotive industry at British Leyland and Ford.

He lives in Cambridge and holds a BA Hons in physics from Oxford University and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

His portfolio includes:

:: Founder and chairman of Cambridge Phenomenon International Ltd and co-author of The Cambridge Phenomenon 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise

:: A director of Cambridge Enterprise (a subsidiary of the University of Cambridge) and a member of its Investment Committees

:: Chairman of the Advisory Panel of Cambridge Innovation Capital

:: Deputy chairman of Cambridge Ahead

:: Director of technology companies Solarflare Inc and XMOS Ltd

:: A member of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Sharjah and chairman of the advisory board for CUER (Cambridge University ECO Racing)

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