The Californian homeland of Facebook, Adobe, and PayPal, has a strange connection to Cambridge, because while you’ve probably heard of Silicon Valley, you might not have heard of Silicon Fen.
It’s the same principle; an area bustling with high-tech companies in software, electronics and biotechnology, drawing in fresh start-ups which will one day go on to change the world.
Silicon Fen was born out of the so-called ‘Cambridge phenomenon’ in the 1970s and the name encompasses the area around the city with a CB postcode or telephone code – though sometimes stretching out to include nearby Ely, Newmarket and Huntingdon.
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What is the Cambridge phenomenon? It was nicknamed so because it happened spontaneously through independent initiatives in 1960, when the city saw an incredible explosion of technology, life sciences and service companies.
During the first half of the 20th century the city lacked an industrial sector like the car manufacturers of Oxford, but that was all to change.
The founding of the Cambridge Science Park kick-started a wave of new business in 1970 and in the five years leading to 1998 there were more than 1,000 high-tech companies who set up shop in the area.
That’s when the region started to begin to be referred to as the Cambridge Cluster, before it was called ‘Silicon Fen’ after Silicon Valley in California, because it lies at the southern tip of the English Fenland.
To capitalize on this wave of development in the late 90’s, Gordon Brown, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, facilitated a research partnership with MIT in Massachusetts named the Cambridge-MIT Institute in 2000.
This then led to a spike in collaboration between the two universities and helped solidify the success of the newly emerging Silicon Fen.
By 2004 it was found that 24% of all UK venture capital went to Silicon Fen companies and by early 2006, it was estimated that there were around 250 start-ups linked with the university and valued at a hefty $6 billion.
Factors which have helped to grow the area to what it is today include graduates choosing to stay on in the area once they leave Cambridge University.
It is also thought that before the recent tech boom, lower commercial rents and living costs inspired many companies to base themselves in Cambridge.
Now, Cambridge is Europe’s largest technology cluster and more than 5,000 firms employ around 61,000 people – with a combined annual revenue of more than £15.5 billion.
While Silicon Valley is now dominated by world-wide companies such as the mighty Meta headed by Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, the twin site here in the UK has some of its own big names.
ARM Holdings is without a doubt one of the biggest successes from Silicon Fen – the computer chip design company which created the component which powers most smartphones we use today.
The Microsoft major European research lab is located in the center of the city, while its Japanese rival is homed in the science park on the outskirts.
There are numerous research parks such as Babraham Research Campus, St John’s Innovation Center and Melbourne Science Park – and of course the AstraZeneca Discovery Center which was opened late last year.
Looking back at what has been achieved, you might think it obvious that a rural city filled with academics would become the beating heart of British innovation, but it’s a phenomenon which continues to be studied today.
Silicon Valley might have sunshine, palm trees and some incredible cities such as San Francisco, but Silicon Fen has much to be proud of.
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