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The Silicon Fen Story

What is Silicon Fen?

    The area in and around Cambridge England, consisting of many new high-tech and IT companies. Many of these companies started as Cambridge University spin-offs, started by its graduates and academic staff. This process, known as The Cambridge Phenomenon has been going on in earnest since the 1960s and has led to the area being dubbed 'Silicon Fen', as it has been likened to the far more established Silicon Valley in California. The success of Silicon Fen is helped by having a highly networked community, a world class university and innovative financing.


    Silicon Fen could not have happened without the the presence of Cambridge University and its superb track record of technological discoveries and inventions. Cambridge University has a special place in the world of science and innovation. Established in 1284 it has produced some of the most famous names in science and some of the most important discoveries. For example, the development of mechanics by Sir Isaac Newton, discovery of electron in 1897 by JJ Thomson, splitting of the atom in 1923 by Cockroft and Walton, invention of the jet engine by Frank Whittle, the first computer to use stored programs by Maurice Wilkes in 1949, discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953.
    The first spin-off company was Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company in 1881 by Horace Darwin, youngest son of Charles Darwin.
    In 1950, in order to preserve the character of Cambridge as a university town, the Holford Wright report proposed halting the growth of the city in favour of outlying areas and that industrial expansion and high volume production be discouraged. This was accepted by the Government but meant that important business and r&d ventures would go elsewhere, such as IBM European R&D. However small r&d businesses did set up around Cambridge in favour of mass production facilities.
    In 1967 the Mott Report, a sub committee of the Senate of Cambridge University, considered planning aspects of the relationship between science based industry and the university. The Mott Report recommended considered relaxation of current planning restrictions and the setting up of a science park. This led to the set up of Cambridge Science Park, the first science park in the UK. The report has guided planning since the 1970s.
    In 1985 an influential report entitled The Cambridge Phenomenon was produced by Cambridge publisher Segal Quince & Partners. It studied the development of small high technology companies, the links between industry and university and the role of public and private sectors.
    The 1990s saw links developed between university and large multinationals eg, Glaxo and the Department of Pharmacology, Microsoft Research and Cambridge Computer Laboratory. Silicon Fen was not planned but the Cambridge area is now subject to serious planning by organisations such as The Cambridge Network and The Greater Cambridge Partnership.
    1997 there was a Cambridge Phenomenon MkII report, by Segal Quince Wicksteed, it criticised lack of support of the national government to allow growth of high technology businesses and the lack of infrastructure.

Geographical Area

    Silicon Fen has no exact boundaries but is approximately within a  20 mile radius around Cambridge. It stretches from Bury St.Edmunds, through Cambridge to the outskirts of Bedford. 'Fen' in the term 'Silicon Fen' is derived from the large area of boggy fen to the north of Cambridge. 


    In Silicon Fen there are approximately 1000 high tech companies, generating $3 billion in revenue. Critical to the success of Silicon Fen companies is the financing, Britain's economic changes over the last 20 years (tax cuts, moving away from a welfare state to more entrepreneurial, free market economy) has attracted foreign banks and international investors to the city of London. The rise of the venture capitalists have provided start up companies with access to finance previously unavailable. Silicon Fen is now the second largest venture capital market in the world, after Silicon Valley. 
    Also of importance is  Cambridge Universities' liberal attitude to intellectual property rights which has allowed the 'spinning off' of companies from research. 
    Many heads of companies are associated with the university, e.g. Roger Needham, professor of computer systems who runs the Microsoft Research Laboratory & Cambridge Computer Laboratory; Alec Broers, Cambridge University Vice Chancellor, previously spent 20 years as IBM research fellow.