A Brave New World, Where We Must Be Braver
What is it that makes the Oxford-Cambridge Arc unique?
What is it that makes the Oxford-Cambridge Arc unique? This is the simple question that investors, academics, businesses, and entrepreneurs are faced with when considering the crucial question of where to invest their capital, where to study, of deciding where their business can innovate and grow or where their expertise can be put to the best use.
Since the first examples appeared in the 1970s, the world has seen the emergence of many science parks and regional tech clusters, from Silicon Valley in the United States to Gyeonggi in South Korea – places where industry leaders in science and technology-based R&D have benefited from the clustering model, where co-located businesses and researchers become, through intense collaboration, far greater than the sum of their parts. What is it about the Arc that puts it above these established and emerging competitors?
The true answer to this question lies in the Arc’s greatest asset: its stock of knowledge capital.
The region has an extraordinary ability to produce, attract and retain talent and knowledge, a self-sustaining ecosystem of academic and research excellence. This is fostered in no small part by its universities; Oxford, Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, Oxford Brookes, and MK:U, and then propelled by cutting-edge businesses, research institutes, accelerators and tech clusters.
The institutions and enterprises that operate within the Arc work together in a unique and mutually-supportive structure, strengthened every year by bright young students from around the world attracted to the Arc’s providers of higher education, graduates drawn to innovative or start-ups or large multinationals, entrepreneurs looking to benefit from a world-class incubator for start-ups, and investors looking for the next British unicorn company.
In short, the Arc already has a momentum that produces, sustains and values excellence and international competitiveness in technical research and in business: from developing solutions that move us closer to environmental sustainability to rapidly producing the most-used vaccine against Covid-19, the Arc continues to demonstrate its essential relevance to overcoming the most pressing problems of our age.
We must never underestimate the attraction to companies and investors of operating within the Arc.
By co-locating themselves within a region with an intense and long-standing culture of academic excellence and research and development-led innovation, employers can dip into a ready-made pool of exceptional talent and benefit from an ongoing academic churn from some of the most renowned universities in the world. In tech clusters from Harwell in Oxfordshire to Babraham in Cambridgeshire, knowledge capital is built and compounded by the reinforcing influence of co-located resources, capital and talent that makes the steps from research project to start-up to global company shorter than ever before.
Not only does this groundswell of academia and business working hand-in-hand serve to drive the UK economy, it also benefits humanity across the globe: be this through life science breakthroughs tackling sickness and disease, to ‘smart cities’ software improving the environmental sustainability of our urban spaces.
Faced with this intense concentration of talent, and attracted by the international reputation of many of the institutions and companies involved, more innovators are attracted to the UK’s pillars of scientific innovation. Research from Dealroom and Adzuna from December 2021 has already shown the UK attracting £29.4bn of venture capital investment in the technology sector this year – with Cambridge hailed as the epicentre of this flow of capital, the nexus for UK tech and a beacon of excellence and familiarity to foreign and domestic investors. This is more than double the figure of venture capital funding from last year of £11.5bn, showing that the knowledge capital of the Arc isn’t just driving economic growth and investment for UK – it’s creating exponential growth, creating a hub for business and academia that can serve as an engine for growth in the wider UK economy.
The only constraint that exists in the Arc now is one of geography. We are far from discovering the Arc’s ceiling of economic potential: the region already produces £112bn of economic output each year, and forecasts show this amount could double to over £200 billion by 2030. The ecosystem of the Arc is of monumental benefit to the UK and its economy - and the public, private and academic sectors, including central government and local authorities - need to work together to ensure we do everything in our power to sustain and grow this unique and enviable national asset. We need to ensure the infrastructure is there to support this growth, be that creating new transport links, constructing more laboratory space to help start-ups grow, or ensuring we meet housing needs to support a growing population of educated and industrious workers and researchers employed across the Arc’s many new enterprises.
We need to ensure that the appropriate space for scientific and technological expertise is available. In November 2021 we found there to be record high investment in the Arc office and lab sectors, yet the demand is ballooning and we must be prepared to accommodate it in an era of vigorous international competition. Over three quarters of investment into the Cambridge market by the end of Q3 2021 can be attributed to overseas investors, and this capital is globally mobile and in search of a home. We need more lab space, and greater opportunities to invest in logistics, which will propel the Arc as an engine of national growth.
Against intense international competition, we need to ensure the Arc remains a beacon of excellence in the fields of life sciences, software development, aerospace and environmental technology. The Arc has built its reputation over many years: let’s not miss the changes when it comes to its future, but build firm the foundations for the next century of growth.