The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Critical Mass

By Chris Fletcher, Policy & Communications Director at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Last week I was in the US as part of a UKTI trade mission looking at opportunities for business in New Hampshire and Boston.  It was a genuine full on experience with activity from before dawn and gone dusk, with some fantastic businesses and people met along the way. I will be writing more about this in April’s 53 Degrees as well as getting some of my fellow travellers and hosts to do the same.

What I want to focus on is the second part of the trip when we left our hosts for the first part of the week in Manchester, New Hampshire and crossed over the state line to Massachusetts for a few days in Boston and Cambridge.

We spent the best part of a day in Cambridge just across the River Charles from Boston.  Similar I suppose in a way to Salford and Manchester, except the sheer size of the Charles makes the Irwell look like a stream.

Building all through the week had been an awareness of the levels of innovation, creativity and can-do attitude that the US is known for but in Cambridge things went onto a different level completely.

Within a block or so of crossing the bridge from Boston you are in the heart of the MIT campus and Kendal Square. Microsoft has two research buildings here, Google has a building just down the road and Harvard is a stone's throw away. Scattered in between are all sorts of office block buildings with all manner of scientific sounding names and titles. It really is STEM central.

Incubator units abound, probably one of the most impressive being the Cambridge Innovation Centre, which is in the same building as the British Consulate. Spread over several floors the CIC is unlike anything I've ever seen with a mixture of small units, individual office space and communal rooms with easy in easy out terms. At first glimpse some of this looks like complete anarchy and you do wonder if you haven’t stepped into Animal House. However it was in this building that Google first developed an Operating System called Android, you may have heard of it. The CIC also has venture capital investments of $5bn in it helping generate the businesses and technologies of tomorrow.

The group attended the regular weekly networking session held there called Venture CafĂ© which is based around the “bump” theory ie you never know who you will bump into. I got talking to a number of the people working in the building and time and again they said the same thing it is all about knowing that within a short distance are some of the brightest brains on tap to help solve problems and some young people with an already frightening level of real world experience. One business owner said he frequently “borrowed” MIT students to do bits of work in their spare time in between lectures. So they would basically pop in for a couple of hours do a bit of coding or whatever then nip back across the road.

It would be easy to see this as a form of experiment, but it isn’t, it’s real life and it’s happening.

We do some good things in the UK and in Manchester but this is on a different level. Development on this scale doesn’t happen overnight this has taken a good number of years to take root. Its origins were in the 1960s space programme when the site was being developed as the home of Mission Control for NASA, which eventually went to Houston but left a legacy of technology.

Whilst some funding is needed this really is raw entrepreneurial evolution and power let loose and unfettered. The challenge is working out how we can benefit from this. It has developed a critical mass with no signs of slowing and make no mistake there are opportunities to be had. We may just have to learn the rules for playing in an environment where there doesn’t seem to be any.

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