Did you know that Oxford and Cambridge are important UK technology hubs? Blessed with the UK’s best universities on their doorsteps, good transport links with London and a large pool of the brightest graduates in the country to draw from, many technology start-ups have found Oxford and Cambridge fertile ground in which to grow. So well known is Cambridge’s technology sector that it has become known as the ‘Silicon Fen’. However, the two cities are poorly connected with each other, with the 84 mile journey taking just over 2 hours by road and even longer by train, requiring people to go via London. But this is set to change in the near future.
In his 2016 Autumn statement, Conservative chancellor Philip Hammond announced £110m for improving transport links between Oxford and Cambridge, including a railway which will use part of the old ‘Varsity Line’ which previously linked the two cities until it was decommissioned in the 1960s. A road expressway is also to receive funding. It is hoped that, when completed, the new railway could cut the journey between Oxford and Cambridge to an hour, and integrate the region’s job market for the first time.
This follows a report by the British Infrastructure Commission which claimed that “the corridor connecting Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford could be the UK’s Silicon Valley.” So what makes these cities such a focus for the tech industry? For a start, Oxford and Cambridge universities, asides from being the best in the country, have particular expertise in applied mathematics, computer science and machine learning.
Several of Britain’s most important artificial intelligence companies began as research projects in the universities, and Cambridge recently opened a £10m research institute, the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, to explore the dangers and benefits which AI could herald. The Centre is the result of collaboration between Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of California, and demonstrates how the two universities can cooperate in this exciting field. Cambridge also has a thriving bio-medical research campus next to Addenbrooke’s hospital, and the university is working on a £1bn development which will include new research facilities, thousands of homes and space for 2,000 post-graduate students.
Cambridge in particular has already seen plenty of successful technology companies growing up in the city. In fact, over 1,500 technology companies have emerged from Cambridge over the last few decades, and the university has backed over 500 of them. 80% of the start-ups in Cambridge are viable after 3 years, way above the national average. Arm, a firm which designed the chips which power over 90% of the world’s mobile phones, is one Cambridge success story which is worth $22bn, while software company Autonomy was bought by Hewlett-Packard for $11bn. All in all, 12 companies worth at least $1bn have emerged from the so called ‘Cambridge Cluster’.
Meanwhile, digital industries in Oxford and its surrounding area employ around 12,000 people and are worth £500m a year. NaturalMotion is an Oxford success story which has provided software for major games including Grand Theft Auto. While Oxford doesn’t have Cambridge’s visibility or sheer concentration of tech companies, initiatives like Digital Oxford, launched in 2015, aim to draw more investment to the area, which has plenty of small businesses and freelance talent.
Connecting the two cities could almost certainly draw more investment to the region and foster more integration and cooperation within the tech industry and between research institutions. It would also be great news for students in Oxford and Cambridge, who could be living an hour from London and from each other. That will mean that whichever Oxbridge university you choose, you’ll be able to enjoy an easy daytrip to the Ashmolean Museum or go punting on the Cam.
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