comments 5

A tale of two (entrepreneurial) cities

800px-MichiganUnion.jpg

I got my bachelor’s degree (Aerospace Engineering) from the University of Michigan, which is located in the lovely town of Ann Arbor, Michigan (about a 45 minute drive from Detroit). As one of the top research universities in the US, the greater Ann Arbor area is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the pharmaceutical, automotive, and engineering industries. There are interesting, fun things to do all the time in Ann Arbor.

KingsCollegeChapelWest.jpg

I got/am getting my MBA degree from Cambridge University, in the ancient town of Cambridge, UK (about a 45 minute train from London). As one of the top research universities in the world, Cambridge is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the semiconductor, software, and general technology industries. There are interesting, amazing things to do all the time in Cambridge.


Theory on resources

I believe strongly in the notion that prosperity leads directly from two things: natural resources and population size. (It’s a big reason why the US economy has been so dominant: amazingly large & diverse land mass with a large enough population to exploit it.) As an example, there is an extraordinary correlation between the Olympic medal table and just five factors:

  • GDP
  • Population size
  • political structure
  • climate
  • home nation bias

The same elements apply to cities and their business cultures. As most of the western world generally has the same political structure, and home nation bias is irrelevant in this argument, the only things that matter are GDP, Population size and climate. It’s here that Ann Arbor and Cambridge are strangely similar.

According to Wikipedia, Ann Arbor boasts a population of 114,000 with students making up 32% of that. Greater Cambridge boasts a population of 130,000 with students making up 17% of that. As I mentioned above, both are home to major tech employers. (Strangely, both have engineering centers that are both well away from the main University centers… in Cambridge: the West Cambridge site, and in Ann Arbor: North Campus.) Even the climates are fairly comparable, though Cambridge doesn’t get quite as warm, or quite as cold, as Ann Arbor.

But what I want to address are the differences. As I am now tied more strongly to Cambridge, I’d like to show how those differences can provide lessons to the Cambridge community.


Advantages of each

Cambridge’s advantages over Ann Arbor

A huge advantage that Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is its next largest neighbor. Ann Arbor is closest to Detroit, which is slowly coming to grips with the fact that it will never come close to being the legendary Motown again. Detroit (and the entire state) is suffering from severe economic hardship, and unfortunately it’s not going to end anytime soon.

Cambridge is lucky in that the closest city is London. London has weathered the recent economic hardships well, and is still a leading center for the financial and media industries throughout Europe. Being an easy 45 minute commute away truly puts the world at Cambridge’s doorstep. (Key airports also put most of Europe less than half a day of travel away.)

Another advantage Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is Cambridge University. Where the University of Michigan is one of the best US universities, Cambridge is world-class. Literally, Cambridge University been ranked as one of the top 3 universities in the world. The number of incredibly smart people around the city is vast.

Finally, Cambridge has a huge funding advantage. Because of Cambridge’s history in the last 50 years in the tech world, there are a lot of accomplished investors between the angels and VC’s in the city. The city is still seen as a strong source of leading-edge technology; for example, Xen Source (since acquired by Citrix) was one of the few international investments from Kleiner Perkins.

Ann Arbor’s advantages over Cambridge

Ann Arbor has its own advantages over Cambridge. For one, the standard of living is cheaper. (Partly because of the general malaise in Michigan, partly because it’s a student town, and partly because exchange rates favor the dollar.) This makes it generally easier to start a business since your cash lasts longer.

Ann Arbor has some great facilities. I highly encourage people in Cambridge to check out this site: Tech Brewery.

TechBrewery.jpg

The Tech Brewery is an old brewery that’s been converted to offices for entrepreneurs & startups for just $50-$250 a month. It’s pretty close to both central Ann Arbor and the College of Engineering campus. Looking at the site, twelve companies are located there, including Hab.la/Olark, a Y Combinator company. That’s a space that will attract interesting, vibrant startups.

(On this note, there is a bit of a shining beacon in Cambridge. Red Gate Software, through its co-CEO Neil Davidson, has built something a bit similar at their headquarters in Cambridge. In addition to hosting the new Springboard program, they’re also home to a group of startups that work from the Red Gate offices and get to share in the free food there.)

But Ann Arbor also has the Workantile Exchange, located in the center of town. It’s essentially a cool (and again, attractive) co-working space attached to a coffee shop.

thespace.jpg

Additionally, Ann Arbor has the Center for Entrepreneurship. It has a pretty focused goal: it’s a “Michigan Engineering venture that empowers students, faculty and staff to pursue entrepreneurial achievements that improve people’s lives, drives the economy and helps innovators bridge the gap between inventors and venture capitalists.”

(Compare that to the Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. It’s goal is more educational: “to ‘Spread the Spirit of Enterprise’ by providing educational activities to inspire and build skills in the practice of entrepreneurship.” In other words, while Cambridge focuses on learning, Ann Arbor focuses on doing.)

Finally, there is simply a bit of a culture gap. I’ve simply been told too many times, “Of course; it takes an American to start Cambridge Tech Meetup / Cambridge OpenCoffee.” It’s honestly a little depressing that that was the case.


What can Cambridge take from this comparison?

Entrepreneurs will naturally cluster… help them

I would LOVE it if Cambridge had a space similar to Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery. A cool, convenient, cheap place to work with fellow geeks. While there are hopeful signs between Red Gate and the Hauser Forum, I think there simply needs to be a space near the center of Cambridge that can accommodate 10-20 startups, or around 60 people.

I don’t think this can or should happen at St. John’s Innovation Center or at the Cambridge Science Park… they’re too far out from the city center. (Red Gate’s office works because they’ve got amenities like proper food on site.) Young startups need to be in a vibrant atmosphere, which generally doesn’t exist right now.

There is the CityLife Social Enterprise Centre, which has very cheap office space and is home to a number of small companies. (Some who were there last year have since moved to Red Gate’s offices, though new ones have also moved in.) This is absolutely the right idea. Unfortunately, I understand that the owner of the building is looking to tear it down & redevelop it; CityLife is in there for the next year or two until that happens.

Unfortunately, finding/creating an attractive space takes effort, resources (both time and money), and a decent business plan. I know the economics can work, though it might require a bit of “barn-raising” to make it happen. Just take a look at the space that Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery has to offer above… surely Cambridge can do something similar!

A focus on Doing, not Learning

The Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning is a good institution. My criticism is its focus on Learning… not Doing. Business plan competitions are fine, Enterprise Tuesday is interesting the first year or two (until you’re tired of hearing the same sessions/advice every year), and teaching students the elements of building a business is great. But it never extends to actively supporting the startups that are trying to get off the ground. A simple example… where is the list of student startups from Cambridge? Here’s the one from Ann Arbor.

Cambridge Enterprise should be in a position to help, but its focus is on commercializing university IP… not helping generic startups get off the ground. (Where a startup is leveraging university IP is clearly a different story, and they do offer free 40-minute business “surgeries” to anyone.)

This is one of the main reasons why I started the Cambridge Tech Meetupto celebrate Doers. To help promote the entrepreneurs and businesses that aren’t just learning about taking a new technology to market, but those that are actually doing it. (There were many others, but this was a big one.)

Now, this isn’t to say that people in Cambridge just talk about new technologies and products, and don’t develop them. There are plenty of companies around that are “doing”. But the University and the organizations in orbit around the University, those that have the biggest effect on potential student entrepreneurs, need to switch their focus from learning to doing.

There are amazing lectures in Cambridge all the time; it’s all part of the 800-year-old Cambridge tradition of learning. To help breed more and better startups, the culture needs to believe in building and making things just as strongly. Which leads me to the next point below…

More smaller, dynamic groups

Here is a sampling of Ann Arbor groups: Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup, a2geeks, a2buildbunker, CoffeehouseCoders, Ignite Ann Arbor, A2 Mini Maker Faire.

Whereas in Cambridge, I know about Cambridge Tech Meetup, Cambridge OpenCoffee (which has been a bit anemic lately), SuperHappyDevClub, Refresh Cambridge, Cambridge Geek Nights and Cambridge Geek Day. (There are also paid events, like FOWA Tour Cambridge and StackOverflow Dev Day).

Oh, but wait… there are over 50 more groups for Ann Arbor listed here.

Cambridge needs to have people just plant a flag in the ground and start a group that focuses on cool stuff. This seems to be far more of a cultural issue than a capability issue. Individuals with some talent just need to get a small group together, do cool stuff, and make sure people talk about it. Of course some aggregation will be necessary to help people find the right groups… I’d be happy to advertise any and all of these at Cambridge Tech Meetups to help spread the word.


Summary

This started as a tale of two cities, but ended in lessons for the city of Cambridge. I’m just one person, these are just my opinions, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people that will disagree with me. But being in the midst of the startup scene in Cambridge has left me with an overarching feeling: poorly-tapped potential.

Cambridge is a fantastic city. There’s amazing talent, reaching from university labs to local startups to the R&D centers that are scattered around the city. There’s money ready to invest in cool new technologies and products. There’s mentors all over that have lived their startup experience and can help others’ with theirs.

What Cambridge needs is a cultural tune-up. (aka, a collective swift kick in the ass to go out there and MAKE something.) Some of the important things I think should happen:

  • A place for startups to cluster
  • A new focus on doing
  • A whole mess of small, dynamic groups that do different cool things

Going to see speakers and hear talks is fine. (There are millions in Cambridge.) But lets start taking that knowledge and turn it into action, products, and companies.


What are your thoughts?

  • Excellent post. I agree with you but think we should go further. Do take a look at my, Why Clusters Need Characters' post. Would be interested in your thoughts.

    http://thebln.com/2009/10/micro-men-syntax-era-

  • Thanks, Mark. I agree with your post… we need to accept and encourage disagreement and the challenging of assumptions to build a better community!

  • Allen Rumsey

    Notwithstanding your enthusiasm for Ann Arbor's resources, you don't cite examples of entrepreneurial success in Ann Arbor. Are there any? Arbor Networks? (Maybe, someday.) Zattoo? (Maybe, for some other town on some other continent.) Umm … ?

  • Unfortunately, this is where I have to say I really don't know. Not that they don't exist… just that it's been too many years since I've lived there to have the information.

  • Unfortunately, this is where I have to say I really don't know. Not that they don't exist… just that it's been too many years since I've lived there to have the information.