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Cambridge – putting the pieces together by opening up

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Cambridge is an incredible city for science and technology. For the Americans reading this, imagine if you put Harvard and MIT together and you’ve got a good idea of what Cambridge is like. (With a short note to point out that both Harvard and MIT are in Cambridge, MA… named after THIS Cambridge!) It’s the Ivy League of the UK and Europe, with scientists and engineers that are on par with anything MIT, CalTech, Stanford or Michigan produces.

I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the Cambridge startup ecosystem recently, and it’s been both very frustrating and very invigorating. Invigorating because there are a TON of cool ideas and startups getting going. Frustrating because we still aren’t building links amongst all these companies in order to take full advantage of what’s being developed.

Opening up

One of the themes I keep hearing about the area is that so much of what is done in Cambridge is silo-ed. The University has not just one or two, but a half-dozen groups dedicated to entrepreneurship! (CfEL, Cambridge Enterprise, CUE, CUTEC, etc.) Cambridge Enterprise and St. John’s Innovation Centre provide office space and serve as hubs for startups. The criticism I hear is that even in the “hubs,” most people/companies just work in their own offices, and there’s not a lot of interaction between them… a huge missed opportunity. There are lots of high-tech hardware startups that come out of Cambridge labs, and there are a lot of scary-smart computer scientists building crazy software in their labs. Rarely do these people even talk to each other, but imagine if they did!

We need to start systematically work on opening up the Cambridge startup community. (OpenCoffee Cambridge is just the first step in doing this, though I think a valuable one. But why, as just one example, doesn’t St. John’s Innovation Centre host startup-only BBQ’s in the summer?)

Putting pieces together

Part of the solution to solving this is to get people talking. OpenCoffee helps to connect people and companies, but that’s just once a week. Working in the same space with others would be another great step. I know that Martin Kleppmann has been working on a Cambridge CoWorking space to do exactly this, and look forward to hearing more about that. Let’s face it… all we need is a covered room with power and a bathroom, and internet/wireless access. In today’s market I’m sure there are some offices going spare where the owner would appreciate any kind of income. (Again, this would be even more ideal if both hardware-focused and software-focused startups came together under the same roof!)

Phase 1 – Full Moon Madness Demo nights

The first phase I’m working on is Full Moon Madness Demo nights. These would revolve around themes, and involve demos from both hardware startups and software startups. Five to six companies would have 5 minutes (strictly limited, once decided) to demo their technology. After that ~30 minutes, the rest of the evening the demo companies would be available to do in-depth demos, and the audience could network.

Startups would NOT be pitching their business idea, they’ll be DEMOING their technology/product. Powerpoint will NOT be welcome. By seeing all the technology in person, I hope to build links between these hardware and software companies to build very powerful businesses.

The event would be open to everyone in the tech scene. I imagine that it will start out being Cambridge-focused, but I hope that it will grow to be an event that people come to from across the UK to see the future of technology early.

On a more practical note, as I mentioned in my last post I think it would be interesting to switch around the days of the week. A favourite pub of mine in the US held “Full Moon Madness” specials every Full Moon, year round. I suggest that we hold demo nights on the same schedule, though anything that fell on the weekend would move to the closest weekday night.

Based on that, here are the suggested dates in the coming months:

  • Thursday, April 9th
  • Thursday, May 7th
  • Monday, June 8th
  • Tuesday, July 7th
  • Thursday, August 6th
  • Thursday, September 3rd

I’m thinking of centering the first night around the theme of new media technology. Based on that, I have the following questions for you! –

  • Does anyone have any recommendations for companies that are ready and able to demo next month?
  • Or recommendations for other themes?
  • Does anyone know of good venues to hold a night like this? (I’ve got a few in mind, but would appreciate suggestions.)
  • Does a 7:30pm start sound reasonable?

Future plans

I’m interested in your thoughts of what Cambridge can and should do to invigorate the startup scene. I’ve got a number of things simmering in my mind, but want to hear what you’ve got to say first.

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OpenCoffee Cambridge & thoughts and ideas on the startup scene

First of all, thank you to everyone that came out to the first OpenCoffee Cambridge today! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and thought the worst case would mean about 3-4 people would just chat in the coffee shop. I didn’t try to make an accurate count, but I would guess about 30 people or so turned up, which was fantastic! I had a great time meeting and talking to a lot of interesting people.

Here are some photos from the day (my apologies for the blurry ones):

You’re getting close when you see this… you can’t miss it

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Here’s the venue, Caffe Nero on King’s Parade

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This is the view from the front door of Caffe Nero

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In this photo I managed to catch Laurence, Geoff, Peter, and a couple others. (Geoff also blogged about OpenCoffee here.)

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Louise was one of the women to show up (a fellow MBA)

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The group ended up taking up a good chunk of the back of the shop; this was taken after people had started leaving.

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It was a fantastic day, and virtually everyone I met and talked to today was either an entrepreneur or an investor. I want to specifically thank Laurence John and Richard Brockbank from Amadeus and Alex van Someren from Cambridge CfEL for showing up and being so enthusiastic for the idea of OpenCoffee.

After a little bit of research, it seems the two best options for organising a group like OpenCoffee is a Meetup group and a LinkedIn group. Since LinkedIn groups are free, that’s what I’ve setup first. Please click here to sign up. (Currently moderated to prevent spammers.) I think it would be great to start a Meetup group, too, but would like to gauge opinion before the $144/year charge. UPDATE: Peter Clark/Broadersheet has sponsored the Meetup group: sign up here! Please sign up so that we can let everyone know if/when we change venues… if we have a few more weeks packing Caffe Nero like we did today we won’t be welcome there much longer!

On a completely different note, a number of people had some interesting conversations about Cambridge and entrepreneurs. Talking with people today, it seems there are a few different issues that currently exist in the Cambridge startup ecosystem.

  • Social events – OpenCoffee Cambridge is meant to address this. Entrepreneurs just need a place/time to meet each other, demo what they’re doing and network.
  • Demo nights – Cribbing off of the NY Tech Meetup, I think Cambridge needs a night where entrepreneurs can show off what they’ve been working on, get feedback, and have a broader networking event.
  • Judge Business School – Judge is a great business school that could really make a difference to startups, but not enough MBA’s, MPhils, etc get involved in the startup ecosystem.

Initial thoughts on furthering the Cambridge startup ecosystem

Cambridge is an incredible cluster of startups, but it’s not perfect. These are three things that I personally think would be useful in order to address the issues above.

OpenCoffee Cambridge

After today’s success, this is certainly going to become a regular event.

Based on the feedback I got from everyone today, I think this will be most valuable as a weekly, daytime event. It ensures more angels and VC’s can attend (since that’s their day job), and needs to be weekly to develop the kind of relationships that are necessary. That doesn’t mean people need to show up every week! Just that it happens every week for the people that want to meet up.

Full Moon Madness Demo nights

A monthly demo night for entrepreneurs looking to demo their software, products, services would address the second issue. It would take place at night, ensuring as many people as possible can attend. (Both current and aspirational entrepreneurs.) Let’s face it… all entrepreneurs are a little bit mad so let’s celebrate it by demo’ing during a full moon!

This would mean that the first demo night would be Wednesday, March 11th. Are there any conflicts with that night? I’ve got one volunteer to demo already… are there any others? If there’s interest I’ll look into setting something up.

Cambridge Entrepreneurial Speed-dating

I’m not sure how this would work, but there’s a real opportunity to connect science and engineering students working on new ideas with business school students that have the business background to help commercialize them. Sometimes this will be science/engineering ideas looking for business help, other times it will be business ideas looking for science/engineering help in building prototypes, etc. I think it’s critical to get some creative types involved with this, too, but I’m not sure how.

This would ideally happen very early in the school year, and perhaps be repeated after a few months. It may be too late to effectively do this year, but perhaps if it gets developed a bit it would be ready for the fall?

Summary

OpenCoffee Cambridge is ON. Please stay tuned in for more information, but the next one will happen next week at the same time & place. (Thursday, 26 Feb, 10am-12noon at Caffe Nero on King’s Parade)

What do you think of the other ideas? Useful, not useful, something else entirely? I’d be happy to chat in the comments below, off-blog or at the next OpenCoffee.

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Get fit in London

So exercise is clearly linked to thinking better. Depending on who you ask, that and reading are the two keys to life.

But let’s face it, exercise isn’t easy. If you’re pushing yourself, it’s pretty painful. Rowing, for example, at any sort of serious level involves legs and lungs feeling like they’re on fire. It’s great to win, but it can be a tremendous sacrifice to get there. Because it’s not easy to do, it becomes easy to skip. And once you start skipping exercise, you can pretty rapidly lose fitness.

One solution is either getting involved in exercise classes (anonymous and generally not tailored to your needs) or seeing a personal trainer (expensive). A personal trainer can sometimes be trying to mold you into what they want you to be, and not what you want.

If you’re in London, there’s a new solution. Two friends of mine and LondonAnnie have established a new Personal Training company that’s specifically geared to what YOU want to do in life: Point2Fitness. For older people, that might mean being more active with their grandchildren. With others, it may mean training to become an Olympic athlete or climb Everest.

The two founders, Baz and Carla, are World-class athletes themselves. (They won bronze in the 2007 Rowing World Championships in addition to World Cups, Olympics, and more.) LondonAnnie in particular has seen and experienced them in action, as they are long-time members of Thames Rowing Club, and have been experimenting with new fitness routines at the club recently.

Please check out the Point2Fitness website and look into it! Baz and Carla are both talented athletes themselves but also incredibly down-to-earth and focused on making their customers happy and their business a success. It’s great to see what international-level athletes are able to do with their careers when they choose to stop competing, and I wish them the best of luck!

(I particularly like that all of the photos were taken in/around Thames Rowing Club; it’s a very professionally produced website.)

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That’s it… I’m officially sick of Apple, the iPod and the iPhone

I’m guessing there’s one company for every era of business school students. One company who is almost always used as an example, whose recent activities/products/services/innovations are used in every class and discussed thoroughly. This has probably been Amazon.com at some point, RJR Nabisco before that, HP before that, and so on.

This era’s company is Apple.

I’m officially sick of them. The iPod, the iPhone, the iTunes ecosystem, the Halo Effect, Steve Jobs, a culture of innovation…

WE GOT IT.

I love Apple products, and own/use a MacBook, iPhone and iPods. But enough is enough.

Can we start using other examples… please? Pretty please?

(We recently had a case study on Banyan Tree Resorts, which was unfortunate since it looks like I’m going to have to go there on holiday with LondonAnnie sometime post-graduation. But that’s more like it…)