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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

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29 November 2017 – Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge, articulates the entrepreneurial ecosystem which makes Cambridge such fertile ground for new ideas and innovations to flourish.

Cambridge is on many measures one of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. Over 60,000 people are employed in the Cambridge cluster, which consists of over 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms generating over £12 billion in turnover. The innovation that underpins the cluster is impressive – with 341 successful patents published per 100,000 residents (more than the next four cities in the UK combined). The University employs over 11,000 people and educates around 19,000 students. The five-year survival rate of firms supported by Cambridge Enterprise (the University's technology transfer company) is 64.6 per cent – the national average is 41.4 per cent.

The enterprise ecosystem works in Cambridge because it has a healthy mix of ideas, people, networks, support and spaces to enable it to flourish.

People and ideas

Students, researchers and faculty at the University of Cambridge carry out world-leading research designed to push back the boundaries of knowledge. When these projects produce new ideas and insights we have organisations like Cambridge Enterprise, designed to help staff and students commercialise their expertise and ideas for the benefit of the global community.

Finance and space to grow

As a firm grows and needs additional finance they can approach Cambridge Innovation Capital or one of a number of angel and venture funds around Cambridge for series A and series B funding. Organisations don't just need capital, they also need space to grow. As an alternative to the kitchen table, Cambridge entrepreneurs can take a desk in one of the three IdeaSpaces across the University. If the organisation is successful St John's innovation Centre or the Bradfield Centre provide modular office space and Babraham Research Campus provides space for bio-medical firms. If the organisation continues to grow they might move to the Cambridge Science Park. 


Departments and groups across the University run programmes and initiatives to support entrepreneurs develop their organisations and their personal capabilities. Lectures and networking are provided by Enterprise Tuesday, a scheme run by the Judge Business School which also runs Accelerate, a start-up accelerator programme and Ignite, an intensive one-week training programme for aspiring entrepreneurs and corporate innovators to trial and prepare business ideas for the commercial environment. The Maxwell Centre runs Impulse, a programme designed to help entrepreneurs translate their ideas into reality. Increasingly groups are seeking to run scale-up programmes, supporting innovative businesses as they seek to grow. The Judge Business School runs a scale-up programme in collaboration with Barclays, while Cambridge Network runs a school for scale-ups for local industry.  

The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership runs the Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneur awards with Unilever to support and celebrate inspirational young people from all over the world who have developed initiatives, products or services that are tackling some of the planet’s biggest sustainability challenges

Local consultants, especially the technology consultants, provide prototyping and design support. Cambridge Consultants and The Technology Partnership have both played a crucial role in the ecosystem.

Networks: Connected Cambridge

Multiple networks exist across Cambridge to bring people together. If you are interested in the Internet of Things then you would look to Cambridge Wireless. If you want to connect with local businesses you would turn to the Cambridge Network. If you wanted to support the successful long term growth of Cambridge, you would join Cambridge Ahead. Within the University there are multiple student societies and associations - including CUE – Cambridge University Entrepreneurs, CUTEC – Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and EPOC – Entrepreneurial Post-Docs of Cambridge.

These networks and initiatives all help bring the community together and support people as they seek to make the right connections.

Importantly, the people within the ecosystem constantly innovate to improve it. Whenever somebody spots a gap – or a perceived gap – they try to fill it. We have a Makespace in Cambridge – a community workshop where people can make and repair things. Entrepreneurs use this to create prototypes for new products. Recently we launched a Biomakespace – in recognition of the need for bio-prototyping facility. The Judge Business School, in collaboration with Cambridge Enterprise, runs a Social Venture Incubator, to help grow social ventures. This constant innovation in the ecosystem means that we are forever trying to make the enterprise ecosystem in Cambridge better. We are constantly experimenting with ways of enhancing the ways in which we work and the level of enterprise activity in Cambridge has become self-propagating. The fact that so many people are involved in enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation encourages others to participate. In turn this makes Cambridge "a safe place to fail" - a phrase coined by one of our local entrepreneurs, Andy Richards. All of these factors together are what makes Cambridge such an interesting and welcoming place for enterprise.


The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership works with companies in its Network each year to support education, innovation and collaboration between businesses and academia towards a sustainable economy. Increasingly, this includes helping firms to navigate the Cambridge ecosystem as they seek to underpin sustainability strategy and action with academic rigour; to access new ideas or innovations that will enable a step change in sustainability performance; or to host collaborations between companies, policymakers, and other stakeholders such as NGOs and disruptors, to facilitate the inter-disciplinary collaboration required to tackle systemic or complex sustainability challenges. For example:

  • CISL’s Banking Environment Initiative recently published ‘Catalysing Fintech for Sustainability’, the lessons from a 6-month multi-sector collaboration between banks, retailers, FMCG companies and manufacturers to scope the potential for new sustainable innovations, such as blockchain to enable integrated sustainable supply chains.
  • The Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards support and celebrate inspirational young people from all over the world who have developed initiatives, products or services that are tackling some of the planet’s biggest sustainability challenges.
  • CISL Postgraduate Certificate students from Jaguar Land Rover and its aluminium provider, Novelis, worked on a group project to publish a circular economy case study on the learning points from Jaguar Land Rover’s closed loop value chain collaboration to increase recycled aluminium content in its cars.
  • CISL works with its Strategic Partners to engage academics and researchers from across the University to source new ideas, innovations and insights in support of the companies’ integrated commercial and sustainability aims. 

Read the full unabridged version of this blog article here.

About the author

Andy Neely

Andy Neely is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Enterprise and Business Relations and former Head of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University, and Founding Director of the Cambridge Service Alliance, specialising in manufacturing and services, especially strategy and performance, business models and analytics.


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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