Crossover Technologies in Cambridge

Dr Mike Lynch OBE on the uniqueness of the “Silicon Fenn” ecosystem – where interdisciplinary exchanges gives rise to thriving British tech companies.

January 2014

My office in the Broer's Building in Cambridge looks out on King's College on one side, the University's Cavendish Lab on another, a University building with a café on the ground floor on the third side, and, my favourite, a view of farmland that is a daily reminder of the most basic elements of life. The thing about these four views of Cambridge is that to me, each embodies something that is essential to what makes Cambridge such an important part of our society and our economy.

For almost six hundred years, King's College has been pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. All of us, whether in academia or in business, owe much to the generation before us, and the inspiring view of the spires of King's College Chapel is a reminder of the debt of gratitude owed to those who toiled there in the past, and also the responsibility that we have in the present to do our bit for the people of the future.

I can almost see the future from the window that looks over the Cavendish Lab and the computer laboratory. This is an exciting part of the University, leading to many advances in computational power: they gave us the first webcam; the electron and the hydrogen atom were both discovered here. Businesses such as Acorn, ARM or Blinkx could not have happened without the findings from these labs – and indeed, departments such as these continue to provide most of the minds that these companies rely on for their success.

But perhaps one of the most important parts of the buildings that surround me is the café. It isn't very big; the coffee is average and the food is mostly unimaginative, but it serves as a meeting place for all who spend our days in this enclave. I dare say even the farmer has dropped in for a cup of tea on occasion. This café is important – it is where a physicist unexpectedly meets an advanced mathematician and a bioinformatician and they puzzle over the origins of the universe and the power of data. It is where the software developer interested in predictive analytics runs into a potential employer. It is where a chance encounter could turn into a novel approach on the road to finding a cure for cancer.

What goes on in my part of Cambridge is replicated across town, it happens in the waiting room at the station, it happens at pubs across town, it happens in students' rooms, outside lecture theatres, on a punt. It probably happens in King's College Chapel. In typical British fashion though, we play down the importance of this vibrant ecosystem, whereas our American counterparts have bottled and branded it, and now sell a concept called Silicon Valley with the implication that it has a monopoly on all future successful companies.

This excellence in marketing is not disproportionate to the success of companies that start out or move there early in their development. But the good news is that Cambridge has cottoned on. What's more, a lot of work has been done over the last decade to make Silicon Fenn less of a "me-too" play, and more of an actual place. And in the same way that Silicon Valley stretches across county lines and includes an ocean and some mountains, so Silicon Fenn is stretching to become a Tech Triangle that includes Oxford and Tech City. Improved transport links between Cambridge, Oxford and London are making this possible.

From my new vantage point at Invoke Capital, I am often asked about the sort of things that interest me. What excites me most is these crossovers, the chance encounters in the lunch queue between seemingly unrelated disciplines. And at the moment, I am particularly excited about the crossover between healthcare and technology, specifically at the point at which gene sequencing meets Big Data.

The pace of scientific advancement means that DNA sequencing is faster and cheaper than ever. When our very own Hermann Hauser had his DNA sequenced, it took many weeks and tens of thousands of dollars. Illumina (the company that acquired Solexa) recently announced that it can now sequence the entire human genome for less than one thousand dollars – and you can get the results by lunchtime. We are not far from a reality where every baby will have his/her genes sequenced on the day of birth, informing a vast array of health decisions, including whether he or she needs that vaccine at all. This is extremely exciting and opens up so many possibilities for understanding complex diseases like cancer.

At Invoke we are very interested in this because while the healthcare industry has typically focused on increasing the ease of sequencing, actually analyzing the genetic information remains a very complex task. The amounts of data generated by each sequence are in terabytes. The raw genetic code requires significant computational processing to provide more meaningful insight than simply defining and correlating gene mutations.

This is a classic example of the opportunities that arise when disciplines cross. Once a gene has been sequenced, the problem of understanding that sequence becomes one of computational analysis. But not only that, it also requires an ability to keep that information secure – not easy when the data sets are very large and constantly evolving. Moreover, much of this data isn't very useful on its own; it needs to be understood in the context of other information, whether it be about the disease, similar patient populations, or the individual.

These problems depend, quite literally, on chance encounters on railway platforms. The field of bioinformatics is developing very fast and it isn't until those siloes are broken down that we will see meaningful breakthroughs. I remain very confident that significant progress can be made – and that it can be made right here, in Cambridge.

A version of this article appeared in Cambridge News.