In response to COVID-19, we have seen some extraordinary examples of rapid and agile collaboration across the Cambridge Cluster. How can we capitalise on these experiences to do things better and faster in the future?

I recently introduced Beyond the pandemic, a new series of opinion pieces from Cambridge researchers on how the coronavirus is forcing us all to rethink what we do and how we do it and to ask if – amidst the devastation and uncertainty – there are any positive lessons to be learnt.

I have been thinking about this from the perspective of the Cambridge innovation ecosystem and its response to the pandemic. The cluster has always been characterised by its ability to embrace change. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is its dispersed but deceptively coherent nature.

It is a kaleidoscope of activity with people and organisations coming together in different patterns and combinations to do new things, all within a structured, supportive framework.

In 2020 it has demonstrated its ability to slip into new configurations with ease and with remarkable results. I’ve noticed three key – and connected – dimensions to its response to the pandemic.

Collaboration. COVID-19 created an environment in which new and unexpected alliances were formed to solve problems with collective drive and urgency. We saw this first-hand at the start of the pandemic when GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals were experiencing shortages of PPE.

The University responded by offering equipment from its own labs. But offers of help immediately arrived from Cambridge’s friends and alumni around the globe as well as from local companies and schools. Within days, donations of surgical masks, gloves and gowns started to flood in. It quickly became apparent that managing this influx would be a significant task.

Homerton, the college closest to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, offered storage space. Researchers and students from the Institute for Manufacturing applied their knowledge of factory logistics and, using tracking technology developed by university spinout, RedBite, created a highly efficient warehousing operation. Staff from the Strategic Partnerships Office took on the task of triaging offers of help as they came in. Students volunteered to process the deliveries. In five days, a brand new logistics hub was up and running.

Speed. This was by no means the only example of rapid mobilisation – and collaboration. It took just five weeks for Cambridge’s life sciences community to repurpose a building and set up a state-of-the-art, highly automated COVID-19 testing centre – a task that could take anything up to two years to plan and deliver in more normal times. Teams from the university and our strategic partners AstraZeneca and GSK worked together to achieve this mammoth feat of organisation and commitment. They were, in turn, supported by a whole host of other organisations: construction firms who built a new walkway at short notice and waived their fees for doing so; and manufacturers who developed complex scientific equipment in a fraction of the time it would usually have taken.

Creativity. Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that ventilators were going to play a critical part in patient care. Across the UK, manufacturers of all shapes and size scrambled to adapt their production lines to manufacture modified designs or completely new ones.

But conventional ventilators are expensive to produce and difficult to fix. A team of Cambridge engineers and clinicians saw a need for an affordable version that could be manufactured using readily available components for use in low and middle-income countries. The project to come up with a new design quickly gained momentum, bringing on board other universities and commercial partners both in the UK and Africa to refine the thinking and develop a prototype. The ventilator is now on the next stage of its journey with a manufacturer in South Africa preparing for mass production.

Collaboration, speed and creativity are not new: they have always been at the heart of Cambridge’s dynamic ecosystem. The pandemic has amplified those characteristics partly through an adrenalin-fuelled but largely unsustainable crisis response, but partly as a result of remote working. Swapping face-to-face meetings for Zoom or Teams, while it undoubtedly has its drawbacks, has played a perhaps unexpected role as an enabler of change.

Pre-pandemic, there was an assumption that meeting in person – where possible – was the gold standard for communication. But cutting out the need to travel – even by bicycle across Cambridge – has made it faster and easier to reach people, to form new groups quickly and to coalesce around a shared vision.

It is, of course, important to acknowledge that the pandemic has had – and will continue to have – a calamitous effect on many businesses, and on the people who work in them. But if there are some positive lessons to be learnt it is that the experience of these intense collaborations, enabled by remote working, has shown us what can be achieved in a very short space of time. This is something that we can take with us into the future, whatever it may hold.

Today, Cambridge is home to Europe’s largest technology cluster. Around 61,000 people are employed by the more than 5,000 knowledge-intensive firms in what has become known as
the Cambridge Cluster. They have a combined annual revenue of more than £15.5bn.

Much of the cluster’s rapid growth in the 1970s can be attributed to the foundation of the Cambridge Science Park by Cambridge University Trinity College in 1970.

The university has also been a driving force behind much of the key infrastructure that has allowed the cluster to flourish, including the St John’s Innovation Centre, Peterhouse
Technology Park, the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre and the ideaSpace Enterprise Accelerator.

University people and ideas are at the heart of many of the companies in the cluster, whether the company is based on university research (spin-out), or founded by a member of the university (start-up).

More than 1000 IP licensing, consultancy and equity contracts are currently under management by Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation group.

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