Its tech and science credentials are impeccable: Cambridge University is the birthplace of the first programmable computer and the alma mater of Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton. But in recent years, the innovative accomplishments of the 817-year-old institution have been overshadowed by the creations coming out of  Silicon Valley

That may be (slowly) starting to change. The Wall Street Journal's Stu Woo reports that Cambridge's reputation has been transforming from renowned research institution to serious tech hub. In the first half of 2016, Cambridge-based companies raised $317 million in venture capital. That pales in comparison to the $9 billion raised by companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it's a vast improvement over the $25.5 million in venture capital money that was poured into the area just two years ago, according to CB Insights

Some of the most recent Cambridge success stories include DeepMind, an artificial intelligence startup co-founded by Demis Hassabis, a University of Cambridge alumnus. The startup was acquired by Google in 2014 for north of $500 million. This year, SwiftKey--the company behind a popular smartphone keyboard that predicts what you're about to type--was acquired in February by Microsoft for an undisclosed amount of money. Five months later, SoftBank acquired smartphone chip designer ARM Holding's for $32 billion.

The seeds of Cambridge University's tech startup scene, dubbed Silicon Fen, were planted in part in 1970 with the establishment of the Cambridge Science Park, a space dedicated to science and technology companies with ties to the school, writes Woo. The foundation was an answer to Stanford's Industrial Park (now known as Stanford Research Park), which was established in 1951 to create crucial links between the University and the businesses in that area. Industrial Park is one of the many reasons why Stanford has been dubbed "the cause of Silicon Valley." Some of the park's first tenants included Hewlett-Packard and General Electric, and it's now home to new Silicon Valley giants Tesla and Facebook. 

It's taken some time, but more than 40 years later, Cambridge's investment in its Science Park is starting to pay off in more noticeable ways. ARM, founded in Cambridge Science Park in 1990, has quietly come to "rule the world" as Bloomberg put it, because its chips are now used by tech powerhouses such as Apple and Samsung. 

Like that of Silicon Valley, Cambridge's infrastructure is starting to experience some of the stresses that come along with a growing number of startup success stories, such as soaring home prices and congested commutes. But the biggest challenges may still lie ahead. As Woo points out, Silicon Fen will soon face another uphill battle when Brexit becomes a reality. Britain's newly independent status could make it harder to attract foreign talent to Cambridge startups.

Still, if the university's storied history is any indication, Cambridge isn't likely to fade into obscurity anytime soon. 

Published on: Aug 8, 2016