UK’s Cambridge tries to catch up with younger, innovative peer

  • New initiative aims to promote UK city on the world stage
  • Kendall Square in Massachusetts is seen as a model for the UK

Home to one of the world’s oldest universities and renowned for contributing to discoveries such as the structure of DNA, Cambridge, England has still been recently overshadowed by its Massachusetts namesake that spawned Moderna Inc.’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccine technology. Now, the UK city is trying to regain the limelight.

Automata Technologies, a London-based maker of robots for medical labs, is so enthralled by the US city that it’s setting up an additional office in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square district, rather than in the ancient home of learning or anywhere else in the UK, for that matter.

“As people say, if you stand in Kendall Square and throw a stone, you’re going to hit a biotech company,” said Mostafa ElSayed, CEO and co-founder of Automata. “It’s somewhere we want to be situated.”

The fear of becoming less attractive on the global stage, particularly with so much innovation coming out of its younger, fitter rival, has inspired locals in the English city to devise a plan to attract more business and investment, turning to powerhouses such as Microsoft Corp. and AstraZeneca Plc to help brainstorm ideas. Some are looking to Kendall Square — which has transformed into an epicenter for biotech companies — as a model for what the city could do.

Even long-time residents such as Frazer Bennett admire the buzz of the compatriot city, which is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The number of startups and companies trying to change the world per square meter is probably denser than it is anywhere else on the planet,” said Bennett, chief innovation officer at PA Consulting Group. “That makes it an energizing place.”

Cambridge is a crucial part of the UK’s goal to become a science and technology superpower by 2030. The university’s contribution to the domestic economy is almost quadruple that of UK soccer’s Premier League, helped by hundreds of startups and companies spun out of the learning institution, according to a London Economics report. But in order for the city to succeed, it needs investors with deep pockets, seasoned entrepreneurs and better infrastructure.

One advantage the Massachusetts town has is geographical. While Cambridge, England is more of a remote college town, Cambridge, Massachusetts is cheek-by-jowl with Boston, forming a large metropolitan area that’s easily accessible to travelers and industry connections. Getting around there is a lot easier, said Doug Cuff, senior vice president of UK real estate at IQHQ REIT, who has worked in both Cambridges.

Getting to England’s Cambridge takes at least 45 minutes from London by train. The English city is surrounded by rolling hills and farmland that are part of a green belt, which controls how much development can take place on rural land, to prevent US-style urban sprawl.

Rents that have ranged as high as $100 a square foot have pushed some biotech hopefuls out beyond Kendall Square to suburbs including Watertown, Waltham and Newton. Despite being rural, Cambridge England has space issues of its own.

Alchemab Therapeutics Ltd., which develops custom therapies based on patients’ immune systems, is currently working in two separate locations a couple of miles away from each other, according to Chief Scientific Officer Jane Osbourn. “Lab space around this area is hard to come by,” Osbourn said. “It would be nice to have more continuity and be able to have more of an easier path forward in terms of planning.”

Plans for a shared lab space in England’s Cambridge similar to Kendall Square’s LabCentral are being considered, according to Andrew Williamson, managing partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital, part of the initiative that aims to promote the English city worldwide. “There is a clear playbook for how to do this,” he said. “We’re a few years behind because we got started on this journey a little bit later.” Innovate Cambridge seeks to bring together individuals, organizations and the government to try to improve the city’s infrastructure, attractiveness and work conditions.

For Alchemab CEO Young Kwon, who previously worked at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based companies Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Biogen Inc., making the English city easier to work in is a key factor. “A lot of that’s around housing and roadways, just boring infrastructure, but it’s necessary to support the influx of people,” he said.

Career opportunities are easier to come by in Massachusetts. The average starting salary for a biology graduate in England’s Cambridge is between £23,500 to £28,000 ($29,000 to $35,000), according to specialist recruitment company CK Group. In the US, that same role has a starting salary of $50,000 to $75,000. While property prices are higher in the East Coast city, when it comes to average living costs, the median salary stretches further than it does in England, according to, a crowdsourced database.

Cambridge Versus Cambridge

It’s hard to resist the appeal of Kendall Square, where companies including Pfizer Inc., Novartis AG and Sanofi have locations. AstraZeneca is working on a new site there, which will be an R&D center for the company as well as the new corporate headquarters for Alexion, the rare-disease business it bought in 2021. The neighborhood’s plentiful mix of coffee shops, diners and restaurants also makes it a go-to place outside of office hours, according to Scott Weintraub, a senior vice president at Alexion.

“It’s really the perfect ecosystem,” he said.

It ultimately comes down to a lifestyle choice, according to Jonathan Hart-Smith, CEO of CK Group, a pharma staffing company, who is based in Stevenage. “If you really like the history and the architecture and the feel that you get of being in Cambridge itself, then Cambridge UK I think wins hands down,” he said. “If you want just the sheer scale of something huge and feeling part of a big, bustling, cosmopolitan city, then Cambridge, Massachusetts I think is the one.”

Still, England’s Cambridge has proven to be a harbinger of innovation. Oliver Zolman, the 29-year-old regenerative medicine physician seeking to help clients such as tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson reverse the aging process, chose to set up a clinic in the city where he grew up so that his friends and family could have easy access to the therapy equipment.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in Cambridge, but I guess we’re not as vocal about it in some ways,” he said.