by Lisa Fassl

In November 2018, we co-hosted a business angel trip to Cambridge with our friends from I.E.C.T. Hermann Hauser. Our mission: Discover the ecosystem of one of the world’s hotspots for science, innovation and entrepreneurship. Twenty brave people followed the invitation to this exclusive trip, expecting to experience the magic of this extraordinary place.

What we expected 

With 118 Nobel Laureates, the University of Cambridge with its 31 colleges is ranked as the number two University in the world. Apart from this extraordinary scientific record, the small city with around 150k inhabitants, is also well-known for its history and architectural highlights. Small streets, pubs that have been open for more than a century, the love for perfectly grown lawn and the feeling that something of cultural value could be waiting every corner, do the rest to create an outstanding experience for both residents and visitors. All in all: There’s a special aura around this place. 

What we got

36 intense hours packed with insights, learnings and lots of food (next time we’ll have to include some sport activities). It all started on Monday evening with a dinner in a typical British restaurant to get everyone in the mood, followed by an early 8am breakfast with Hermann . If you’re now wondering, why we spent so much time on eating: Although we’re living in a hyper-connected digital world, sitting down, face to face and being forced to talk to each other is still the most effective way to connect and grow a network. And apart from gaining insights into the startup ecosystem, this networking element was the main purpose of this trip. Because startup investing is still people’s business, where trust and a common sense are crucial. 

The next stop on our tour was Prowler, an AI platform for general purpose decision making and apparently one of Hermann’s favorite investments. Apart from the fact that this startup is pretty impressive in terms of growth and research activities, it was the leadership style that was – at least for me – totally fascinating. As we all know, success is all about the team, which is why attracting and keeping talent is the key task for the CEO. His philosophy: Give your team the feeling that they can decide the direction of the company, appreciate them for who they are and help them to transfer their work into real life applications that change people’s lives. 

After a really nice lunch with Hermann (and of course great food), we visited Amadeus Capital. Amadeus is a VC fund, started and still based in Cambridge, co-founded by Hermann and with more than 130 investments. Started in 1997, Amadeus now follows three investments strategies: early stage, growth capital & emerging markets (especially FinTech & marketplace models).

Although this Cambridge adventure clearly was a business trip, we also tried to squeeze at least some cultural/touristy program into the agenda: A visit to John’s College, mainly to see the Bridge of Sighs (yes, there’s one in Cambridge too) and a quick glance at the world’s most famous apple tree at Trinity College. You’re wondering why this tree is so famous? Let’s time travel back to school, specifically into everyone’s beloved physics lessons: In the 17th century Isaac Newton discovered something quite important, the low of universal gravitation. And as he was a fellow at this College, rumor has it that he got hit by an apple while he was sitting under this tree (or the tree that used to grow there at that time). Pretty cool, huh? 

Next and final stop on our tour – ideaSpace. With the mission of „making a meaningful contribution to society by supporting the development of high impact new ventures“, Idea Space is a place of true entrepreneurship, where creating value is at the core of every business. I especially loved their description of who they want to work with: Founders (who are positioned somewhere between innovators and entrepreneurs) characterized by: 

  • Humble arrogance
  • Skeptical optimism 
  • Compassionate impatience

If you’re now wondering, what ideaSpace is doing: They are creating a community of founders that share the office space, participate in events and work day and night on their businesses.  

What we can learn 

Going on trips like this is nice: You get inspired, you meet new people and you might get some business opportunities out of it. But to me – and this is the point where I’d like to share my very personal opinion – it’s important to use all this input to transfer it into my daily work and to share my learnings. So here we go: 

There is nothing like magic

Sorry to all of you who are still waiting for their welcome letter to Hogwarts. 😉 It’s just a combination of the right input factors (did the time in Cambridge already make me smarter?! #economics): 

1 – Smart people have smart ideas

Yes, Cambridge is home to one of the best (currently the second best to be precise) universities in the world. Some of this planet’s brightest minds used to study and/or work here, which created its outstanding reputation and still attracts great talent. With 10.9 students per staff, these smart people are supported quite intensively. And with around 150 support programs for entrepreneurship, this career opportunity seems to be really important in this small town in the middle of England.

2 – Diversity is king 

This point somehow also refers to talent, cause when it comes to successful teams – and there are maaaany studies to proof that – diversity is a crucial factor. Diversity in this case means more than just gender aspects: it’s about cultural backgrounds, fields of study, age and experience. Thanks to the described history and the nature of living in a small town, the diversity magic (ok, there is a kind of magic) seems to be happening quite naturally.

3 – Money, money, money 

Another crucial element towards an active startup ecosystem is money. In Cambridge, there is quite an active community of angel investors. One of them recently became the president of our umbrella organization EBAN. If you’re wondering, why there is this active community: On the one hand it’s of course because there is a long history of entrepreneurial activity where it’s sort of natural for successful entrepreneurs to become angels themselves and give back to the community. On the other hand, there are pretty nice tax incentives for angels investors throughout the UK that have a major impact on early stage funding. 

4 – Dealing with failure

In terms of the failure culture, even Cambridge is not on the same level with the Silicon Valley. Still, the trial-and-error-mindset is far more present than in Central Europe – both among entrepreneurs and investors. Apart from that: There are around 1.500 startups in the city at any given time, meaning that even if you fail, there are probably some nice jobs out there (and the war for talent definitely is a thing there). And in the worst case you can still re-locate to London which is also said to be home to quite a nice startup community. 😉

5 – What really matters 

You’ve probably already noticed that I was quite impressed by ideaSpace. And I can tell you exactly why, but be prepared, this is going to be a rather personal story: 

My startup journey started in the beginning of 2012, when I was asked to join a team who was organizing a Startup Live event. During that year, I got to know different parts of the startup ecosystem and also worked for a startup called Earth Puzzle Project. We were doing something like Pokemon Go, but without Pokemons. And in 2012. You probably get where this is going – we were not too successful. Still, this was one of the best experiences in my life because it sort of set the tone for my future career. We were working many hours, spent our summer in the office at the old Science Park Graz and basically worked our asses off to get the product ready to launch. 

What I loved about that time – and what I appreciate even more when I look back – was the spirit. We didn’t care about working in the fanciest office in town or grabbing lunch at a hipster-vegan-whatever restaurant nor having meetings over a flat white with a slice of banana bread. And no, I’m not saying that all this stuff is bad, I just wanna make one very important point: Entrepreneurship is not about being fancy. Entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle. Entrepreneurship is not about perfect pitches. At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is hard work. It’s tough, it can get really exhausting, it can destroy people, financially and mentally. Which is why it’s even more important to really ask the question why someone is starting a company. And – to close the loop of this story – this why should be related to creating impact. 

For the people at ideaSpace, impact is defined very clearly: Improving the lives of 1 million people in three years. Only companies that are driven by this vision, are accepted to become part of the ideaSpace community. 

The Cambridge magic in a nutshell 

To sum it up: For those guys entrepreneurship is about having impact, creating value and improving the status quo. And I think especially this mentality is something that we can learn from Cambridge and transfer to the Austrian startup ecosystem. 

If you’re now thinking that this is way too fuzzy, too value-driven or just not realistic: Yes, I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.