Podcast with Linn Clabburn, Programme Director of Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor

The scope of the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor

Out today, listen to Episode 31 of the Inside The Bradfield Centre podcast here, or on your podcasting service of choice.

Episode Transcript:

James Parton:

Welcome to Inside the Bradfield Centre. I’m James Parton, the managing director of the Bradfield Center, And this week I’m flying solo on the episode. Joining us on today’s episode is Linn Clabburn, who’s the program director of the Cambridge and Norwich Tech Corridor. So I’m really looking forward to learning just more about the Tech Corridor, what it’s all about, its objectives, how it’s measured, and maybe get Linn’s perspective on demand for office space and how that might have changed with the advent of COVID. So I’m sure it’s going to be really good conversation. Linn, thanks so much for spending the time to come on the show today, really appreciate it. Why don’t we start with just learning a little bit more about you and your background.

Linn Clabburn:

Yeah, thanks James. Thanks for having me. Me and my background. Well, I suppose I probably come at this job, perhaps from a slightly different background to some of my colleagues. I have now lived in the UK for nearly 11 years, and I’m Swedish originally, I’m still a Swedish citizen. So I moved here just just about 11 years ago. My husband is British and we’d spent a fair few years traveling around the world as ski bums, and it was time to settle down and get a proper job and all of that. So I had, or have a science degree in the background, environmental science degree, moved to the UK. So because I’d worked in research for a large Swedish University, I came into the offshore wind power space originally and did a lot of work with what was then the East of England Development Agency around researching the opportunities for offshore wind power in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Linn Clabburn:

And fairly quickly after that, moved into engineering and manufacturing and worked again for a Norwich based business for a few years, spent a lot of time in China, manufacturing large bits of equipment for the steel industry and for oil and gas. Just a bit of a change for me, who’d been working in more of the environmental space for a long time. And then I guess I have had a little bit of an odd career because then I wanted to get back into the more environmental, low carbon space. So I started working for an investment fund, called the Low Carbon Innovation Fund, that covered all of East of England, early stage investments into any type of low tech green tech. And I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed the whole investment space, seeing early stage companies going through that growth, working with them to look at their strategies and how they were just planning to take products and services to market, how we could support them with various funding. Obviously the money we had ourselves, but also working with other investors from across the UK to support these businesses to grow.

Linn Clabburn:

And a part of what I did there was to help set up the structures for a new UK China VC fund, which thought about investing into green tech that had some scalability in the Chinese market. And that fund is now operating, up and running, and really from that, I guess, I transitioned into the role of what I’m doing now as the program director. So I guess my background is a little bit different because obviously the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor is public private partnership, but really this is my first job in the public sector. So I guess it’s a little bit different, perhaps, from some of my colleagues, but I think it also brings the little bit of a different perspective on how we grow as a region.

James Parton:

Yeah, that’s fascinating. So very varied, very global in its nature. You’ve achieved a lot by the sounds of it.

Linn Clabburn:

I’ve had a lot of fun, that’s for sure. Yeah, I spent spending a few years traveling around when you have all your things in one snowboard bag is pretty good fun.

James Parton:

Living the dream of traveling with a laptop and working. So maybe for the uninitiated, why don’t you explain to me the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor? What’s that about and why is it important for the region?

Linn Clabburn:

So the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor is a really interesting initiative and a really interesting project and it has evolved massively. So when I started with Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor about three years ago, it was very much in its infancy. It was at that point also very much driven by the public sector and really it came on the back of the dualing of the A11. Really money was spent by government to dual the A11, to improve the links between Cambridge and Norwich. It was a bit of, “Okay, well what next then? So what do we do with this? Does this give people a reason to travel? Does this actually going to drive investment into the region?” So that was the background thinking for the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor.

Linn Clabburn:

So when I came in, it was very much an inward investment play. It was all about attracting more businesses and more investment and more development into the region. And like someone said, a bit of a, a commercial property play in disguise. And I obviously came in from having worked in venture capital and a different type of investment. So quite early on I really assessed what the tech corridor was all about and what it should be about and what it could achieve. And there’s definitely a big inward investment play or investment play, but really, rather than just looking at investment as trying to attract more businesses, more people into the region, what I felt was really important was to look at what we already have in the region and to see what we can do in order to support the people who are already here.

Linn Clabburn:

And I think that was potentially… It was a bit of a shift from originally was thought to be or expected to be. But anyone who’s run a business knows that it’s easier to keep your existing customers coming back and buying more from you rather than constantly trying to be out getting new customers. So that was one aspect of it. It was like, “Okay, we have something really, really good here. We have all the bits of something incredibly successful. How do we nurture that?” And then secondly, it was, “Okay, well if we’re thinking about selling, in inverted commas, the tech corridor and that wider region, what we need to make sure is that the experience when you get here, if you come here as an investor, if you come here as an individual, if you come here as a business, we want that brand or the experience to match the brand.”

Linn Clabburn:

everyone knows this. It’s not enough to just stick a nice logo on something and think that it’s going to sell. So the second bit for me was to think about, “All right, well, how do we create that right type of environment for people to thrive and grow in? And what is the role of the private sector? What’s the role of the public sector in terms of creating a successful environment?” And when I talk about environment, that’s both a physical environment, what do you need as a business in terms of broadband, public transport, those sorts of things, but also the less tangible, the more virtual environment where the grants, the investor community, the networks, all of those aspects as well. And also really importantly, at the end of the day, all businesses are run by people. So what’s that livability story as well? Because if you have an amazing business environment, but there is nowhere for people to live or the schools just aren’t good enough, well then it’s just going to work. So I think we started thinking about it a lot more holistically.

James Parton:

So are you effectively scouting the region and showcasing the best of the area, or are you also in addition influencing policy work and the decision making of local authority or central government? Are you doing both of those things?

Linn Clabburn:

Exactly. So that’s the kind of thing where with the Tech Corridor, we work at many different levels, which makes it quite interesting, I think. Some of the things I’ve talked about there are grants [inaudible 00:11:06] investment and attracting people and businesses to the region. Yes, that’s about telling the right stories to the right people, lifting out all of those really good things that we have, and I think a thing that we do that no one else had done before is looking at the patterns across the region. So you have an interesting story in Norwich, you have an interesting story in Cambridge, but actually what we can do is the Tech Corridor, we can bring those two things together and say, “Look, you’ve got several people in the similar space, and now you have a much bigger story.” So it’s about bringing things together in order to get them enhanced. So that’s definitely one part.

Linn Clabburn:

But then when we start talking about the business environment, you’re absolutely right, James. That’s a communication into government. That’s a communication into a local authorities. But it’s also about talking to some of the private sector stakeholders. So your commercial property developers, for example, do they understand exactly what type of space is available or what type of space people are looking for? I should say which companies are growing and therefore how do they create the direct type of commercial property space for them. I think that’s the thing that makes us a bit different as well, is that last layer of it, where we work with people and businesses in the Tech Corridor as well.

Linn Clabburn:

And we try to keep co create that community and that network so that anyone who comes into the tech corridor or feels like they’re coming into a business community as well. So it’s not just something that sits above people. It’s actually trying to bring people in and make people feel part of that community. You know as well as I do that people sell to people, and what we want is we want businesses and we want people to feel like they’re benefiting from being in the tech corridor that they’re part of a community and they can sell that community to the people they work with as well.

James Parton:

Absolutely. Which prompts a supplementary question. How has COVID then affected that strategy or that vision? I mean, a couple of specific questions that we’re trying to figure out ourselves, actually, is… The first one is do you see a longterm change in the demand for office space, should we say, especially for larger single occupancy offices versus flexible working space? And then maybe the second question is do you believe some of the theory that people might be moving out of cities and wanting to live more rurally, or where where regions like ours are ideally positioned geographically to take advantage of that because they’re still commutable, obviously, into London.

Linn Clabburn:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a little bit too early to tell, to be… I sound like a politician, don’t I? But I think it’s a little bit too early to tell probably exactly what’s going to happen. And I was talking to a colleague who works in master planning and stuff and he made a really good comment, and that was that at the moment we are still working on saved capital, and in terms of… It’s social capital. We have been able to do this whole year of working flexibly and not seeing each other and getting to know people over Zoom and stuff because we already have a lot of those relationships with the people we’re working with.

Linn Clabburn:

So if you think about how many brand new people you get to know in a year compared to how many brand new people you got to know this year, I think that it’s fine for a certain amount of time to be working flexibly and working from home, but actually we will see that more and more people will need a bit of time together in offices because you just lose that relationship with new members of staff, new members of teams, coming in, that you don’t have a chance to build a proper relationship with. So I think we’re living on saved capital. I would like to think that it won’t go back to exactly what it was in terms of everyone getting in the cars in the morning and commuting, but I do think that there’s going to be some blended model of people having office space where they can come together and meet up, be that once a week, once every two weeks, but hopefully also combining that with working from home.

Linn Clabburn:

So in terms of space, what we see consistent demand for is obviously anything that is lab related. That’s something that you can’t do from home as much as you’d love to do doing science experiments in the kitchen. That sort of thing is definitely still in really high demand. I would think that probably your massive offices where everyone comes in and out, I don’t see those being necessarily as popular in the future, but we are definitely hearing more and more people talking about that flexible office space. I live in a small market town. It would be ideal if there was a space in my market town where I could go and work from a different environment a couple of days per week. If there were cubicles where you could go in and close the doors so you can do a Zoom meeting.

Linn Clabburn:

I think hopefully that’s something that we’re going to be seeing, because I think that would compensate for that lack of social interaction. But like I said, I think it’s still a little bit too early to say. We’ve obviously heard about people moving out of the big cities. We’ve seen it to some extent, but not like a mass exodus from the cities. And there have been some articles in the news recently and people writing blogs and stuff saying that if people aren’t in the office in London, should we pay them as much? And I think if employers start thinking that way, then employees will probably start thinking, “Hmm, do I want to take that cut in salary to live somewhere else?” So it will be interesting. I mean, I’m just watching with great interest at the moment.

James Parton:

Yeah, no, likewise. So when you cover such a large surface area, then, how do you measure success? What does good look like for your program over the next couple of years?

Linn Clabburn:

It’s an excellent question. And I think it’s challenging to say exactly what good looks like, because it also depends on what kind of lens you’re looking at the Tech Corridor through. So a good or a success from a public sector stakeholders point of view is really at the moment all around government recognition. And I think it’s really important for us as the Tech Corridor with two big R&D hubs in particular, that government recognition, because as you know, it’s all about the leveling up agenda and there’s a really strong R&D science part to that leveling up agenda, it’s leveling up through high value knowledge economy. And how do we level up without leveling down in certain places? And I think Cambridge in particular is a location that is concerned about a potential leveling down in order for other parts of the UK to level up.

Linn Clabburn:

So from the public sector point of view, getting that recognition from government of the importance of our contribution to the UK PLC and how we can level up by not leveling down, but to improve the linkages between really successful R&D locations like Cambridge and Norwich, with the more challenged locations that could really do with the leveling up support. So from a public sector point of view, that piece is really big at the moment. It’s challenging because the East of England is essentially competing against the North to a great extent. So how do we get recognized, how do we make sure that funding comes here and continues to be invested into the science and the research? But then if you look at the private sector, how we measure success, it’s around the growth, really. If we’re coming down to hard KPIs, it’s about looking at economic growth, individual investments, overarching trends. We had seen quite a nice increase in the amount of private sector investment going into the region.

Linn Clabburn:

We’re waiting, I guess, to see what 2020 was like, but it’s probably probably out of our control what happened in 2020 and probably part of 2021. But it’s about looking at those bigger trends, and then individual successes. Think from us as a team who drive the Tech Corridor agenda, for us success is also to have businesses want to be part of what we do, and individuals to be part of what they do, and to have people will say that, “I’m really proud to be based in Snetterton or Thetford or Bury St Edmunds as part of the Tech Corridor, and I have chosen to set up my business here, I’ve chosen to move my family here.” And I know that’s not very tangible. It’s soft metrics, but I think from our point of view, that’s really success. When we see a business making the decision to set up here or grow here or invest into apprenticeships in the region, that is success because that’s inclusive economic growth, really, ultimately.

James Parton:

Just to pause the conversation a second and tell a little bit more about the changes we’re making at the Bradfield Centre. We now offer a whole range of new flexible membership packages which support homeworkers, hybrid homeworking blended with access to high quality office space, and meeting room hire by the hour. Starting from as little as 45 pounds per month, visit bradfieldcentre.com for more information or call 01 223 919 600.

James Parton:

We’ve been trying to, through our partnerships with folks like Tech East and others, and Tech Nation, we’ve been trying to strengthen the ties between the Bradfield Centre and Norwich in particular. There’s some nice examples of events that we’ve put together, and also we’ve had companies like Spectral Edge that have got roots into Norwich, UEA, and some of the winners of the Trinity Bradfield Prize in 2019 had Norwich roots as well, actually. What would your message be for companies based in the Bradfield Centre or the Cambridge tech ecosystem more broadly? How can they get involved? Why should they get involved? How can you help them?

Linn Clabburn:

Yeah, absolutely. There are several different things. I think you don’t know what you don’t know, and I think that’s the thing. Cambridge is incredibly successful and Cambridge could be absolutely falling on its own. I think the thing is there is an awful lot of untapped potential and a lot of creativity. You mentioned Norwich, but you also have that wider expanse along the Tech Corridor with really, really interesting businesses. And I think a lot of it has just been, and it remains hidden if you like, and I think there’s a great deal of opportunity for Cambridge businesses to actually accelerate their own growth by working with companies in the Tech Corridor. And I think we just need to make that opportunity more visible.

Linn Clabburn:

Just as examples, we know that space is expensive in Cambridge. We know that there are challenges around physically growing your business in Cambridge. If you look at the corridor, there are plenty of businesses that are there to support manufacturing supply chain, for example, or where there’s actually a lot more lower cost space, but also some really, really extraordinary capabilities, knowledge that I just think complements Cambridge really, really well. So that’s what we want to draw out and put at the forefront and want to encourage those sorts of working relationships. And we’ve already done it through… So what we do with the Tech Corridor is we run the number of different programs. One of the things we do is all around supporting businesses to access Innovate UK grants by helping them build consortium.

Linn Clabburn:

So we put together a really exciting consortium before Christmas with researchers from the Institute for Manufacturing, I think it was five or six manufacturing companies across Norfolk and Suffolk to do a really, really interesting project. And the researchers in Cambridge were really excited because actually this was an opportunity for them to test something that they wanted to test. And those manufacturing businesses were really excited because it was an opportunity for them to work with really high end cutting edge research. Those are the sorts of things that is a real opportunity for everyone. It’s not just for the Cambridge company or the Norwich company, it’s that collective.

Linn Clabburn:

So why should you care if you’re a Cambridge based company? Well, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to find some really, really interesting collaboration partners. I think there’s a lot of complementing skills and knowledge that, if put together or introduced to each other, could really be game changing. And then how do you get involved? Well, like I said, we run several different programs. We run an ambassador program, which normally we would be meeting up and having coffee and drinks together, but 2020 didn’t really help that. But hopefully we’ll be back to doing that. And we run an investment platform, for example, which we’ll be launching as an online platform in the next few weeks. So it’s all about helping people build connections.

James Parton:

That investment platform, is that seed investment? Is that…

Linn Clabburn:

It will be. So what it is is we’re using a platform called Dealio. What we’re aiming to do with it is just to make that connection between business looking for investment and investor, showcase what’s available in the region. So we’re making it regional, and it will go everything seed all the way through to essentially PE. So it’s for any business. Obviously then you can slice and dice as you come into the platform to see whatever types of deals you’re interested in. But, really what it is is that we found in particular, last year, where there were less opportunities for people to do face-to-face pitching events, that having some sort of online presence that could just help people get their message out, help them to be part of a bigger collective of other businesses as well. So, yeah, that’s, again, something that we’ll be launching in the next few weeks. It’s just being under development at the moment.

James Parton:

Okay. That’s exciting. So just wrapping up then, how can people find out more? How can they get involved?

Linn Clabburn:

I would say a really good way to get involved is to go to our website or any of our social media channels, sign up to our newsletter, and in the newsletter, which comes out every Friday, what we do is a bit of a round up of all the main news across the region, but also in there are all of the different programs that we run. And it’s an interesting… Well, first of all, I should say that there is also the opportunity there too, to sign up as an ambassador, which means that you get a little bit more of that behind the scenes information about what we’re doing. There are different levels of engagement. It’s like everything, you can choose how involved you want to be, but there’s opportunities to get involved on the lobbying side, the communications with government is something we’re really keen on to…

Linn Clabburn:

When we talk to government about the leveling up agenda, to have businesses with us who have a view or echo our view or we can work together with is really, really powerful. So there’s that opportunity. There’s also the more information and knowledge sharing. So say you’re a commercial property developer, and you want to find that really, really in depth data about the tech corridor and what type of companies are growing in different places, where you might want to invest, et cetera. We have a lot of that knowledge, we have that expertise, we can share that with people. And then it’s the individual programs that people can get involved with as well. So it’s to come to us and we can out where you fit best, if that makes sense. That’s a really wooly way to put it.

Linn Clabburn:

But one thing we have found over the last year is we get a lot of people just coming to us and saying, “Look, I have this challenge,” or, “I’m looking to do this. What can you do to help?” And the thing is, we are incredibly well connected into all sorts of different organizations. Everything from big corporates down to the local authorities through to networks like Tech East and Tech Nation. So we’re quite well-placed to give people that sort of triage. And sometimes it’s not us who’s the best place to give them the support. But I pretty much guarantee that we will have the phone number to the person you need to speak to in order to get the support you need for your business. And I guess that’s a bit of a change this year compared to previously, but we found that that’s really, really important. People just need to talk to someone who can help them. So that’s something that we’ve been doing a lot this year, connecting people, putting people together, just having that conversation about how we can improve the conditions for their business to operate in.

James Parton:

Fantastic. Well, thanks again for making the time to come on. Hopefully off the back of this people will be reaching out and you’ll be having a whole bunch more of those conversations.

Linn Clabburn:

Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, James. It’s been a real pleasure, and eventually this year perhaps we can have an in-person podcast as well, who knows?

James Parton:

So another really interesting conversation with Linn. Really interested to get her perspective on the COVID situation, and then obviously I agree it’s a little bit too early to be definitive in terms of how things might shake out, but interesting to get some perspective there, especially around that conversation with banked capital and the fact that maybe not so much new business has been struck up during the lockdown. I’d be interested to see how that changes as we come out. Also just the sheer breadth of the remit Linn has, covering a huge service area there. Sounds like there’s lots to do. So if you do want to get involved, obviously check them out on social and on their website. I’m sure they would welcome your input. So thanks once again to Linn for coming on to the show.

The show was produced by Carl Homer of Cambridge TV. You can listen to previous episodes by searching for Inside the Bradfield Centre on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, pretty much every platform that offers podcasts. And please just take a couple of seconds to give us a five-star review. It’ll really help with the visibility of the show.

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