How this co-working space is powering collaborations in Cambridge
Connection, collaboration and celebration are the three guiding principles of Trinity College Cambridge’s Bradfield Centre, the co-working space run by Central Working at the heart of the buzzing Cambridge Science Park.
So ingrained into the Bradfield DNA are these principles that they’ve come to be intrinsically woven into the very fabric of its operations.
The success or failure of the centre is predicated entirely on what comes of the connections its coordinators foster, thanks to a smart employee reward system that tracks and incentivizes successful introductions.
And Bradfield’s tenants are always receptive to such growth opportunities; as founders and owners of the next generation of businesses to take up residence at the park, they are imbued with the same sense of entrepreneurialism and innovation that headline every chapter of the Cambridge success story.
It is for this reason they come to the Bradfield Centre, and why Central Working was picked to run it in the first place.
Trinity College did not want the centre run like a typical office–they wanted a property manager who cared about community and knew how to build one, and who had experience growing budding businesses.
A different kind of enterprise hub
Having Central Working run the Bradfield Centre as a co-working space makes the arrangement a rather unique one; most university enterprise centres or innovation hubs are built and run entirely by university employees.
Not unlike these, the Bradfield Centre is open to any business looking to scale and grow, and to build strategic connections with academia. But the centre has an edge of its own, something the others tend to lack–the dynamics and sense of urgency of a commercial operation.
“Credit goes to Trinity College for having the vision to bring in a professional organisation that knows how to run collaborative workspaces and build community,” the centre’s Managing Director James Parton tells U2B.
“Ours is an out and out commercial space, full of amazing high growth businesses. This really gives the students here a much better appreciation of what it’s like to take this career path.”
He says everything about the Bradfield Centre, from its founding objectives through to the level of detail that went into its built environment, made it propitious from the get-go.
With nine years of experience in the co-working space, Central Working was involved in the centre’s coming-together right from the very beginning, providing input during the entire design and fit-out process.
Built for collaboration
Spread across 40,000 sq ft, the £20 million centre is an architectural beauty made of concrete and glass, built to encourage collaboration and the collision of ideas.
Wide-open spaces and glass–lots and lots of it–are critical features of the building, used to celebrate light, transparency, and most importantly, to spark conversation and creativity.
Kitted out with a 100-seat auditorium, five meeting rooms, a 12-person boardroom, a state-of-the-art media lab, eight phone booths for private conversations, massive breakout spaces and a lakeside pavilion, it caters to every tenant’s need, as well as that of non-members.
Two membership floors within the building are built around the concept of a kitchen, creating an environment that encourages engagement. Parton says such an environment provides fertile ground for the kind of serendipitous encounters that have become the cornerstones of success for the Cambridge cluster.
“The whole thing was designed such that people would go in, grab a coffee and then hang out to chat and collaborate.
“A lot of thought was put into it,” Parton says.
Collaboration’s secret sauce
Apart from its physical environment, Parton says Bradfield’s most important assets are the actual people in the building.
“So what we do at Central Working is we engineer a sense of community,” he explains. “We actually have a process whereby all of our team members work on making sure that we’re connecting and collaborating the people within the building.”
Parton’s staff are incentivised for the successful connections they make among the building’s tenants as well as the wider Cambridge or Central Working community.
A successful connection is one that becomes a new collaboration, whether that is to talk terms of a new commercial investment or to spawn a new product or venture, or to advance a current one.
The next step is to celebrate the collaboration, with Central Working broadcasting it to the press and through its media channels, putting the spotlight back on the key players that made it happen.
And for the coordinators who delivered these introductions? Hitting collaboration targets awards them bonus and incentive payouts.
Parton says Central Working staff are not required to drive revenue for the centre by upselling facilities to tenants, a common practice of other co-working spaces.
Instead, he says Central Working is the only co-working space operator in Cambridge and across the UK that offers its members an all-inclusive price with no hidden fees. This means once a lease is signed between member and operator, there’s no further commercial conversation between both parties, unless maybe it is about a lease extension or grow-on space.
“Our teams are all incentivised and don’t need to worry about driving revenue. For them to achieve their bonuses and incentives, they have to deliver the connections, the collaborations and the celebrations.
“And it’s all very hands-on. The team is here for one thing and one thing only, that is to help grow businesses as quickly as possible.
A recipe for success
As the brainchild of Trinity College Cambridge and with a physical structure that sits well inside the Cambridge academic ecosystem, the Bradfield Centre’s commercial goals are complemented nicely by the civic objectives of the higher education institution.
This creates a winning strategy for every Cambridge stakeholder, from student to academia and industry.
“Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle is the university and the other is industry. The Bradfield Centre sits in the centre where they overlap… what we’re doing is we’re blending the best of academia with the best of business,” Parton says.
He says students across the Cambridge cluster come to the centre not just soak up its energy and vibrancy, but to “maybe have lunch with a founder who’s actually building a real business.”
“It’s a very different experience to sitting in a classroom and being taught about entrepreneurship,” he points out.
But Central Working doesn’t just leave these engagements to chance. Its strategy as a co-working space to connect, collaborate and celebrate means it is constantly engineering opportunities to spark these fortuitous engagements across Cambridge.
One such opportunity is an annual competition called the Trinity Bradfield prize. Run in collaboration with Trinity College, the competition is designed to identify and nurture early-stage tech ideas across the university.
The winning teams, whose members must include University of Cambridge students, are given startup money and three months of membership at the Bradfield co-working space where they receive mentorship and support to commercialise their ideas.
The first round of competition launched last year saw an incredible 84 entrants and three winners. Among them were Simon Engelke, a 28-year-old PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who developed a method for battery electrode diffusion said to be able to improve the performance, charging speed, lifespan and energy efficiency of everything from smartphones and electric cars to power grids.
For his winning creation, the Cambridge student was awarded £10,000 and three months of intensive support at the centre, which he described as a co-working space that “takes curating serendipity seriously”.
“They’ve got a fantastic supportive team,” he says in comments to U2B. “It’s also a good place to get work done.”
“Through the centre, I met helpful people from the Cambridge Science Park, relevant companies and potential collaborators. It’s a great place to bounce ideas and ask other entrepreneurs and companies for advice,” he adds.
In second place was Saikat Subhra Ghosh who created a pole-changing machine to effectively provide gear shifting for electric cars, improving energy efficiency and cutting costs for consumers. Saikat also won £10,000 and Bradfield hothousing opportunities. The third winner–awarded £5,000 and the Bradfield mentoring–was Nidhin Laji, who developed a 3D modelling programme for heart surgery in newborn children.
Parton says the competition is running again this year with a target to raise the number of applications to over 100. A check on the competition website shows it is now accepting applications, with a deadline set for midnight on September 22, 2019.
Apart from the Trinity Bradfield Prize, the Bradfield Centre also plays central roles in other initiatives that encourage industry-academia participation across Cambridge.
This includes MedTechBOOST, a competition partly sponsored by the Cambridge Judge Business School that seeks novel ideas using artificial intelligence technologies to tackle challenges faced by the National Health Service (NHS). Applications to the competition have now closed and the event is scheduled to take place at the centre this September 2.
“So we’re very tightly connected to the university. These competitions are just some of the ways [we’re connected],” Parton says.
Two years and counting
The Bradfield Centre turned two just a few weeks ago, celebrating 24 months of achievements that read like a list of superlatives.
It blazed out of the blocks from soft-opening in July 2017 to hit full capacity within less than a year of operations. To date, the co-working space has supported over 140 high-growth tech businesses, eight of which have been university spin-outs–seven from the University of Cambridge, and one from the University of East Anglia.
Many of its members have doubled or tripled in size, creating hundreds of jobs and innumerable opportunities for members of the wider Cambridge university ecosystem.
It has facilitated more than 600 events and seen some 27,000 through its glass doors, among them students, academics, founders, entrepreneurs and investors, the thinkers and doers of tomorrow’s billion-pound ventures.
And its three-pronged “connection, collaboration and celebration” strategy has become the holy trinity of university-business success: its coordinators, a small four-member team led by Parton himself, have made 2,000 introductions for Central Working tenants since opening.
Of these, 25 percent spawned collaborations, the kind that capture the spirit of the centre’s namesake Sir John Bradfield, a former bursar of the college and the visionary who founded the science park in 1970.
Parton doesn’t say it but he is likely a big reason for this success.
With over 20 years of experience in the mobile and technology space, he came to the centre after spending five years heading up the European outpost of Silicon Valley cloud communications business Twilio. Having been through the startup, scaleup and IPO grind himself, he brought with him the hands-on culture and energy the centre needed to really make an impact.
And that experience is why the Bradfield Centre is also home to a sizeable investor network.
Venture capital firms like Amadeus Capital Partners and award-winning deep tech investor IQ Capital, alongside angel syndicates like the Cambridge Angels and the UK Business Angles Association, all have outposts at Bradfield.
More than providing a source of funding for the centre’s capital-hungry startups and scale-ups, these entrepreneurs and business investors are also able to offer them valuable advice for the next stage of their growth.
This model for collaboration and the opportunities it continues to create is what Parton is most passionate about.
He points out that at a time when businesses everywhere are struggling with issues such as access to talent and capital, creating an ecosystem like what Trinity College has done with the Bradfield Centre almost seems like a no-brainer.
Other universities, he says, should consider adopting a similar model.
“We’re big believers in this model. As I described earlier with the Venn diagram–this is having universities aligned with commercial businesses… and that overlap is what gives stronger outcomes for their students, the university, and for the businesses based here as well.”