St John’s Innovation Centre was established by St John’s College, part of the University of Cambridge in 1987 as part of St John’s Innovation Park, which now hosts a number of other buildings occupied by knowledge companies and professional services firms. The site (wholly-owned by St John’s College, Cambridge, since 1534) provides a campus setting close to both the city centre and major transport arteries.

St John’s Innovation Centre has been granted full membership of the European Business and Innovation Centre Network (EBN) and thus became the first accredited “BIC” (Business and Innovation Centre) in the East of England, joining a network of only 10 such accredited organisations within the UK. It has been a member of the United Kingdom Science Parks Association since 1987, and a member of United Kingdom Business Incubation (UKBI) since 1998.

The idea for the innovation centre in Cambridge was first proposed by Dr Chris Johnson, Senior Bursar of St John’s College, following a visit to the USA in 1984, during which he visited universities and science parks, which included an innovation centre in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Returning to Cambridge, he convened a small group including architect Ian Purdy and Walter Herriot, a banker working with early-stage companies, to plan the St John’s Innovation Centre.

The publication in 1985 of The Cambridge Phenomenon: The Growth of High Technology Industry in a University Town by Segal Quince Wicksteed, demonstrated to the College that investment in this sector was likely to be successful. St John’s Innovation Park was subsequently established on a 21 acre plot of land, owned by St John’s College since 1534. The Innovation Centre was opened in 1987 and visited by HRH Duke of Edinburgh in 1988.

It was the first innovation centre in Europe to focus on supporting knowledge-based businesses. It is the oldest such business incubator in the United Kingdom.

Following the success of the original centre, a second phase, Dirac House, was completed in July 1989, and the self-contained Jeffreys Building was completed in February 1990. Dirac House (now the Dirac wing) is named after Paul Dirac, Nobel Prize winner and member of St John’s College, while the Jeffreys Building is named after Sir Harold Jeffreys, a fellow of St John’s College. Four further buildings, the Vitrium, the Platinum, St John’s House and Edinburgh House, were added to the Park. The land remains the property of St John’s College.

Overall gross area of the enlarged Centre is now some 6,040m2 and net lettable space 4,925m2. Conference facilities and a restaurant were important components of this expansion: St John’s provides a supportive environment for its clients, with access to shared facilities and services that they could not afford individually, enabling tenants to concentrate on business development.

Over 100 units are available, with individual spaces designed for two to twenty-five people. Simple leases, typically terminable on one month’s notice, provide significant flexibility. The great majority of tenants are involved in commercializing innovation, with major sectors in recent years including information technology, communications (including wireless), digital printing, cleantech, electronics and design, though some bio and medical firms also have offices at the Centre – as do a few providers of relevant services, such as intellectual property advisers and specialist recruitment agencies.

Tenants are not required to have any connection with the University of Cambridge, though in practice a high proportion of resident entrepreneurs are Cambridge graduates, often at PhD level. Many firms start their association with the Centre as virtual tenants, using St John’s as a business address, with access to meeting rooms, training and advice. Tenants typically take up residence when their business is about a year old, and stay in the Centre for three to four years, during which time numbers of employees per firm may grow from under five to over 20.

Group workshops and individual assistance are provided for tenants, virtual tenants and other growth firms, often through programmes funded by local, national or European authorities. In addition to subjects such as marketing, recruitment and general business planning, advice frequently focuses on helping clients raise investment. One key function of the Centre’s management team is to keep apprised of grant schemes, public tenders, angel networks and tax-effective funding relevant for entrepreneurial firms. Social events for tenants also facilitate effective peer-to-peer networking. Membership of the European Business Network enables St John’s to make targeted contacts with similar firms overseas for its clients (and vice versa) as part of a ‘soft landing’ programme.

Over the years, numerous prominent start-ups associated with the Cambridge Phenomenon have started their careers at the St John’s Innovation Centre, including Autonomy Corporation plc, Jagex Ltd, Zeus Technology Ltd, Owlstone Ltd, Breathing Buildings Ltd, Scientia Ltd and Datanomic Ltd, among many others. Some tenants ‘graduated’ to other buildings on the Innovation Park, though a few – such as Red Gate Software Ltd – started in the adjacent Jeffreys Building rather than in the main Innovation Centre.