WHO? David Cleevely, CBE, Cambridge alumnus, serial entrepreneur and one of the architects of Cambridge's world-beating innovation ecosystem.

WHAT? Co-founder of billion-dollar company, Abcam, and of three pillars of the Cambridge Cluster: Cambridge Network, Cambridge Wireless and Cambridge Angels.

WHAT ELSE? He set up the University's Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) and was Chair of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. David also supports, advises and mentors innumerable people and organisations in both the public and private sectors.

WHY? "I don't think one has very much time on this planet and there is a lot to do."

Growing up, did you always know that you were going to be an entrepreneur? I was always very excited by the future, and by where chemistry, biology and, particularly, computing would take us.

As a teenager, I wanted to keep bees but my parents wouldn't let me have them in the garden so I started a bee-keeping club at school and had some hives there instead. The chap who taught me how to look after them worked at the National Physical Laboratory. He took me along to some talks which exposed me to some very forward thinking.

Serendipity has also played a big role in my life. One day, the careers master spotted me walking down a school corridor and dragged me into a presentation for which he was short of an audience. It was by Post Office Telecommunications, looking for applicants to its training scheme. I duly applied and was selected.

While I was at university, I spent a summer working at the Post Office's Long-Range Studies Division, where my job was to look forward 20 or 30 years. When the Division moved from London to Cambridge and I finished my degree, I went with it - which is how I ended up doing my PhD here.

Just three years after finishing your PhD, you had already set up your first company, Analysys. How did that come about? I finished my PhD in 1982 and got a job in London as a consultant. I was soon running the telecommunications division and that seemed to be going pretty well. I was making lots of contacts and decided to start my own consultancy.

This wasn't full-fat entrepreneur stuff. There's limited risk. A consultant earns fees and pays money into their bank account. If it doesn't work out, they can go and get another job.

Having said that, it was a difficult couple of years trying to get it off the ground. It finally began to grow in the late 1980s, largely on the back of work we got from the European Commission.

By 1991, I had acquired a reputation as an innovative thinker and we got a big contract looking at the future of telecommunications investment. This led to a massive expansion as suddenly all these new telecomms operators were coming on the scene and needed our help.

In the 1990s, amongst other things, you co-founded Cambridge Network, Cambridge Wireless, Cambridge Angels and Abcam. What makes you get involved with certain projects? It all goes back to serendipity again. Cambridge Network began over dinner in Wolfson College at which Alec (Broers), Hermann (Hauser) and I got terribly excited about creating a network. Later, I was in a coffee shop with Edward (Astle) when I saw how the model could be extended to Cambridge Wireless.

Then Robert Sansom moved into the house opposite and we had a 'meet the neighbours' lunch at which he asked if there was an angel group in Cambridge. I said there wasn't. So we decided to start Cambridge Angels.

On 21 January 1998, I found myself sitting next to Jonathan (Milner) at a dinner and asked him a few questions about what he was doing. I said, "Oh my God, we've got a business here." And that was the beginning of Abcam.

That's how these things happen. You make opportunities and take opportunities.

"You make opportunities and take opportunities."

Everyone has setbacks. How have you dealt with yours? You always have to think about the longer term. Most people, I'm afraid, don't understand strategy. Strategy is thinking about what different futures might look like and what you need to do now so that you are prepared, whatever happens.

When disaster strikes - as it will - your strategy means you will be prepared and won't get worn down by the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day stuff. You've got to think strategically about how it will all work in the long run. That phrase from the Bible 'and it came to pass' reminds us that bad things happen but you will get through them.

When things were tough in the early days of Analysys, did you ever think of throwing in the towel and getting a job? My father was a civil servant but his true love was being a cartoonist. Once, when up before a promotion board, he said, "You have to understand that for you this is a career. For me, it's a distraction."

I think there's a certain amount of genetic or behavioural inheritance which means I don't really like being part of an organisation. Fitting in isn't my thing. It's okay, if I think everyone is right but I'm not going to go along with them if they are wrong.

Do you have an example of not 'fitting in'? When I was in the Long-Range Studies Division I was asked to do a study of memory and semiconductor prices for an expert panel. I submitted my paper and a guy came to see me and said, "Everyone else is forecasting that prices will fall between four and six per cent per year. You are talking about 30, 40, 50, 60 per cent." He asked me to bring my predictions in line with the others. When I wouldn't, he asked me to leave the panel.

People are far too conventional in their thinking and that gets in the way. It's the young who understand where things are going. We need to listen to them.

Once you reach 50, you don't think or pick up trends in the same way. I try really hard to fight against that. It's like taking physical exercise: you have to keep at it. You need to talk to people and understand why they think certain things are important. Otherwise you fall into the same old ways of thinking. It is really important to listen carefully to everyone.

"It is really important to listen carefully to everyone."

You also need to stand up for your ideas, even though we are conditioned not to. It's like those psychology experiments where the subject gives an opinion and everyone else gives a contradictory, blatantly wrong opinion and the subject ends up agreeing with them.

You can see why that behaviour is useful in evolutionary terms: it creates cohesive groups. You are never going to get anywhere if you spend all your time squabbling but it's not helpful when trying to do new things. The trick is to listen and find a way through.

When you are considering investing in a company, what qualities do you look for in a founder? I want someone I can have a discussion with during which we come up with ideas that neither of us would have thought of on our own.

Any red flags? People with too high an opinion of themselves, who don't listen or give other people space.

What is it about Cambridge that makes it so successful as a hub of entrepreneurship and innovation? That's quite simple. It's the open-minded, cross-disciplinary working, the mix of new people and new ideas.

The fact that it's a small city helps, and the University's college system is hugely important in bringing together people with different specialisms in one place. It's those chance encounters at dinner, on the train, in the street - they are what make it work.

The environmental conditions are right in Cambridge. At least, they were. Cambridge is now facing its biggest challenge. Firstly, the city is still growing at seven per cent per year, which means the surface areas that can interact with each other are getting smaller relative to the body mass. In other words, it's becoming easier to work inside an organisation than outside it.

And then along comes Covid. Before the pandemic, we used to meet about 10 people a day. That dropped to one or two - if you were lucky - and it's now settling out at about three. We need to get back to meeting more people in person, having those chance encounters.

I'm chair of Cambridge Ahead's New Era for the Cambridge Economy initiative. Of all the things we've got to think about - housing, transport, office space and so on - nothing is more important than networking. We need a strategy now for what we want it to look like in the future.

If we are all in these little cells and no-one is talking to each other, we are not going to innovate. And that's Cambridge's lifeblood.

"It's the open-minded, cross-disciplinary working, the mix of new people and new ideas."

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone wanting to start their own business, what would it be? Always think about the longer term, the strategy.

Remember Pasteur's 'chance favours the prepared mind'. Understand that great ideas emerge from a synthesis of things, whether that's something you've read or thought, but more often it comes from connecting with people.

You've got to be a proper networker, even if you don't think you naturally are one. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy says, "I certainly have not the talent some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before."

Elizabeth replies, "My fingers do not move over [the piano] in the masterly manner I see so many women's do... But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault, because I would not take the trouble of practising."

Everyone can network, even people who think they can't. As Elizabeth says, it's up to you to put in the practice.

"Everyone can network, even people who think they can't."

What are you most proud of? Setting up CSaP. The University wanted to connect academic research with policymaking. I turned this on its head. We asked policymakers what they want help with and then put them in touch with experts from different fields who can give them different perspectives.

There have now been something like 12,000 meetings between Policy Fellows and academics and the model is being copied by universities and other institutions around the world.

I'm also very proud of Raspberry Pi. Originally, I came in on the board of directors and then they asked me to be Chair. I reworked the constitution and governance structure and in December we delivered the second set of Raspberry Pis up to the Space Station, so there are now four of them up there. Which is pretty cool.

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist?

People or ideas? Both.  

On time or running late? Probably running late.

The journey or the destination? The journey. 

Team player or lone wolf? Team player.

Novelty or routine? Novelty.

Risk taker or risk averse? Entrepreneurs are generally risk averse. It’s about understanding and managing the risk and being in control.

Big picture or fine detail? Both.    

Lots of irons in the fire or all your eggs in one basket? There are so many irons it’s difficult to keep up with them all.  

Be lucky or make your own luck? You make your own luck but I’ve been very lucky. We are all victims of random events – you just need to be able to recognise an opportunity when you see it. 

Work, work, work or work-life balance? Work, work, work but, although I've been saying this for 30 years, it's definitely about to change. On the other hand, I have just closed a funding round with a genius professor in Glasgow… 

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.