Microsoft Research Centre in Cambridge - and Sony

[St George's Ho. entrance] <- entrance to St George's House, so clearly the hotbed of high-tech claimed by the media (off Guildhall St., behind River Island in Petty Cury, and next to Fisher House)


Over the weekend of 31-May/1-June 1997 the media carried stories about a planned 50M Microsoft research centre in Cambridge.

The reports said that Bill Gates intends to create a high-tech. centre to rival Silicon Valley and said that the term Silicon Fen was just coming in to use to describe this. A very strange comment! Cambridge has been a "high-tech" centre for over a hundred years, rivalling Silicon Valley in reputation if not in size. The term Silicon Fen was already around by the time of The Cambridge Phenomenon (1985) and Silicon Glen, for the area near Edinburgh, was coined around that time. [In 1999/2000 the terms Silicon Alley (New York) and Silicon Corridor (Thames/M4) appeared though there was an earlier Silicon Alley here.]

The press conference to announce the Research Centre was on 17 June 1997. After all the hype in local and national media, it was only planned for up to 40 people in the medium-term. They set up temporarily in St George's House with 25 people, on a 7-year lease.

Microsoft also announced investment of 10 million in technology ventures, with an emphasis on Cambridge-area technology firms, via Hermann Hauser's Amadeus venture capital company.

There was a rumour going around that it was all to get one particular researcher from the C.U. Computer Lab. In any case a key factor was the recongition that not everyone wants to move to Redmond (near Seattle).

One of the many gushing articles in the media, by Phil Davis in the CEN, claimed the arrival will change Cambridge significantly, based on what's happened to Seattle since Microsoft set up there in 1974.

Roger Needham, then one of the newly-appointed Pro Vice-Chancellors of Cambridge University, was appointed head of the unit. He was previously head of the Computer Laboratory.

Bill Gates followed this up on 25 September by announcing a gift of 12M via CU's American fund-raising organisation for relocating the Computer Lab. This was part of the University's long-term strategy for the physical sciences to move to the West Cambridge site.

He came in person on 8-Oct-1997, having met Tony Blair in the morning and cheesily put on a C.U. sweatshirt to deliver a lecture to the Computer Lab.

Two sites in western Cambridge were considered and planning permission was given in late 1997 for the new Computer Laboratory, which would house the research centre.


The ACM British Chapter and the Dept. of Computer Science, Anglia Polytechnic University, organised an excellent talk by Roger Needham entitled "Microsoft and Cambridge University" on 29th January 1998. He explained how the research centre came about and how it's progressing. He rubbished the rumour in estate agency circles that the research centre is already affecting house prices.

For the first year, they built up a small team of top researchers. Then they started taking on new researchers (e.g. post-Docs.) and forming research alliances with others across Europe.

The plan then was that the centre would be limited to around 40 people so as not to swamp the Computer Laboratory (around 120-140 people) when they moved in together to the planned West Cambridge building.


In January a planning application was announced for development north of the Cavendish Laboratory (south of Madingley Road) for a Computer Science Faculty.

After Bill Gates visited the UK in October 1999 (including a tame TV interview by Jeremy Paxman and another chat with Tony Blair), Microsoft splashed out:

Questions were raised within C.U. as to conflicts of interest for Roger Needham and how the original deal was set up. He'd relinquished the Pro Vice-Chancellor position.

[There were similar concerns over the November tie-up with MIT, backed by Government funding of 68M: there was no proper debate within the University about the deal till March 2000. See CU Reporter. The CU-MIT Institute Ltd. officially started on 1 July 2000.]


Microsoft received planning permission for its research centre in March 2000.

The timetable for the 6,000 sq.ft. building has been brought forward due to the success of the temporary one and completion is now due in late 2001. Work formally started on 11 July. [The University of Cambridge's new Computer Laboratory is already under construction, also for completion by late 2001. The Marconi communications research lab will be built nearby.]

In May the William H Gates III Foundation announced funding of 130M for up to 230 scholarships to bring the brightest students to the University of Cambridge.

Background info

A third Microsoft research centre opened in Beijing in 1998. The Redmond unit has an offshoot in San Francisco.

In May 1998 the Research Centre started sponsoring Varsity Online In October 1999 the Cambridge Network also became a sponsor.

See also:

Meanwhile... Sony

In mid-July 1997 there was curiously minimal press coverage of Sony's announcement of an 8M Playstation games development centre in Cambridge - perhaps because there's apparently no direct Cambridge University involvement this time (as yet). It bought Millennium and signed a contract with Cyberlife, both small games companies.

According to the Press reports, the companies were to move from Great Shelford into new 7,000 sq.ft. premises in the centre of Cambridge later in 1997, creating up to 50 jobs.

Since then it's all gone quiet.


St George's House previously housed some of the staff associated with the NatWest home banking trial.

C.U. sweatshirts: only tourists wear C.U. sweatshirts/t-shirts - C.U. members generally wear college or society items for University-related garb, the main exception being sports people awarded Blues.

Cyberlife: renamed Creature Labs in January 2000.