The path to innovation is created by start-ups.

Interview with Peter Cowley, UK Business Angel of the Year 2014/15


Peter Cowley, a Cambridge-based serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor: it sounds a complex definition with a lot of experiences and always new things to do. How did all these things start?

I graduated from Cambridge University in Engineering and Computer Science, after a couple of years of corporate experience and I went to Germany where I was co-founder of a tech company. Then I went back to UK as founder of Camdata, my own tech company. 25 years later, after founding another 8 or 9 companies, I became a business angel and helping other to develop their companies with equity, advice and mentoring.

As business angel you financed 55 start-ups. I read that there are 3 good exits and several failures. Technically speaking, is it a good balance?

I think it’s a quite positive result, you need some pretty good results from one or two to cover failures. Using a standard method to calculate the values of early stage companies I have doubled my money so far, and I estimate that in the next few years they will be multiplied by four.

Could please give us your definition of charitable social enterprise?

A charity is something owned by society that gives something to society. After ensuring the charity is sustainable surpluses will go back to providing services/products to society, and for this reason people are comfortable to give money to charities. Charitable social enterprise are the ones that have a social outcome. The big issue is finding a way to relate the investment needed, to the real improvements of social benefits.

Maybe in the future we won’t have public institutions to provide social services and we will have these social enterprises. Do you agree with that?

Yes, we have a lot of charities working but at the same time the number of social enterprises is increasing

You studied Engineering and Computer Science at Cambridge University in mid seventies. Now we can study this topics in many other universities. Do you think that Cambridge is still different in looking forward? If so, how can this university can do this? What is the secret of this big quality in education?

Any university with an excellent reputation is based on the academics and students with an excellent reputation. Attracting the best students and teachers give this kind of result. This create the conditions to develop high standards of teaching and research.

You are a Cambridge personality but at the same time you have been and still are an entrepreneur. Basing on your experience, could you say that big innovations come out mainly from universities or companies have the big role in moving forward technology?

Traditionally many universities and many academics do not want to make commercialization of their research but things have changed in Cambridge and in many other universities for two reasons: connecting research to its commercialization improves the research itself; at the same time government, that gives a big contribution to funding the universities, is pushing toward receiving an income from the produced researches.

But if we give the university the pressure to make money from research don’t we drive it to go far from the ‘pure’ research that is the base of many other researches?

Most of ‘blue sky’ research is still made by many universities around the world, and we can say that this kind of research is the base of innovation. The problem is that innovation has big costs to arrive to market, and for this only companies are useful.

But how the need of immediate profit can match with the medium-long term time that a research need to be completed?

I think this is the role of small companies and typically of start-up companies. One of their roles is to create innovation, as the bridge between research and their massive use in the industry.

You are an innovator. What is your next project?

I’m on a mission that is connected to all my professional history. The aim to improve the journeys of startups by educating angels and entrepreneurs to make fewer mistakes, work better together and produce more successful exits. It will be a set of both online and offline platforms, which will be informative and fun to listen watch and read, and can be used for reference. To register your interest please visit my website https://www.petercowley.org/


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