The Easyjetsetter reports that she found a survey which purports to rank universities in the world and which puts Cambridge University at #2 in the world behind its American offspring Harvard. This reminded me of an urban myth - repeated gleefully by many Cambridge boosters and/or Francophobes - that Trinity college Cambridge had more Nobel prize winners than France. Unfortunately the myth is not true, however even the fact that it is believable says something about the relative merits of Cambridge and it does appear to be true that the university as a whole can claim to have more Nobel prize winners than France. This may look like boasting by someone who has no chance of ever receiving a Nobel or indeed any other (academic) prize, but there is a reason why I write this, namely that it relates to a more relevant topic, the creation of wealth through the turning of academic ideas into new products for us all to buy.
The title of this piece derives from yet another false urban legend, to wit that President Bush is claimed to have stated that phrase to Phoney Tony. However while the legesd is false, just as with the previous UL it has a certain kernel of truth hidden within it. Surrounding Cambridge in the UK - to pick a town not completely at random - are half a dozen Science Parks and maybe the same again of general business parks dedicated to technology companies of one sort or another. Doing a search on google for phrases like "Cambridge Entrepreneur" or "Cambridge Startup" produce masses of links to companies or articles in newspapers etc. talking about them. France has a number of Science parks (such as Sophia Antipolis) but searches (even in French) for equivalent phrases tend to produce links to government funded bodies like get-telecom or partially EU sponsored conferences such as innovact and a large number of links that recycle the same text about one or two startups. If you think this is somehow just an accident of google consider the lists of exhibitors at trade-shows such as 3GSM world or CeBIT. From my personal recollection of attendance at the former there were perhaps half a doozen French companies present (I only strongly recall a VOIP softswitch vendor - Cirpack - and an antenna company whose name escapes me), whereas the British were represented by masses of companies led by successful startups such as ARM and CSR (both with HQs in Cambridge).
France certainly produces people of an entrepreneurial bent, and it certainly produces smart people. But somehow despite all the conferences France seems to produce fewer startups and certainly fewer successful ones than its neightbour to the north. Indeed I would hazard a guess that it produces less than its eastern neighbour Switzerland too.
There is surely a lesson or two here about the role of government in stiffling innovation. But lest you rush to draw sweeping conclusions I should point out that Germany seems to produce a fair number of entrepreneurs despite a government almost as intrusive as the French.