Listen to this article
Computer evangelist and inventor Eben Upton arrived at Cambridge university in 1996 and has never left. “I have been here for too long,” he says jokingly.
With degrees from Cambridge in engineering and computer science under his belt, together with his most recent qualification – an executive MBA from the Judge Business School – Mr Upton shot to fame this year as the inventor of one of the most innovative products of 2012. The Raspberry Pi is a programmable credit card-sized computer board that schoolchildren can afford to buy for themselves.
Mr Upton’s approach to his EMBA – an MBA for working executives – reveals an analytical approach.
“There is a body of formal learning in the MBA that it is hard to pick up. It gives you a framework to think of what you have done.”
He reveals a less reverent side to his personality, however, when he adds: “I’d never seen a factory before I went to China for the first time ... It’s ridiculously good fun.”
It is this same enthusiasm that he exhibits every time he talks about the Raspberry Pi, which he created with colleagues to inspire the kind of enthusiasm for computer programming in today’s six to 10-year-olds that he demonstrated as a youngster.
“There has been a drop in university applications to do computer science,” Mr Upton says. He believes the reason for this is the lack of low-cost programmable hardware.
His solution has been a piece of computer kit that costs as little as £26 in the UK. Adding a mouse and keyboard, a mobile phone charger for power and a display – an old analogue television will do the trick – “will give you a fully-functioning PC” says Mr Upton. Open-source software completes the package.
The cost is critical, he says. “We wanted to make it [the Raspberry Pi] cheap enough so that children could buy it themselves.”
Mr Upton was developing Raspberry Pi when he decided to go to business school. He considered the programme at London Business School, but then discovered that the Judge was about to launch an EMBA and became one of the youngest participants on the inaugural class in 2009.
“The fact that there are a lot of people with strong academics and others with very strong business backgrounds makes it a very interesting place to be,” he says.
Although Mr Upton thought that it would be the quantitative and numerically-based courses that he would enjoy most, that was not the case.
“The course I did worst on was IT. That was definitely my worst mark.”
Instead, the courses he enjoyed were in strategy, organisational behaviour and marketing – although he admits that when he first heard the name Raspberry Pi he was not particularly enthusiastic, but was out-voted by others on the team working for the not-for-profit company.
The name seems to have worked. Since Raspberry Pil’s launch earlier this year about 500,000 units have been sold. “We expect to sell 1m units in the first year,” predicts Mr Upton.
However, at least initially, it has not been the target audience of schoolchildren who have been buying the kit.
“The market we have is primarily adults who want to use it to have fun and to tinker with,” admits Mr Upton. Things are changing, however.
“Now schools are buying classroom sets of five to 20.”
So far, about a third of the sales for the UK-manufactured product have been in the UK and a third in North America, with the remainder spread around the globe.
In spite of overseas tours to promote Raspberry Pi, Mr Upton shows no signs of giving up on Cambridge. Indeed, he has swapped his auditorium seat at the Judge for a place on the other side of the classroom, as he tells Cambridge’s latest intake of business students about Raspberry Pi.