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Oxford University Innovation continues to impress with a growing list of spin out formations

Oxford University has a reputation not only as an internationally recognised seat of learning but increasingly as a hotbed of commercial innovation and small business creation.

Academics and researchers looking to commercialise their IP are able to turn to Oxford University Innovation (OUI) to get support. IP commercialisation is supported by its Licensing & Ventures team that can advise and help not only on licensing but on spinout formation as well, and crucially, OUI provides a point of contact where technologists, investors, and other external parties can meet.

It’s the contact with Investors or donors, who are interested in early-stage ventures, where OUI has been particularly successful. A specialised team help new businesses to interact with the Angels Network but not only that the University’s own investment fund provides a valuable source of funding. An OUI Incubator not only supports ideas from within the university but also provides support for traditional start-ups from the wider community.

OUI created 21 spinouts in 2016, up from 5 in 2016 and 8 in 2014 and was involved in over 855 deals which covered technology licenses and consulting deals and managed 2873 patents and patent applications.

Licensing plays an important role but if the technology is strong enough to support a new company then OUI will encourage the spinout option.

Since it was founded in 2007, OUI has created nearly 150 spinouts which have gone on to raise £1.5billion in external funding. Those companies have an estimated global turnover in excess of £600million.

The companies benefitting from the support from OUI are varied and include the likes of Bodle Technologies and Metaboards.

Bodle Technologies has developed a display technology that significantly reduces the power needed by a smartphone screen by using electrical pulses that need next to no power.

“We were spun out of the university back in 2015,” explains Richard Holliday, VP Business Development and IP, “and OUI was instrumental in the development of the business. After initial seed funding we’ve embarked on a number of key funding rounds and the university has been integral in our success.

"Oxford University provides all the ingredients to be successful. From academic excellence to a growing international investor base."
Richard Holliday, Bodle Technologies

“OUI is there to guide academics looking to take an idea or concept to the wider world. Spinouts are formed out of the passion and IP of inventors and OUI is there to guide them. It has years of experience when it comes to knowing how to do things right and how things, potentially, can go wrong.

“Their role is to guide the investment process and crucially, protect the IP. It provides a network of investors and as such really pulls everything together.”

OUI will assign a project manager to a promising technology and then take it from development to incorporation and at the point when a company is set up, it will take a step back.

But then how do you value a spinout? It’s certainly an interesting debate, agrees Holliday.

“How you value the worth of an invention and the business will depend on what applications you are going after. Ours is a platform technology and could be applied to electronic displays, security and to smart glazing. Where the priorities are for a specific application is an important debate and OUI has a role in providing focus and building plans.

“Spinouts need a clear sense of direction,” says Holliday.

Once a patent is filed though there can be a long gestation period before a company is formed to commercially exploit it.

“Timing is another important issue,” Holliday concedes. “Bodle benefitted from an article in Nature, a high impact publication. That media coverage stimulated interest from potential end users and was influential in starting up the business sooner, rather than later.”

While market pull is crucial for some spinouts for others, it’s not the case.

“Look at quantum technology, while a lot is happening in that space and there are plenty of spinouts working there, the practical application of that technology is a long way away.”

Metamaterials

Tristan Collins is MD of Metaboards, another spinout from Oxford University which is developing a wireless energy transfer technology using metamaterials.

"Through OUI we got funding and access to investors tow whom we could pitch our ideas."
Tristan Collins, Metaboards

“Metaboards was formed to commercialise IP from work conducted at the university,” explains Collins. “Our focus is on wireless power and data and using different surfaces as a conduit. We are looking to create an enabling technology behind a system of ubiquitous power and data. Currently, we are at the stage of looking to develop first products.”

The company uses metamaterials, or engineered materials, which is a relatively new area of science to develop its products.

The company’s founders include pioneers in the science of metamaterials and are experts in magnet inductive waves.

“One of our founders has been working in this field for 50 years, but it is only today that the technology is manufacturable,” Collins explains.

Officially spun out at the end of 2016 Metaboards has received seed funding from OUI and Collins was asked by the university to assess the viability of the technology.

“OUI had been looking around for interesting technology and asked me to look at the work being carried out and to identify interesting commercial opportunities and whether there was a route to commercialisation. Wireless power was the obvious one and the capabilities available to the business lent themselves to this.

“Through OUI we got funding and access to investors to whom we could pitch our ideas.

“Over the past year that support has enabled us to spinout from the university, support knowledge transfer from the academics into the company allowing us to then go off and commercialise that technology, start recruiting and continue academic work developing new patents,” Collins says.

“OUI also have board representation from a licensing point of view, and help with managing the patent portfolio. We work together to ensure our interests are met and we get guidance and introductions through the university’s network.”

According to both Holliday and Collins while more spinouts are appearing, it’s still challenging and both accept that Oxford has provided their companies with a unique environment.

“There are certainly more spinouts appearing, some are IP rich others less so,” suggests Collins. He concedes that, “Coming out of Oxford I think we are sheltered from certain issues that the wider community would have to contend with. The downside to that is that we don’t get the media coverage that the Silicon Roundabout hub in London gets.

“Despite that, it would have been a lot harder for us without Oxford. Without a doubt OUI is well connected, they can make things happen and they work on a global stage.”

Outside the university eco system just one in three businesses succeed.

“Oxford provides all the key ingredients to be successful. From academic excellence and an impressive science base to a growing international investor base - funds from around the world are looking to invest in Oxford technology,” says Holliday. “I think Oxford reflects a wider societal change and more academics are interested in starting their own businesses.

“But while the monetary awards are attractive, for many academics it’s about seeing their breakthroughs make it into the wider world.”

“It’s also true to say that a lot of inventions get patented but don’t end up in a company, some will be licensed to SMEs or large corporates,” says Collins,” but for many that is a preferable way of getting their technology to market.”

“We’re learning from the US experience,” Collins believes, “and spinouts are helped by the fact that universities are now more business savvy, they realise that by backing spinouts not only do they provide a source of revenue but helps academics get their ideas into the wider world and provides career development for research students.

“It’s a win-win scenario."

Author
Neil Tyler

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