COLLABORATION

Queen’s reigns over Oxbridge as UK’s most entrepreneurial university

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Queen's University Belfast is the most entrepreneurial university in the UK.

The crown for the UK university that’s the most effective at turning research into successful entrepreneurial ventures has gone this year to an unexpected entrant: Queen’s University Belfast.

Queen’s beat out innovation powerhouses in Oxford, Cambridge and London to snag the top spot in a rankings list compiled by Octopus Ventures, a European venture capital firm. To compile the rankings, the firm calculated the total funding per university, total spinouts created per university, total disclosures, total patents and total sales from spinouts per university.

The result? Queen’s University Belfast reigned supreme with an Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking (EIR) score of 112.31 over the University of Cambridge’s 95.10 and Cardiff University’s 86.14. Queen Mary University of London took fourth place with 85.79 while the University of Leeds snagged fifth with 81.21.

Why? According to Octopus Ventures, a large part of the reason lies in the challenge of snagging early-stage funding to support the venture during the proof-of-concept to prototyping stages.

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“For academics to get their ideas through the earliest stages of development, they must cross what has come to be known as ‘the valley of death’,” the firm pointed out.

An example is Oxford University’s Oxford Nanopore. The firm had managed to received early-stage proof-of-concept funding from leading patient capital fund IP Group to support the initial development of its DNA sequencing technology. Since then, the company has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.

“This kind of support is very similar to university-raised early-stage funding. But whatever form it takes, the reality is that many ventures don’t have access to it and fall by the wayside,” Octopus Ventures said.

Commenting to Techworld, Simon King, a partner at the firm, said this correlation between the university providing access to early-stage funding and the entrepreneurial venture’s very survival is a key takeaway from the study.

“Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts,” he pointed out.

The report also credited QUBIS, which is Queen’s dedicated research commercialisation or tech transfer arm. QUBIS, the report notes, runs a range of customer-discovery programmes to help determine market interest in early-stage research.

These include running Innovate UK’s Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research programme, and its own Lean Launchpad. Queen’s uses this approach to rapidly filter opportunities, and then focus its support and investment on the best companies, efforts that help guarantee research commercialisation and spinout success.

“Through QUBIS, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s, the university has had a number of notable successes such as Kainos, Andor Technology and Fusion Antibodies, all of whom have been listed on the London Stock Exchange. Andor Technology was subsequently purchased by Oxford Instruments in 2013 for £176 million,” the report said.

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The research also saw, perhaps unsurprisingly, that apart from funding, talent was consistently a challenging issue for academic-led spinouts. It noted that the skills required to enable spinout success tend to be highly sought after by many industries.

But it is “extremely difficult” to persuade these highly skilled individuals to opt for the high-risk university entrepreneurial venture, especially in the face of lucrative offers from other, more established outfits.

“In many ways, the war for talent is amplified in the world of academic spinouts,” the report said.

The research also highlighted the value of university collaboration to drive entrepreneurial success.

The Helix Centre was cited as a prime example of how this works. The centre, a digital health innovation lab based at St Mary’s Hospital in London, was launched as a joint venture between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art.

Here, interdisciplinary teams of product designers, software engineers, clinicians and scientists come together with patients, families and professionals to develop and trial new products and services that improve health outcomes.

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“Our collaborative approach means we’re able to attract and retain the worldclass talent across design, engineering and clinical research that we need to compete,” says the centre’s Managing Director Daniel Dickens.

Commenting in Techworld, Kind said: “That’s fantastic because you bring with technologists and science out of Imperial, and you bring the product design expertise out of the Royal College of Arts, and you bring those two things together and create not just amazing technologies, but amazing products that people want to use.”

As a final takeaway, Octopus Ventures said the university entrepreneurial impact ranking study points to positive signs for the success of UK’s institutions.

“Infusions from funds providing backing at proof of concept stage mean that academia’s sleeping giants are starting to stir. Similarly, collaborations between universities mean emerging ventures can benefit from more well-rounded support, so aiding their future success,” the firm said.

“Our hope is that this report acts as a small first step on a much bigger journey to ensure that the teams nurturing the next wave of innovation in university laboratories are set up for success.”