University Knowledge Exchange Offices (KEOs) are responsible for commercialising university research through licensing and spinning out companies. They routinely need experienced commercial talent to team up with academic founders and make early-stage spinout companies “investable”.
The opportunities this offers for both executives and non-execs are creative and challenging. Spinouts often start with little more than the raw innovation from the laboratory, some IP, a proof-of-concept demonstrator, a grant application and plenty of enthusiasm. There is much to do at every level – from coaching the team and validating the potential markets and business model, to raising investment, determining the first value milestones and establishing good governance. Cash remuneration in early-stage spinouts is typically well below that in corporate life, and while there is usually a tantalising financial upside if successful, the road is long and tortuous. The satisfaction comes with each milestone achieved in transforming innovative research into a viable, growing business.
How big is the opportunity? In 2018-19 across the UK, universities created 131 new spinouts (i.e. where the universities have some equity), 115 staff and other start-ups (no university shares), 133 social enterprises and over 3,800 new graduate start-ups (Source: HESA HE-BCI 2018-19). This equates to nearly 4,500 early stage companies. Additionally, there are all the existing, active spinouts, staff start-ups and social enterprises, numbering around 2,300 and around 13,000 graduate start-ups.
In the Midlands over the same period, the eight MICRA universities generated 13 new spinouts, 7 staff and other start-ups and 24 social enterprises. The current active portfolio of spinouts -alone- comprises 100 companies in varying stages of development from seed to publicly-listed growth companies.
There are plenty of opportunities to work with university spinouts and start-ups. Finding them requires investment in networking, building constructive relationships with those supporting innovation at universities, time and just a little luck.
Quentin Compton-Bishop is a strategy and marketing consultant working with MICRA to develop its plan to raise a new investment fund focused on technology businesses connected to the research of the Midlands Innovation universities. Previously, he was CEO of Warwick Ventures (now Warwick Innovations), the knowledge exchange office of the University of Warwick, and managed the University’s spinout equity portfolio. He works with early-stage technology companies helping them prepare for investment. He is a co-founder and director of RTL Materials (RolaTube Technology), which developed the Bi-stable Rollable Composite platform for dynamic structures, and was the first CEO of P2i, a global leader in liquid repellent nanotechnology. He is also a director of UPS Pension Trustee Limited and Chairman of the Levantine Heritage Foundation.