Maximising universities' potential to commercialise research - 29 November 2023

Tom Lewis 8 December 2023

The Chair, Daniel Zeichner MP, opened the discussion by thanking members and speakers before noting the significance of the topic, particularly for his constituency of Cambridge. He highlighted the importance of sharing the positive experience that the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford had for other universities across the UK.

He welcomed the panellists:

  • Professor Irene Tracey (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford and co-lead of the Independent Review of University Spinout Companies).
  • Dr Alison Callwood (CEO and Co-founder of Sammi-Select).
  • Professor Karen O’Brien (Vice-Chancellor and Warden of Durham University).

Professor Irene Tracey focused on the background of why the review was commissioned and the journey of the review. She noted that there was appetite from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, to consider ways that the UK could further drive economic growth, including the role of universities.

She explained that the report was an opportunity to set out the current progress of the UK with university spinouts and have an ‘honest discussion’ on where to improve this. Following the report, Irene said there had been increased recognition in the Treasury and the investment community on the UK’s existing strength in this area which can be further harnessed.

Irene described the ecosystem as highly variable with varying degrees of research intensity. She noted the importance of not being a carbon copy of Silicon Valley or Kendall Square and identifying the UK’s unique strengths to build on, such as research in the humanities space as well as STEM.

On Terms of Reference, while the report was focused on spinouts and the commercial opportunities, Irene explained that the broader ecosystem was also referenced throughout the report. Irene noted that the report was focused primarily on the first phase on Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) within universities, rather than phase B.

She said the UK had a real strength in the quality and quantity of research but had problems in supporting and retaining spinout companies through workforce and investment issues.

The review identifies what is working at universities and has driven opportunity. She also highlighted the importance of creating better environments and cultures within universities e.g., remaining attractive for academics and supporting more flexible contracts.

In her introductory remarks, Dr Alison Callwood briefly described the focus of her spin-out company, Sammi Select, which provides online interviews and assessments to enable underrepresented groups get jobs. She described her background as a midwife and her PHD on interview practices. She was interested in how technology could be applied to improve recruitment processes.

Alison explained that the University of Surrey had been ‘incredibly supportive’ in delivering a grant to support her in building a proof of concept to get Innovate UK ICURe funding. This pre-accelerator programme for researchers was described as ‘transformational.’

Alison described the ‘nice, safe bubble’ that she had before spinning out but was driven by a passion to improve recruitment practices. She highlighted the support of Innovate UK and SETsquared as a ‘safe space’ to provide support and sharing advice. This was described as non-judgmental and supportive during setbacks.

On representation, she said that only 2% of female founded companies receive Venture Capital investment and shared her concern over missed potential. Mentorship and finding role-models were described as very important to provide connections and support systems. Alison noted she now acts as a mentor to give people the courage to spin-out.

Alison concluded her remarks by highlighting the ‘massive opportunities’ through employing people and making a difference in the field e.g., improving accessibility for neurodiverse individuals. She stressed it was not just about revenue creation but also social impact.

Professor Karen O’Brien said that she warmly welcomed the spinouts review and believed that universities play a critical role in translating research into wider economic benefits.

She explained that Durham University had a great opportunity in spreading opportunity in the North East. She described the regional challenges with lower productivity and typical business R&D spend below the rest of the UK.  

Outlining the experience at Durham, she noted that research commercialisation activity had been taking place for several years. One of the successes was Kromek which manufactures equipment and components for energy-sensitive x-ray imaging. The spinout was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2013, employs 150 people, and has stayed in the North East.

Karen highlighted the work of the Northern Accelerator which was aimed to strengthen commercialisation activity. The collaboration of the North East universities includes Durham University, Newcastle University, Northumbria University, the University of Sunderland, Teesside University, and the University of York. Since 2018, 39 spinout companies have been created which had added £120 million Gross Value Added (GVA) to the local economy.

On successes, Karen said the whole ecosystem approach was critical. She explained the strength of training for future founders, bringing together business leaders with academics, and post-spinout support.

Barriers included availability of patient capital, finance at multiple stages, and a lack of ecosystem density in the North East.

On recommendation 8 of the report regarding entrepreneurship training for PHD students, Karen highlighted the work of the Durham Venture school to support a start-up, Low Carbon Materials, which was shortlisted for the Earthshot prize. She said PHD students had great potential within the spin-out eco system.