Bridging the gap between academia and business has long been a challenge for both sides of the equation.

The UK’s leading universities are more aware than ever before that realising the commercial potential of the intellectual property (IP) created through research is one of the key factors by which their success as an institution will be measured.

A perennial criticism of the UK’s science and technology economy is that we are poor at turning our innovations into world-class companies.

An improvement in that record would be good not just for the innovators themselves, but also for the entire nation’s ability to reinvent itself as a knowledge-driven high-technology economy.

The investment community, which is driven entirely by considerations of risk and reward, is well aware that there is a goldmine of potential business opportunities buried in the laboratories of the UK’s universities.

The problem is finding the right IP at the right time, and then seeing if a commercially viable business can be created off the back of it. These variables can add up to a risky bet in the minds of investors, many of who will still have the disastrous excesses of the dotcom era fresh in their minds.

There are signs, however, that the UK’s universities are developing a warmer relationship with the City, with the latter willing to put its hands in its pockets.

Imperial College this week attracted £20m from institutional investors after offering a quarter stake in Imperial Innovations, its technology commercialisation arm. The unit contains around 50 of Imperial’s best and brightest spin-outs across a range of sectors, representing a formidable collection of IP from one of the UK’s leading technical universities.

Another innovative vehicle for turning university IP into commercial reality has also found favour with the pinstripe brigade.

IP2IPO, a business set up to nurture university spin-outs that can then be floated, has seen its own stock rise, indicating that the investment community likes what it sees.

The company has signed long-term deals with leading universities such as Oxford, King’s College and Southampton to work with them to bring innovations to market. It has already floated off several ventures, notably Southampton spin-out OHM, the company developing electromagnetic technology for oil and gas exploration.

The reason that the fruits of university research are attracting the attention of the money-men is probably quite simple — the technology looks good.

The emerging clusters of innovation tend to be skewed towards energy, medical devices, biotechnology and nanotechnology. You don’t have to be investment analyst of the year to realise that these potentially future-shaping technologies could amount to far more than the chimeras of the late 1990s dotcom era.

If UK investors can make money by backing UK technology firms emerging from our universities then everybody wins. In the case of the universities, this is especially important. As all the parties in the current election campaign agreed, we need a stable and thriving university sector to provide us with the engineers and scientists of tomorrow.

If today’s technology can help sow the seeds of that stability, so much the better.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer magazine