A new spin on spin-outs?

Here at The Engineer we have long championed the role to be played by the UK’s research universities in incubating, developing and commercialising new technologies.

But while the commercial activities of our universities are increasingly vigorous and promising there is much that could be done to make academic institutions even better at capitalising on their research.

Indeed according to Qinetiq’s Philip Sharpe, speaking earlier this week at a World Universities Network (WUN) forum, universities still have plenty to learn from big business when looking at ways to exploit their research.

And while it’s perhaps no big surprise that he should be singing his own employer’s praises, Sharpe’s suggestion that university’s could learn some valuable lessons from the defence companies own corporate venturing experience is nevertheless a point worth exploring.

In 2007 Qinetiq shifted it’s approach from a somewhat traditional focus on incubating ventures internally before looking for external finance and spinning them out.

Instead, the company packaged a number of its ventures together and put them into an external fund under a limited partnership agreement. The model was supported by £20m investment from Coller Capital Private Equity and a further £20m from Qinetiq.

The beauty of this approach, claimed Sharpe, is that its success is less at the mercy of the organisation’s own profits and jittery company accountants. With recent financial reports valuing the new activity as commanding 20 per cent of the organisation’s share value, Sharpe suggested that universities might benefit from the same approach and use it to focus their efforts on the development of strong brands that are able to stand on their own feet.

Might it therefore be time to wave goodbye to the ‘University Spin-out’ tag? While it was once the height of academic/industry sophistication, does the model now carry with it a whiff of vulnerability to the harsh realities of the market?

Jon Excell