By Richard Lofthouse

Touchscreen

Everyone has now heard of the university spin-out, a deceptively light term describing the incredibly complex task of commercializing intellectual breakthroughs generated by University research.

The spin-out situation at Oxford is a healthy one, as I found out at a presentation earlier this year, when attending a Dragons Den for grown-ups in London. Put on by Oxford’s wholly-owned IP-capturing organization Isis Innovation, the first sign of health was that the presentation — in effect a series of pitches for seed funding by early stage companies commercializing IP generated at Oxford — wasn’t even held in Oxford.

No, it was held in London at the offices of Bird & Bird, a law firm and partner of Isis Innovation. This didn’t prevent a joke being made about Oxford folks finding it incredibly difficult to travel further than the ring road — which was likened to a centrifugal force-field pulling everyone back towards Carfax — yet that reluctance to travel, and the implied focus of heads-down-in-labs, is exactly what leads to scientific breakthroughs.

Once you have the breakthrough, you need a different skill set to bring it to market, and that is where the University company and its associated ‘Angels Network’ comes in. Before we got stuck in with the actual presentations, Isis chairman Nigel Keen noted that the original — and today powerful and independent — Oxford spin-out was Oxford Instruments PLC, founded in 1959 by Sir Martin and Audrey Lane Wood. I immediately thought that Oxford Today should write you a story about that/

But anyway,  then we plunged into four presentations. The first concerned a way of producing MRI-quality medical scans for the price of an ultrasound. The potential healthcare impact was simply enormous. The second company specialized in handling mass data sets with a view to helping large organizations reduce energy waste.

The third company had discovered a zinc compound to replace Indium-Tin-Oxide in the manufacture of touch screens – a simply monumental discovery when you consider that Indium costs $750 a kilo, versus $5 for silica-doped zinc oxide. The fourth and final company had developed clinical software to help non-expert physicians quickly determine the right treatment for stroke victims.

The problems being solved here are real and immediate, and their solutions are not shallow tricks but the product in some cases of decades of research at Oxford. I thought this was very heartening for those who want evidence of ‘impact’. In fact a recent independent report argued that Isis Innovation had over 25 years added £400m in ‘gross added value’ to the economy, and supported as many as 5,000 jobs.

Evidence suggests that such activity is just expanding. The point of the presentation was to interest alumni – among other professional investors — in investing in some of these brilliant companies. That’s what has changed recently, I was told in a separate conversation with Andrea Alunni, Isis Seed Investment Manager.

Until last year, the University provided the seed funding, a process dating back to 1999. But for the first time earlier this year, Isis launched a public seed fund called Isis Fund I. It raised £1.35m in six weeks, much of it from Oxonians. The second such fund will launch later this year, with a minimum investment of £25,000. By the time we broke up for wine and chat, it was hard to know what to feel, but it was above all a quite heady sensation of being part of something exciting. 

Greed at the prospect of a big win, fear at the prospect of losing money, yet all of it bound up with a real hope that problems will get solved. And that the next time I buy a smartphone it won’t involve a toxic and rare material unnecessarily; or God forbid I have a stroke, my case can be quickly diagnosed.

Image by ebayink under Creative Commons license