Just before christmas 2018, I represented Deep Science Ventures as part of a group discussing knowledge exchange. I found myself surrounded by people agreeing enthusiastically with the idea that universities should be the centerpiece of any UK R&D strategy, that we’re not worse than the US at commercialisation and that our R&D pipeline works just fine. Our regulators are highly rational and straightforward to work with. Our public transport efficacy means that Cardiff is as close to London as Palo Alto is to San Francisco. That the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa enjoys popularity ratings similar to those of the queen.
In a recent article, one VC went so far as to make the bold suggestion that UK universities are so good at commercialising research that they should each contribute 2% of the proceeds of commercialisation into a communal pot.
Whilst there’s no doubt that the UK is brilliant at science, it seems clear to me that we haven’t yet maximised our ability to extract full commercial and social impact from that brilliance. More importantly, the discussion about whether UK universities are better than US universities at research commercialisation simply misses the point.
The majority of universities, regardless of location, share a relatively poor track record when considering the volume of research funding. Data is poor, but it’s unlikely that things have changed since the New York Times wrote that 80% of US TTOs lose money. The UK suffers the same long tail distribution.
As Alice Frost, Director of Knowledge Exchange at Research England recently said to a muted response from a room of tech transfer execs: “what if tech transfer is just intrinsically hard?” Our original suspicion, when leaving the spinout team at one of the UK’s top 3 tech transfer offices, based at the most innovative university in the UK (second most innovative in Europe), was that whilst we believe tech transfer to be a wholly necessary process, it is also probably true that Alice Frost is right.
It’s clearly not that tech transfer offices are bad at what they do. Rather, universities and grant funders do not, in the most part, sponsor research because they believe it will generate commercial impact. They sponsor and carry out the research that they believe will most increase the global stock of knowledge.
From a translation perspective, this may appear troubling, but only so long as IP-centric translation of existing research by individual universities is the only mode of commercialising scientific knowledge. I argued that this need not be the case in a previous article.
We left Imperial College driven by the belief that it was possible to design a more productive environment for translational, venture-focused research. But more than being “possible”, it has become clear over the last two years that this was a low bar. What’s really at stake is how the most gifted scientists in the world address the most pressing opportunities and challenges that we face.
What we propose is the creation of a national institute for venture focused research.
The difference between translational research and the translation of existing research is vast. At Deep Science Ventures we’re building an institution focused on cultivating entrepreneurial scientists to carry out translational, highly impactful and unabashedly commercially driven research. A place focused on systematically uncovering and quantifying commercial opportunities, with their market and funding risk fully characterised before any research takes place. An environment that allows entrepreneurial people to achieve the scientific specialisation of a PhD with the commercial focus of an MBA and the agility of a design studio. But moreover, given how rudimentary our national understanding of best practice in translation is, we would embed a research function into translation itself, running randomised control trials to test which resources and processes produce the highest yield.
It is true that ‘number of spinouts’ is not the only metric of effective translation: producing scientists who can drive translation is also a critical output of our scientific establishments. But the need to develop a way to repeatably cultivate entrepreneurial scientists, who can connect the dots across technical and commercial, is absolutely clear. After reviewing more than 2500 applications and conducting 500 interviews last year, we put the proportion of scientists who are currently “ready” to attempt to found a company at below 3%.
Our dream is to undo the self-fulfilling prophecy of “the commercially inept scientist” by creating a parallel career path for “translational scientists” with the equivalent level of kudos and recognition that discovery scientists currently achieve.
We’ve already made considerable progress, having created 30 companies over the last two years, working with more than 100 scientists. On average we provide private capital 6 months before companies receive any public funds. This has turned out to be no riskier: with a 90% survival rate after 12 months, our own funding matched 3 times over by subsequent grant capital and our portfolio having more than doubled in value. This is despite an average company age of less than 12 months.
This is not a zero sum game with respect to university collaborations. Our teams partner with world-leading academic institutions as a second step, with live partnerships in place with Oxford, Warwick, Nottingham, Imperial, the Faraday Institute, the Henry Royce Institute and others. Not only in the UK, but also abroad (Delft, KU Leuven, Washington University, Columbia, Stanford and MIT). Perhaps more importantly, each team is built in collaboration with multiple universities rather than depending on individual IP from a single university, but only once the commercial need has been clearly ascertained in conversation with potential customers.
Our vision is to develop and scale this pathway, from commercial opportunity to high growth, high impact science ventures. To access the latent value present in millions of unpublished experiments and hundreds of thousands of under-valued scientists, creating a global, venture-focused research institute. In doing so, we hope to sidestep the substantial risk academia faces in repurposing universities to be spinout factories; we can avoid the process of stripping out the focus and discipline that made our universities world-leading in the first place; we can prevent the displacement of the critical, fundamental research which fuels our global reputation for outstanding science.
We have no intention of doing this alone and the structure we’re developing is optimised for partners and collaborators. If you are interested in being part of this effort to completely transform the way we create value from scientific knowledge, or to work with DSV in any capacity, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org