Oxford University Innovation — research into reality

Looking to understand what Oxford University Innovation does, and how it can help you develop your idea?

Innovation means many different things to different people. Innovative discoveries and techniques can aid our understanding of the human body, find new ways to bring old texts to life, integrate new systems to make all our lives easier, and much more.

Arguably, most if not all research at Oxford University has some claim to the elusive term of innovation, and the role of Oxford University Innovation (OUI) is to support the University’s innovators in any way we can, enabling Oxford’s technology and expertise to have greater worldwide impact.

When a new idea reaches OUI, there are two main ways it can progress: the licence and the spinout.

Licencing is very much the bread and butter of what we do — with £1 in every £10 of licensing income earned by UK higher education institutions coming to Oxford — and it can be an incredibly effective method for getting technology out into the wider world.

For example, OUI recently structured a deal between the University, Oxford University Hospitals, and Drayson Technologies to licence a suite of healthcare technologies developed at Oxford. The deal neatly sidestepped many of the bureaucratic obstacles to spreading NHS developed technology to the wider NHS by taking it out of the healthcare system and putting it in the hands of a third party, which was then in a position to bring the technologies to the wider NHS network.

We will look to license to a complementary business, but when the technology is strong enough to support a new company, then we’ll opt for the spinout option.

Spinouts are essentially startup companies but with university intellectual property (IP) at their core. A lot of IP, though, isn’t ready to go straight to market. Typically it requires a longer development time than a startup, bespoke resources such as an experienced leadership team and investors who understand spinouts, and a willingness from the business to revise its approach numerous times before finding what works.

NaturalMotion, a gaming and animation spinout company, had many twists and turns in development. Based on zoology research, NaturalMotion’s original tech could animate a whole army or stampede of animals — commonplace now, but not in 2002. Founder Torsten Reil wanted to apply his technology to gaming animation, but the platform was first developed in the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox era and that hardware just couldn’t keep up. The tech was ahead of its time.

Consequently, NaturalMotion began life providing animation for films, including the Lord of the Rings series. Eventually, gaming hardware caught up, and NaturalMotion pivoted back to games. NaturalMotion’s animation platform became the gold standard for gaming animations, leading to a long-lasting relationship with UK-based games developer Rockstar, famous for the Grand Theft Auto series. When GTA V, the fastest selling entertainment product of all time, launched in 2013, it was NaturalMotion’s animation tech under the hood.

NaturalMotion went on to become a games developer in its own right, such as the highly successful mobile games CSR Racing and Clumsy Ninja, the latter featuring at the launch event for the iPhone 5. NaturalMotion was eventually acquired by Zynga in a $527m deal that returned $50m to the University, and its technology still helps its graphically superior games stand out in the crowded mobile gaming market.

To create more NaturalMotions, it is important to recognise that the support mechanisms for spinouts differ from their typical startup cousins. Spinout management teams need to combine the entrepreneurial spirit of the startup world with experience of leading research-based companies. Bespoke investment funds are needed to provide the type of financial support spinouts need to thrive . Crucially, they need the fertile breeding ground of a spinout-friendly innovation ecosystem around a university.

Oxford is fortunate to have attracted and developed such an ecosystem. Since it was founded in 1987, OUI has helped create nearly 150 spinouts. With the help of a number of engaged investors, including the world’s largest fund focused on a single university’s spinouts in Oxford Sciences Innovation, our spinouts have raised a combined £1.5bn in external funding since 2011 and have an estimated global turnover of £600 million. As of 2015, over half of our spinouts remained in the Oxfordshire region, supporting 1,889 jobs.

OUI staff are committed to supporting the entrepreneurial spark around Oxford. We support Oxford’s student and alumni bodies with the OUI Incubator, which supports traditional startup concepts emerging from both communities, and has nurtured 69 projects since founding in 2011. It provides funding, networking, mentorship and space, and runs an accelerator programme several times a year to help Oxford startups develop more rapidly. OUI also organises and supports a number of events, including the Oxford Technology Showcase, Idea Idol, and the Humanities Innovation Challenge.

We also provide professional support for academic consultancy engagements. Our Consulting Services team manages all the contractual and administrative aspects of consultancy, minimising the administrative burden while protecting the interests of the academics involved and those of the University.

Kathy Parkes, a Visiting Researcher in Social Sciences, first engaged Consulting Services when she was approached by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

The DVSA was looking to tap into her knowledge and expertise around workload among driving examiners following a report she conducted back in the 1980s, and wanted to understand the potential effects of increasing the number of tests each assessor conducts in a week by two. While the increment may seem slight, it adds extra pressure to the already stressful job of observing 17 and 18 year olds drive a car under examination conditions. Following Kathy’s comparison of data from the 1980s and the DVSA’s current data, her conclusions lead the DVSA not to increase the workload for assessors.

Consulting Services assisted Kathy with her initial engagements with the DVSA, negotiated the contract, and helped chase down data from the DVSA essential for her consultancy work.

Currently providing consultancy for a legal firm in Europe, Kathy said that organisations prefer to work through a middle man such as OUI, which can do the leg work, adding: “I wouldn’t want to do the consultancy work on my own. I much prefer to have OUI for contractual management.”

OUI is always looking to support Oxford’s researchers and innovators. If you’ve got an idea that you want to take forward, we’d love to hear from you, no matter what type of innovation it may be.

Find out more at innovation.ox.ac.uk