Stewards of innovation

Dr Adam Stoten, Chief Operating Officer at Oxford University Innovation, reflects on the changing face of commercialisation in Oxford.

Thirteen years is a long time in technology transfer and nowhere is this more true than in Oxford, where we have seen incredible changes to our innovation ecosystem and to how we approach the business of translating IP and expertise into societal benefit. Having worked during this period in roles supporting the commercialisation of Oxford technologies — several within OUI and also in executive and board roles for some of our spinouts — it’s been a fascinating personal journey, and one that demands the occasional reflection on the past to put into context our future direction.

Back in 2005, when I first started at OUI, technology transfer was still a nascent activity in the UK. While the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial were all leaders in developing services to support academic inventors and consultants, the scale of activity was a mere fraction of what it is now. What enticed me to join the team in Oxford back then was the rate of growth, which suggested that the intellectual giant that is the community of academic researchers at Oxford had not so much woken up, but rather was turning its laser-like attention to commercialising the outputs of the university’s world class research.

Since then, the culture of entrepreneurship and enterprise has been fuelled by many important events. The focus on impact of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has created a uniform pressure on all UK universities and academics to understand and articulate the impact of research in a more meaningful way. The innovation support infrastructure in Oxford has improved out of all recognition in the last decade; besides OUI, we have seen the creation of Oxford Sciences Innovation plc with £600m+ to invest in Oxford spinouts; the Oxford Foundry is supporting student entrepreneurship; divisional business engagement teams have been established to increase partnerships with industry, and new facilities have been developed to house new ventures — the BioEscalator and the Begbroke Accelerator. A major Innovation Review by the university in 2014 helped underscore the institutional commitment and underpins many of the more recent changes.

The changes at OUI have also been profound. From an early focus on the two hard science divisions, we are now also working at increasing scale with Social Sciences and Humanities; learning what commercialisation means to their researchers and how we can best support them. Our Startup Incubator has, since 2010, expanded our support to students and alumni, and has helped create ventures such as Onfido that have raised tens of millions of investment. Academic consultancy has gone from an activity separate to OUI to one of our three main business activities, turning over £5M a year. Our Licensing and Ventures group now receives more than 400 new inventions each year (around three times the number received in 2005) and is responsible for 120+ commercial deals and 20 spinouts annually — putting us in the same league as the top US universities.

I fully expect OUI to continue to evolve in tune with the University’s needs. With the ongoing roll out of the Industrial Strategy, a new Knowledge Exchange Framework on the horizon to assess institutional competence, and REF 2021 preparations, the scope for OUI to further enhance Oxford’s reputation in Innovation is enormous. Likewise, the commitment by government to increase UK R&D expenditure to 2.4% of GDP in the next decade means that our IP, our spinouts and the advice given by our consultants all assume even greater significance in helping achieve this ambitious target.

Core to all of this are our employees; those who have provided insights in this annual review, and the many others in their teams and in our support groups who display the same commitment to building a world-leading innovation ecosystem in Oxford and ensuring the Oxford Boom is as loud and long as possible.

This piece appeared originally in OUI’s 2018 Annual Review, which you can read here: http://annualreview.innovation.ox.ac.uk/

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