University innovation’s communications problem

There’s never been a better time for the UK university innovation scene, so why does innovation remain UK universities’ best kept secret?

Written by Gregg Bayes-Brown (Note: This piece is based on a talk recently given at the OUI Spinout Equity Management conference and represents Gregg’s personal opinions, not OUI’s.)

If you are here on the Oxford University Innovation (OUI) blog, there’s a good chance you’ll understand the term “university innovation”.

But imagine a more intimate setting: a social gathering, or a dinner party. Drinks are poured, pleasantries are shared, good times roll. But the host, a long-time friend of yours, has done the unthinkable. Your brother-in-arms turned Judas the Betrayer has invited a stranger. A stranger that they’ve sat next to you.

Eventually, conversation strays towards that dreaded question: “What is it you do?”

Back in my days at Global University Venturing (GUV), I’d say that I was a journalist, knowing it’d go one of two ways:

  • I’d see their face drop, and have to instantly follow it up with “don’t worry, I don’t write for the Daily Mail.”
  • They’d be genuinely curious.

For me, it was the latter was the worst of the two responses I’d dread this poor inquisitive soul had no idea of the fifteen minute bulldozing about tech transfer they were about to receive.

The problem, I’d realise as they looked back at me with glazed eyes and an ashen face, is that people simply don’t know about this side of university life. It doesn’t compute. For some, given that Oxford’s general media coverage revolves around politicians, Harry Potter and perceptions of elitism, the idea that we do research here can be hard to come to terms with. Explaining that we then attempt to do something with that research can seem out of the realms of possibility altogether.

Worse, it’s not just the average guy on the street. Research conducted for Oxford into innovation communications suggest that the issue goes as high as MPs, with many in House of Commons misinformed about what’s going on around here.

University innovation’s issues with telling its story is not restricted to Oxford; it is an international problem. And yet, there has never been a better time to tell it.

In Oxford, the 2016 cohort of spinouts attracted a fivefold increase of seed funding compared to 2015, jumping from just under £10m to £52.6m in a single year. That cohort was our biggest yet with 21 new spinouts. That’s more than Oxford’s entire output for the 1990s.

There are similar stories of success around the country. Cambridge continues to go from strength to strength. Edinburgh is turning itself into a strong life sciences hub with the development of its BioQuarter. SETsquared, the university incubator partnership of Bristol, Bath, Surrey, Southampton and Exeter, is ranked the top university business incubator in the world, generating over 1,000 companies in its first decade of operation.

So why aren’t these stories seeing the light of day?

At GUV, covering this sector could be infuriating. Decent data is hard to come by. Many tech transfer offices and incubators are under-resourced, with a minimal budget for communications, if any. University press offices have traditionally been focused on teaching and research, with innovation and entrepreneurship dropping down the priority list.

You can’t rely on the other side, either. Spinouts and startups don’t have the cash for professional PR. Corporates are typically coy about their work with universities, as are investors, and neither have much of an incentive to support any communications that go wider than their direct interests.

At Oxford, there is the additional factor of the fragmented nature of the University. Oxford has drawn great strength from giving its academics the freedom to operate and generate world-class research. As a result, there has been little in the way of centralisation within the University, and it exists more as a loosely-connected federation of research domains than a homogeneous, unified entity.

Where this doesn’t work so well is communications, which works best when there are teams and strong collaboration to tell an overarching story. But because of how the University is structured, every division, department and college has its own communications support, leading to many individual voices competing against each other. In writing terms, Oxford is less a novel with a story arc stretching from cover to cover, more an entertaining but disjointed collection of short stories.

But does any of this matter?

To the cynic, communications could just be considered that part of an organisation that writes press releases, tells journalists they are wrong, and the department that swallows budget and regurgitates buzzwords.

But that’s just focusing on the short stories again. The story arc of communication — especially in innovation — should be to tell the narrative and culture of a place, to make connections between different organisations, and to sow the seeds of collaboration.

Over in Stanford, you can take a tech licence, screw it up into a ball, chuck it out of a window, and have a ravenous pack of entrepreneurs and investors jump on it.

Here in Oxford, we have the world’s number one ranked university providing globally-leading research. We have a world leading ranked university innovation office in OUI. We’ve got the world’s biggest university venture fund at Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI). And then there’s the incredible surrounding region, with world-class research institutes, top calibre talent, and a rapidly growing body of spinouts and startups that can and will enact positive change on the wider world.

And yet, our ecosystem is nowhere near as vibrant as the Silicon Valley region. So what’s missing?

Oxford Sciences Innovation recently drafted in Luke Heine, an expert in cluster development, to examine what separates great tech clusters from the rest and see what Oxford could learn from them.

In the picture above, the top line is the Boston area, showing organisations which are collaborating, sharing data and info, and working together. The bottom is New Jersey. In New Jersey’s case, there hasn’t been the same level of co-operation, with the partnerships that do exist primarily going through one or two single organisations. The end result is that when people discuss successful clusters, Boston is right at the top of the list, and New Jersey doesn’t get a look in.

The main conclusion to be drawn from Heine’s research into clusters is that communications is critical to collaboration, which in turn is a building block of innovation. His main point from looking at our cluster? Our comms needs work.

I suspect that the solution lies in open collaboration on communications, with organisations across the cluster providing people and resources towards a communications network. In practical terms, this would provide a well-resourced network that can offer effective, subsidised PR support for growing companies, share and generate data and information, and bring people together. In strategic terms, it builds the connectivity necessary for collaboration, tells the narrative of a cluster that attracts new talent, business and investment, and lays the foundations for a successful cluster.

These strong narratives bring people, business and attention to growing clusters like Oxford that showcase universities and industry working together to build thriving tech ecosystems that are helping the UK build its economy of the future.

It can speak nationally about the enduring strength of UK PLC. It can speak internationally about why the world’s talent would want to come to Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. But most importantly, it’ll really help me out at dinner parties.

Gregg Bayes-Brown is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Oxford University Innovation. You can follow him on Twitter at @GreggBayesBrown, and you can follow OUI for more blog posts and innovation news at@OxUInnovation.