Entrepreneurial pathways to impact – the potential to address substantial problems at scale through the spinning out of academic research

By Dr Robert Tansley| Partner, Cambridge Innovation Capital

Academic spin-outs are a cornerstone of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambridge. At the recent Academic Entrepreneur event hosted by Cambridge Innovation Capital and Cambridge Enterprise, it was fantastic to hear the personal journeys of five academics who had made the decision to spin out their research.

A recurrent theme from the afternoon was a desire to translate academic research at scale in a way that would not be feasible within a purely academic setting. The meeting first heard from the serial entrepreneur Prof Allan Bradley, FRS who has spun out five companies while pursuing an eminent academic career at Baylor School of Medicine, as the Director of the Sanger Institute and most recently as Director of Research at the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge. As knowledge and capabilities have developed in his field of genetics, Allan saw the opportunity to expand his academic research through spin-out companies and has been successful in attracting tens of millions of pounds to translate leading science into products available for the wider population. Allan’s insights on how spin-out companies can complement rather than conflict with academic research were particularly useful.

We then heard from four first time academic researchers who shared their own personal journeys. The individual motivations differed: Dr Nitzan Rosenfeld from the CRUK-CI spoke of his desire to improve the management of cancer patients through the delivery of liquid biopsy to better inform individual patient treatment decisions from a very personal perspective; Dr Steve Brierley from the Department of Mathematics understood that to fulfil the potential of his research in quantum computing would require substantial capital investment to compete on a global scale; Prof Rachel Oliver from the Department of Material Science, sought to expand on a discovery in her lab which opened the window for a high performance platform enabling new frontiers for electronics and optoelectronics that could not be adequately developed within a purely academic setting and for Prof Carl Rasmussen, from the Department of Engineering, a world leader in the Bayesian inference in machine learning, saw the practical applications of his research and understanding could be translated at scale at the start up company Secondmind.

Each journey was highly individual and personal but none of the journeys had been followed alone. One of the reasons why Cambridge is such a great place to spin out a company from academic research is the deep support infrastructure that is present.

We heard from several of the facilitators within the academic institutions, from University of Cambridge, Cambridge Enterprise, Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Babraham Research Campus and the resources available at each of these institutions. One of the exciting developments of the last couple of years in Cambridge has been the creation of two new accelerators: Start Codon for Life Sciences and Deeptech Labs for deep tech ventures which can nurture early stage companies during the early stages of their journey. We also have a number of dedicated investors including the highly active and knowledgeable Cambridge Angels, the Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds and Cambridge Innovation Capital that focuses on IP-rich companies in the Cambridge ecosystem.

When I first came to Cambridge more than 25 years ago as a clinician at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, spinning out academic research was frowned upon and treated with suspicion. What I took away from last week’s Academic Entrepreneur event was that this negative attitude has well and truly been banished and that we are realising the potential to address substantial problems at scale through the spinning out of academic research. It is a great privilege to be involved in such a dynamic and supportive ecosystem.