By Andrew Williamson 23 Nov 2023
Like many of the UK’s spin-out founders, my career started in academia, in the physics labs of Cambridge. As a postdoc, I moved to the Bay Area to pursue a research career, applying high performance computing to designing materials for solar energy and battery storage. This positioned me perfectly at the beginning of the ClimateTech revolution. I was fortunate enough to found Navitas Semiconductor, now a $1B public company, and several other companies with less successful trajectories.
My career move from academia to building start-ups was challenging, exhausting, and also the best thing I have ever done. I experienced the challenges many start-up founders face every day as they productise their technology, while building a team, securing the first customers, and raising funding. This is a high risk, high reward career path, with the opportunity to achieve huge impact.
My career has now brought me back to the UK and the world of venture capital where, as Managing Partner of Cambridge Innovation Capital, I lead our fund’s investments into knowledge-intensive companies connected to the Cambridge ecosystem. We have a strategic partnership with the University of Cambridge, which gives us the privilege of working with some of the world’s leading academics and the entrepreneurs commercialising the research from their research groups.
In 2023 I was invited to co-author an Independent Review of the UK’s University Spin-out Ecosystem alongside Professor Irene Tracey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Our review and set of recommendations were published on 21 November 2023.
Over the course of last 6 months, we spoke to as many people as we could from each of the key stakeholder groups associated with the UK’s University Spin-out ecosystem. Conducting the most comprehensive survey of founders ever, with over 650 startup companies and their founders sharing their journeys with us. We spoke with universities from across the country; almost every investor who invests in spin-outs in the UK; and all of the relevant policymakers and government departments, to make sure we understood the perspectives from all sides.
What we heard from these discussions was:
- There is growing enthusiasm across the country for creating spinouts, with numerous examples of rapidly growing spinout ecosystems; advanced manufacturing in Sheffield, quantum in Bristol, life sciences in Dundee
- Founders want to create spinouts smoothly and quickly. Once the founding team, business plan, and funding are lined up, they want to get going as quickly as possible. In our report we recommended a set of spin-out terms and processes that enable all stakeholders to expeditiously negotiate spin-outs on fair, market terms
- Universities want to support as many high quality spinouts as possible. Providing support for the spinout process is further straining already strained University budgets. In the report we recommended government ensures that the important work of University Technology Transfer Offices is appropriately funded.
- Founders and Universities recognise that often the technology created in traditional academic research projects is too nascent for commercialisation. They unanimously requested access to proof of concept funding to advance technology to the point where it’s ready for commercialisation. Increasing access to this vital POC funding could rapidly expand the rate of university spinouts and we recommended the government look at ways to increase this access.
- Finally, and most importantly, we heard that the key ingredient to a successful spin-out is not its technology or financing – it’s the people. Successful businesses are built by exceptional, motivated and passionate founders. For the UK to further its Science Superpower agenda, and embrace a culture of entrepreneurship we need to break down barriers between the worlds of academia, entrepreneurship and investment. We have recommended a series of ways to achieve this, funding to ‘buy out’ academic time to focus on commercialisation and ‘academic returner’ fellowships for researchers wishing to return to academia from the private sector.
On 22 November 2023 the government accepted all of the recommendations of the review, detailing the implementation in their response document.
It was an honour to participate in the preparation of this report. In sectors as diverse as AI, quantum computing, advanced therapeutics, diagnostics, and ClimateTech university spinouts across the country are rapidly creating economic growth, societal impact, and rewarding career paths for the 21st century.
Andrew Williamson is Managing Partner of Cambridge Innovation Capital