University spinouts: build your own unicorn in 2021

Queen’s University, Belfast has been ranked number one in the UK for commercialising academic research. How do they do it? Brian McCaul, CEO at the university’s commercialisation arm, shares his successful model for spinouts

The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda aims to equalise the distribution of growth nationwide, yet it has mostly focused on town and infrastructure funds instead of commercialising university research. Now more than ever, UK universities have a vital role in driving innovation, accelerating economic growth and levelling up the UK. Universities are therefore vital conduits to circulate national growth more evenly.

Queen’s University Belfast alone contributes £1.9 billion to the local economy while Imperial College London has supported 1,300 local jobs in five years and Cambridge University has spawned an entire digital tech cluster known as ‘Silicon Fen.’

This potential is further demonstrated by Queen’s University, Belfast’s (QUB) recent ranking as the number one most effective UK university at commercialising research, by the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking published by Octopus Ventures. Whilst we’re yet to establish the volume of connections and scale of investment feedback loops that some American universities like Stanford benefit from, we have found that success can be achieved through a methodical and fastidious approach that could significantly contribute to the UK levelling-up agenda.

One of our spinouts was run by three different CEOs until we found the right fit. It went on to secure $3 million in investment

Step 1: Customer discovery

We have found that it is imperative to validate emerging technologies early before they are developed commercially. For example, our NxNW Partners ICURe programme is not only a programme that we run, but more of a philosophy that drives everything that we do, ensuring we only invest in the ideas with a sound foundation and reliable market signal.

These positive signs are invaluable in securing early investment, a necessary step in the journey to long term success. That investment funds extensive prototyping and proof-of-concept research, which can further corroborate the high technology-readiness level.

Step 2: Finding the right academic-entrepreneur partnerships

Many academics are either unfamiliar with running a business and/or too busy to dedicate all of their energy to it. Partnering them with outside entrepreneurs, sometimes from our alumni network, adds business acumen to the academic expertise needed to run a successful tech spinout. Finding the right entrepreneur for each situation takes work: the styles and personalities of the entrepreneur and academic must be compatible. Moreover, it is important that their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Frequently, this match-making requires organisational psychology and a willingness to try different team configurations until we arrive at an optimal match.

Having entrepreneurial know-how within the leadership team of the spinout will also de-risk the company, increasing its chances in later rounds of investment.

The styles and personalities of the entrepreneur and academic must be compatible… This match-making requires organisational psychology

Step 3: Maintaining a flexible outlook

Attaining commercial success from an academic idea can take time – there may be a delay in response from investors as they are gradually convinced by the spinout’s prototypes, or a sudden change in the market could mean that the business plan needs to be refreshed. Through our process, once we settle on an idea and a suitable entrepreneur-academic partnership that we believe in, we are convinced we can find success in one way or another.

As such, we do not abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. One of our spinouts was run by three different CEOs until we found the right fit. It went on to secure $3 million in investment. Different financial backing may also change a company’s outlook, like the difference between a float and a trade sale, making it more appealing to investors.

Step 4: Going the extra mile

For UK universities to get the most commercial impact from their research, they need to go the extra mile for the spinouts that show commercial promise. Even after securing initial funding, we help businesses execute their idea, build an experienced team, and win further rounds of investment. Creating high quality scale-ups from an academic innovation requires patience and long-term, hands-on support over the course of many years.

Step 5: Creating a circular economy

Over time, successful spinouts create a circular economy enabling universities to invest back into further spinouts. This not only has implications for the university and its academics but also for the local economy and wider society. Ensuring these companies establish themselves, grow, and eventually stay in the UK will benefit us all.

Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB) was recent rated the number one most effective UK university at commercialising research, by the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking

Case study: Fusion Antibodies

Fusion Antibodies, a Belfast-based contract research organisation (CRO) and specialist in pre–clinical antibody discovery, was established in 2001 as a spinout from Queen’s University Belfast.

Through early investment and support from QUBIS, the company has gone on to establish an international client base including a number of top 10 pharma companies, and has become one of three Queen’s spinouts to be listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Their work includes the discovery of novel therapeutic and diagnostic antibodies with validated anti-infective properties against COVID-19.

Brian McCaul is CEO at QUBIS, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB)

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