Post #79: Commercialisation amidst the dreaming spires

As a former student of Oxford University (albeit with a liberal arts degree), your author has felt slightly pleased that his alma mater is one of the leading institutions globally working towards a vaccine for the treatment of COVID-19. The partnership between the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca has been well-documented elsewhere and patient trials are already underway, with initial results encouraging. Beyond the clear need for a vaccine and the bragging rights that may come from being among the pioneers, there is another important point to consider: why are some countries more efficient than others at turning research into intellectual property?

To get some perspectives on the topic, we recently caught up with Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI), an early-stage venture capital firm based in Oxford, which has partnered with the city’s main university. Begin with the data. It is not that the UK lacks top academic institutions; more that universities often struggle to convert funding and publication output effectively. The sum of annual published patents emanating from America’s top universities (Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and MIT) is 3-4x higher and growing 10x faster than the output from the comparable top-four in the UK (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL). Thought of another way, Oxford issues ~60 publications for every patent it receives in the field of Medical and Health Sciences. The comparable figure at MIT is just 10 (all data courtesy of OSI).

Having bright ideas is one thing; commercialising them is quite another. Good academics don’t always make good business-people. To solve the conundrum, there is clear logic in seeking to marry the skills of entrepreneurs and scientists. Venture capital firms potentially have a crucial role to play in this respect, nurturing early talent and developing businesses. Such an approach makes sense, particularly since effective innovation can help drive economic growth.The world’s most innovative countries – Germany, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and Sweden, as defined by the World Economic Forum in February – all have markedly above-average levels of GDP per capita. 

Back in the UK, Oxford Nanopore and Vaccitech – both of whom can trace their roots to the University of Oxford – constitute good examples of what can happen when intellectual property is commercialised effectively. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, these businesses have been at the recent forefront of developments in rapid testing via portable sequencing machines and global vaccine technology respectively. Both are still private, with the former (which was founded in 2005) last valued at over £1.5bn (per Pitchbook). With the right conditions, many similar potential success stories may also be in the pipeline.

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