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16 January 2017

Big deal: Oxford celebrates record-setting year

Oxford University Innovation established 24 companies in 2016, which secured a total of $63.5m in early-stage funding.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

Oxford University is no stranger to eye-grabbing headlines – since mid-December alone, its tech transfer office Oxford University Innovation (OUI) has celebrated a £100m ($126m) funding round for Oxford Nanopore Technologies, while university venturing fund Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI) increased its capital to £580m.

It comes as no surprise then that OUI has kicked off the year by revealing more impressive numbers. The TTO was responsible for creating 24 companies with a combined £52.6m in early-stage funding last year ؘ– setting a company generation record not just for the university or the UK, but also shooting to the top spot in Europe.

OSI provided £30m of the total amount, underlining the university venturing fund’s importance for Oxford’s ecosystem. Indeed, the money marks a quadrupling of investments for spinouts, up from £9.5m in 2015, when OSI supplied £4.45m.

Of the 24 new companies, 21 were spinouts, a significant increase over 2015 when OUI generated 10 spinouts. The commercialisation office, meanwhile, also boosted the number of licences sold to 115 and patents filed to 118.

Some of the spinouts remain in stealth mode and are expected to be announced formally this year.

While the spinouts already cover a vast range of sectors – from aeronautics to big data and virtual reality to regenerative medicine and wireless energy transfer – OUI is expected to produce an even more diverse set in future as the unit begins tapping into departments that are often overlooked when it comes to technology transfer – humanities and social sciences.

OUI has already held its inaugural Humanities Innovation Challenge, in collaboration with the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, which invited teams to compete for funding, mentoring and space in OUI’s incubator.

The competition was won by Azure, which hopes to import pinole, a grain popular in Mexico and Latin America. Pinole is made of roasted ground maize mixed with cocoa, cinnamon, chia seeds, agave, vanilla or occasionally other spices to produce a powder that serves as the basis for foods such as cereals, tortillas and drinks.

These successes added to other initiatives, such as Lab282, a £13m drug discovery proof-of-concept fund launched by the university, OUI, OSI and drug discovery company Evotec in November last year.

Last week, OSI also announced a partnership with pharmaceutical firm Celgene to develop new treatments focused on conditions such as cancer and immune-inflammatory diseases. The partnership gives Celgene certain option rights, though details have not been disclosed.

Andrew McLean, lead life sciences investor at OSI, said: “This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for OSI. The medical sciences work in Oxford pushes the frontier of our understanding of biological systems and disease.”

Rupert Vessey, president of research and early development at Celgene, said: “This alliance is a paradigm-changing opportunity that broadens and strengthens the innovative ecosystem.

"We remain committed to driving critical advances in cancer and immune-inflammatory diseases and believe the tremendous potential and expertise of our collaboration with Oxford Sciences Innovation can help change the course of human health through bold pursuits in science.”

OSI also appears to have scored a win on the personnel side. Alex Snow, who became the fund’s deputy chairman when hedge fund Lansdowne Partners made a cornerstone investment in 2015, is set to focus more on that role following his departure from Lansdowne last month, according to the Daily Telegraph. Snow used to be chief executive of Lansdowne, but the position was abolished in April last year.

Matt Perkins, chief executive of OUI, said: “Building on 28 years of expertise, 2016 cemented OUI’s standing as a global leader in university innovation. With growing contributions from humanities, social sciences and the student startup community adding to an increasingly strong spinout pipeline, 2017 looks to be an even bigger year for OUI and the Oxford tech cluster.”

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