Amid a general narrative of decline afflicting British institutions and their place in the world, our universities continue to retain their global standing and prestige as true global centres of excellence. The University of Oxford topped the most recent global university rankings, with the University of Cambridge and UCL also taking spots in the top 10. The UK is second only the United States in being home to the most universities in the global top 25.
But beyond academic excellence, the UK’s universities are also important hotbeds of innovation and entrepreneurialism in the form of spinout companies – businesses built on the intellectual property generated through a university’s research which is then taken forward, developed and commercialised.
And the numbers tell a promising story for the future of UK plc.
The last ten years have seen a rapid rise in both the number and value of equity investments in university spinouts. According to data from Beahurst, the number of deals each year doubled from 212 to 414 between 2013 and 2022, while combined value saw a six-fold increase from £387m to £2.34bn. In total, £13.3bn of equity investment has been secured by university spinouts over the last decade.
And though it may be no surprise that Oxford and Cambridge lead the way in producing the greatest number of spinout companies, it is by no means an Oxbridge-only phenomenon. There are exciting and growing hubs of spinout activity right across the UK from Glasgow to Cardiff, the fastest growing of which are Manchester and Bristol. Dedicated investors including companies such as Northern Gritstone continue to deliver impressive work commercialising the innovations born in universities such as Manchester, Sheffield & Leeds.
But more recently there have been signs of potential dark clouds on the horizon. Figures for 2022 and 2023 showed the first consecutive period of decline in spinout investment in a decade – from £2.73bn in 2021 to £2.34bn the following year and £743m in the first half of 2023.
The government recently conducted a review of spinout companies to explore best practice from successful spinout ecosystems from around the world, from San Francisco to Boston. But a survey conducted by Spinout in June last year found growing discontent among research-based startups over the current landscape. Particular ire was directed towards the size of equity stakes taken by universities themselves in spinouts (more than double the average at EU-based institutions and four times the US figure) and the frequency with which universities impose representatives from their tech transfer office on spinout company boards.
While the government’s review made some positive recommendations for tackling some of the issues facing spinouts, as well as announcing £20m in funding for universities to “support the next generation of spinouts” in November last year, challenges remain.
For university spinout companies in the early stages of their commercial journeys, comms and PR can and should play in important role in a broader corporate strategy that seeks to navigate these challenges. With a wide range of audiences to reach – from investors (both existing and future) and commercial partners, to prospective employees – a well-crafted communications strategy can pay substantial dividends in amplifying a business’ credibility, growing its profile, and strengthening its reputation.
Get in touch if you’re interested in finding out more about how we could support your university spinout on its corporate journey.