Spotlight on University of Warwick

With three companies spun out each year for the last three years - including VirionHealth, a 2015 therapeutics venture that recently landed £13m in its first round of investment - the University of Warwick is an institution with an enviable record on innovation.  A further five companies launched in 2014, showing that this is no flash-in-the-pan phenomenon – and that is just counting spinout companies, not start-ups.  In order to find out what is behind this success story, Spinouts UK set out to see the systems in place at Warwick Innovations that are capitalising on the university’s IP. 

Warwick’s spinouts come from a variety of sectors, with around half originating in the chemistry, physics and engineering departments.  Life sciences and medical innovation makes up another quarter, with the remainder of companies focused on maths, computer science, and statistics.  Warwick Ventures own software incubator also contributes to the university’s innovation output, though generally in the form of start-ups rather than spinouts. 

When asked what makes Warwick Innovation’s approach different, Quentin Compton-Bishop, the group’s CEO, suggested that a long-term approach to the innovation value chain was key.  “Contrast it with the simple transactional route where you go in, get an innovation disclosure, apply some proof of concept money, file a patent, license and spin out.”  Instead Quentin and his team aim to invest in the academic, developing the early career researchers’ capacity to operate in the entrepreneurial sector.

This involves Warwick’s Innovation to Impact (i2i) programme where academics are placed in an entrepreneurial ‘boot camp’, develop a value proposition, and are sent out to speak to a number of companies to receive feedback on their product offering - with the aim of either validating or disproving certain market segments.  “[The] process is good whether it is a success or a failure in terms of a spinout, because the academic gets experience, gains confidence and builds a list of external, mainly industrial, contacts,” Quentin said. 

It is a system similar to SETsquared and Innovate UK’s Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) scheme – a programme from which Warwick did well.  The scheme is funded by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Quentin’s team jumped on the opportunity early - in late 2015 - and saw its first three spinouts each receive Innovate UK Aid for Start Ups grants worth £500,000.  “[This was] great for proof of concept development, much greater than the budgets we have internally,” Quentin noted, adding that Warwick i2i provides a qualified pipeline for the ICURe programme.

A second strategy behind Warwick Ventures’ operation is its willingness to invest significant staff time in making prospective spinout technologies investment-ready, with Warwick Ventures’ managers spending up to a third of their work time on an individual project.  Sometimes that deep understanding of a technology and its market results in staff leaving the team to join the company.  This has happened twice in the last two years and Quentin sees it as being both positive and negative.  While it requires him to replace the turnover of staff, the advantage is – besides the close relationship that it fosters – that Warwick Ventures is able to attract new staff with solid entrepreneurial experience on salaries reasonable to the academic sector.  “It gives them an opportunity to come in, share their expertise, but also after two, three, maybe five years to find a technology which is their ticket to the next stage of their career.  And that works for us.”

Where Warwick Ventures does not have its own expertise in a market or technology, it will hire a commercial consultant to develop the prospective spinout’s business plan.  Sometimes they end up joining the early management team once the company is set up. 

This was the case with Nigel Davis – formerly a contractor with Warwick Ventures, now CEO of Medherant.  “Having been involved in its gestation the whole way through, and with my experience and background, they said ‘why don’t you run it?’” he recalled.

Incorporated in 2014, the spinout produces novel drug-delivering patches for application through the skin, similar in appearance to a plaster or a nicotine patch.  With investment from Mercia VC group and a licensing agreement with adhesives manufacturer Bostik, Medherant is one of Warwick’s recent success stories. 

The company is based at the University of Warwick Science Park, and this proximity is an important relationship for the company.  Not only has Medherant recruited its technical team from the institution, but it has some staff conducting research in its labs as part of their university studies – a win for the company, the university, and the student involved.  “It gives us the advantage of having a pool of talent to recruit from but it also means that we are in touch with the cutting edge of polymer chemistry,” Nigel said.

Next on Warwick Ventures agenda is a move to capture academic potential at the university that is so far slipping through the net.  Potential future exists are present in the arts and social science fields which Quentin believes could be helped to generate greater economic and social impact through, projects such as surveys, databases, and software solutions.  “We know that we are not yet reaching a lot of our academics so we know that we are not realising the full potential of Warwick’s research – that is one of our challenges and a significant opportunity for the future,” he concluded. 

 

-  Robert Swift

 

Posted on Monday, 18 June 2018 under University news