Universities take their own inventions to market

When the creators of Liftupp presented a research paper on their new system for developing and assessing dental students to a meeting of United Kingdom-wide heads of schools in 2011, they received a standing ovation and immediate requests from two universities to buy it.

“We’d never even thought that other universities might be interested, let alone that within a few years most UK dental schools and other medical and healthcare departments would have bought our system,” says Dr Ben Mason, Liftupp’s technical director. Intended as a research project to improve teaching within one department, that enthusiastic response sowed the seed for a University of Liverpool spin-out.

Liftupp allows tutors to give brief but frequent feedback to students on clinical placements using iPads which link back to a sophisticated database. Students who have used the system report that they appreciate the amount and type of feedback they receive from tutors. This has had a very positive impact on student satisfaction reflected in NSS scores, the UK’s National Student Survey which is conducted annually.

As well as investing in the new company, the University of Liverpool’s Business Gateway team provided business advice and introduced additional investors.

Liftupp’s links with the university remain strong. The company has employed seven University of Liverpool graduates and provides additional work placements for computer science students.

According to Mason, it's useful to have actual students and recent graduates developing the products with their current experience of taking a course, and they also bring a wealth of knowledge about the latest technology which enhances the service. Liftupp has also helped to place Liverpool at the forefront of educational research on using clinical portfolio data, working with a global community of practice.

Mason, who had been a lecturer and quality assurance lead at Liverpool University, says: “Leaving university employment to run a spin-out was both scary and exciting”. He knew that he was leaving the security of a permanent job with a good pension but felt so passionate about what he had created with the Liftupp team that he didn’t want to hand it over to others.

“I had a lottery ticket where I could affect the numbers,” he said. “Forming a company and sourcing investment provided the freedom Liftupp needed.”

His company has gone on to develop a range of assessment tools for medical students.

It’s just over 10 years since Gordon Brown, then the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, announced that universities would have to earn their crust by starting their own businesses based around their inventions and discoveries. Academics were not too impressed then but a decade later there are well over 2,000 university spin-outs in the UK, according to Spinouts UK, which together generated an annual income of more than £1 billion (US$1.2 billion) in 2015-16.

Many of the early-generation spin-outs have now joined the stock market, such as Circassia, the allergy drugs specialist which is a spin-out from from Imperial College London, and Applied Graphene Materials, a Durham University spin-out with research links to the University of Manchester.

Academic founders often have substantial stakes in the spin-outs – such as Professor Karl Coleman who holds 10% of Applied Graphene Materials.

Spin-outs can be highly advantageous for their universities too.

“There are two ways that Oxford University benefits financially from our company,” says Jason King, CEO of Oxford Biotrans which is developing a grapefruit essence from oranges for enhancing drinks, food and perfume.

“First, the university is a shareholder and second, the company actually licenses technology from the university.”

He explained that Oxford Biotrans part-funds a PhD student and the whole enterprise further raises the profile of the university’s activities. “Our chair also works with other universities developing spin-outs,” said King, so widening sector impact.

Strong pipeline

King points to the strong pipeline of spin-outs from the University of Oxford and the encouragement this can provide to the university sector as a whole. Oxford University Innovation or OUI, which supports the university’s spin-outs, launched 24 companies in 2016 with a combined £52.6 million (US$65 million) in early stage funding, setting a new record in spin-out generation for the UK and Europe.

The diverse nature of companies the OUI has supported is impressive, including aeronautical, wireless energy transfer, regenerative medicine, big data, and virtual reality spin-outs. Many take advantage of the access to investors that organisations like the OUI can provide, and some seek alternative sources of funding as well, such as Cycle.land which reported raising more than £400,000 in equity crowdfunding.

Cycle.land’s service provides an immediate benefit for university life. Described as an "Airbnb for bicycles", Cycle.land offers an app and platform for cyclists to share their bikes for as little as £1 per day. CEO and co-founder Agne Milukaite said: “We make it easy for students in Oxford to get around on bikes. They can just get on with their studies without having to worry about transport.”

Milukaite said that the start-up cluster around OUI is extremely valuable for budding entrepreneurs who actively support one another. “Working for a start-up is a great preparation for your own venture, so a virtuous circle develops around a cluster of start-ups,” she said.

Prior to launching Cycle.land, social scientist Milukaite worked for a Canadian home robotics company in Berkeley, California. “I enjoy bringing people together. Bikes are perfect to connect people: practical, environmentally friendly, affordable, and an empowering solution to get around.”

Her inspiration came from looking around and seeing only car companies disrupting the way people move about. “I believe that as a society we are in trouble if innovation solely focuses on cars, not just in terms of the environmental impact but also social interaction.”

University spin-outs are a growing phenomenon and provide a hugely diverse range of innovative products and services which create jobs for academics and the wider community as well as revenue and research opportunities for universities. Their founders can pursue their passions and be pioneers in their field. For Ben Mason, the motivation was to try “improve and enhance” the training of medical students, to make them better clinicians. “I don’t want to let that go,” he said.

Lucy Haire is head of development at LiftUpp, a university spin-out which specialises in medical education software. She has previously developed thought leadership partnerships at The Guardian.