For the Love of Spin Outs

With the increasing presence in our lives of robotics, artificial intelligence, genomics and a host of new technologies changing the way we fight diseases, send satellites to space and find new energy sources, a tidal wave of change is at our front door.

We can endeavour to boost the UK’s competitiveness and productivity by commercialising these key technological advances, many which are being developed in the world-class research coming out of the UK’s universities and research facilities. Research Councils invest around £3 billion annually in research, skills, leadership and infrastructure that creates new knowledge.

A robust ecosystem is required to help companies at every stage of their growth, giving them access to capital, facilities, talent and connections.

Whilst there is a clear UK priority to ensure a ‘scaling-up’ of companies so they have a beneficial impact on the overall economy, at UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund we see ourselves as part of the seedcorn that enables great ideas to emerge from the publicly-financed research base.

Our catchment area includes the National Research and Innovation Campuses (plus Porton Down) from which UKI2S can build its pipeline. One of the conditions required for longer-term productivity improvement is the need to nurture and grow start-up technology ventures which have the potential to become leaders in their field and generate skills, jobs and exports.

From this research base, over the last 12 years or so, UKI2S has identified ventures to be backed with patient risk equity capital by working closely with our core partners (STFC, BBSRC, NERC, DSTL), with BEIS and with many other public sector science research organisations. We validate, invest and mentor ventures.

Usually UKI2S is the very first investor, when the perceived risk is too high for others:  most of the 35 companies funded by UKI2S would not have emerged from the laboratory without our earliest-stage support. That justifies public funds and involvement. As the companies grow, UKI2S continues to play a vital role in assisting with raising later-stage private sector funding. To date UKI2S has helped to lever in nearly £20 of private investment for every £1 we have invested.

In a showcase of how the UK can collaborate to bridge the gap between great science and successful enterprise, UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund and Innovate UK’s Catapult Network last week welcomed a wide range of UK innovators, researchers and investors to discuss some of the opportunities in their fields. The Catapult centres are a network of world-leading centres designed to transform the UK’s capability for innovation in specific areas and help drive future economic growth. UKI2S’ investment approach makes us an ideal partner.

For example, the Satellite Applications Catapult is home to UKI2S portfolio company Oxford Space Systems (OSS). Voted best “UK Technology Start-Up” in 2015, OSS secured £1.2m investment to commercialise a new generation of deployable structures, such as mass- and volume-efficient antennas, solar panels and booms, to the space industry. The company recently set a space industry record by going from product concept to orbit in under 30 months. Revenue generating since inception in late 2013, OSS is selling to European and Asian satellite manufactures and exploring opportunities with US defence contractors.

One of last week’s presenters, Hugh Mortimer, is a senior research scientist at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, leading a research group that specialises in the development of remote sensing instrumentation for space based Earth Observation applications. This research is motivated by the need to provide high accuracy spectroscopic instrumentation that are highly miniaturised and stable in hostile environments, where this is in space or in an industrial factory. UKI2S was an early investor in a spinout, Keit Spectrometers, which is developing a new generation of kit for industry that is compact, lightweight and robust to monitor industrial processes in real time. Having secured £1.4m in funding to take its patented technology forward towards full commercialisation, Keit is an excellent example of how innovation derived from the UK’s space research can create growth and economic benefit through enterprise.

There is huge potential for the Catapult-UKI2S collaboration and we look forward to capturing, investing and commercialising ideas with emerge.

Ian Taylor