Supporting Scientific Breakthroughs
Four part Q&A with Pete Wilder, Head of Property, Oxford Science Enterprises
1. What is Oxford Science Enterprises' mission, and how does your team support scientific breakthroughs?
When we were founded in 2015, then operating as Oxford Science Innovation, a critical part of our foundation was our partnership with the University of Oxford. We wanted to combine the best scientists and brightest business minds together, helping to solve the world’s biggest challenges at speed and to better commercialise ground-breaking research. We receive a stake in every company that spins out of the various science departments of the University, across everything from the computer sciences to engineering, and in return the University holds a stake in our business.
There is a huge pool of untapped potential within Oxford and our mission from the start has been to support Oxford’s academics to commercialise their scientific breakthroughs and grow the companies we believe are capable of making real contributions to the UK economy, and the world. Oxford is renowned for its world-leading science and academics, but has traditionally struggled to get the critical mass of entrepreneurs, investors and funding operating effectively together. Our organisation has enabled us to bring all that simultaneously together, and as a result we have helped increase investment in university spinouts from an average of £125m per year in 2011 to £600m in 2021, and helped provide and attract the funding these small research-based companies need to sustain their growth. At Oxford Science Enterprises we invest very early; from initial idea to seed stage and then continue to invest all the way through a company’s journey, to IPO and beyond.
2. Are there any enterprises that you've funded that have been world-changing in their approach to societal challenges?
Vaccitech is the obvious answer to this question. This is an enterprise that we have invested in since its inception, founding and creating the business in 2016 alongside Professors Sarah Gilbert and Adrian Hill. Vaccitech are now credited as co-inventors of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and it is their technology, created by Adrian Hill and Dame Sarah Gilbert, that underpins the vaccine. This has been a phenomenal journey to have witnessed and been a small part of over eighteen months, and it is amazing to see the impact it has had on the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We are still in the early stages, but very recently an electric-powered plane broke the world speed record for electric vehicles. In collaboration with Rolls-Royce this was powered by an innovative YASA engine, produced by one of our enterprises, and has real potential both for a British company with an innovative and highly versatile product on the global market, but also as a potentially scalable solution to the climate issues surrounding aviation. These are just two examples, but there are a host of enterprises across quantum computing, artificial intelligence, diagnostics, and fusion energy which are really inspiring and could have an extraordinary impact on the way we live.
3. Why is the Oxford-Cambridge Arc a unique region for scientific and technological collaboration?
Oxford and the Arc aren’t operating in a bubble, our scientists and academics are collaborating globally all the time. Both the University of Oxford and Harwell see regular collaboration with a global group of academics from hundreds of different universities working together. But we recognise that to actually build the ecosystem and create an Arc we need more than academics, we need places for companies to scale, for employees to live, infrastructure for them to commute easily, and the opportunity to send their children to decent schools.
The cost of living in Oxford is unsustainable to accommodate everyone who needs and wishes to live here, and companies are also now drawing their highly-skilled workforces across the middle of the Arc and adding to the jobs, training, and connectivity advantages of the Arc. Ultimately, the Arc and the wider Golden Triangle are excellent brands for international investors across the real estate sector but also in all sectors of this economic and research growth, representing excellent concentrated targets for FDI.
4. What are the opportunities and barriers to commercialising research in the Arc?
In some ways, the opportunities and challenges are one and the same: there is so much going on within the University it can be difficult to fully understand its output, and we need to be working with academics to better understand the scientific research coming out of the departments from these amazing and talented people. We also have to continue to strip away pointless bureaucracy and ensure everyone’s interests across academia, the private and public sector are aligned.
From a real estate perspective, I see space remaining a critical issue for companies – there’s still not enough commercial or residential space being delivered in a format that suits the needs of our companies. It’s not coming through frequently enough, or in the right specifications, and if our companies can’t find the right real estate fit they will obviously consider moving their businesses elsewhere.