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Research to Riches – new report highlights untapped potential in UK universities

11 Nov 2019
  • Queen’s University Belfast achieves first-place in new ranking that identifies the universities most effective at commercialising academic research
  • New ranking creates a framework for greater transparency, collaboration and improvement throughout the eco-system

Octopus Ventures, part of Octopus Group and one of the largest VCs in Europe, today releases a new in-depth study identifying the universities that are leading the way in creating and commercialising their academic research through spinout companies.

Queen’s University Belfast came first in the rankings after it was found to be the most effective in terms of its production of spinout companies, and successful exits, relative to the total funding received. Through QUBIS, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s, the university has had a number of notable successes such as Kainos, Andor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange. The University of Cambridge and Cardiff University are placed second and third respectively.

The findings are taken from Octopus Ventures’ inaugural Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking, produced in partnership with Ideas 2 Impact. The study measured UK universities’ effectiveness in terms of their production of intellectual property, creation of spinout companies, and successful exits from such spinout companies, relative to their total funding.

The universities that perform best in the rankings are those which create spinouts with high-value exits, and there is added weighting for universities that produce such exits from a smaller number of spinouts. In quantifying the impact of universities and their spinouts, the ranking intends to create a framework for greater transparency, collaboration and improvement throughout the ecosystem.

Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking – Top 10

1) Queen’s University Belfast 6) University of Dundee
2) University of Cambridge 7) University of Nottingham
3) Cardiff University 8) King’s College London
4) Queen Mary University of London 9) University of Oxford
5) University of Leeds 10) Imperial College London

The UK’s untapped potential

The UK ranks third globally with the numbers of PhDs it produces (behind the US and Germany)1, and third in the publication of academic papers (behind the US and China)2, and its leading research universities are on a par with their U.S counterparts in terms of quality research output3.

Notable UK spinout successes include University of Oxford’s Oxford Nanopore Technologies, focused on DNA sequencing, which raised £50 million at a £1.7 billion post-money valuation in 2018, and ARM Holdings, the smartphone chip designer founded by University of Cambridge researchers acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2016.

However, the success of leading U.S universities in commercialising academic research offers an indication as to the opportunity the UK is yet to truly capitalise on. Academic entrepreneurialism from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been the genesis for more than 26,000 companies, which in turn have created 3.3 million jobs with a combined annual turnover of $2 trillion. In nominal terms, that represents 65% of UK annual GDP from just one university4.

Surviving the Valley of Death

The report also identifies a correlation between access to early stage funding – for the development of proof-of-concepts and prototypes – and a spinout’s long-term survival. For academics, getting through the earliest stages of development is a major challenge, often referred to as ‘the Valley of Death’. Many of the universities that perform well in rankings are those which have raised funds specifically to help bridge this gap.

Areas for improvement

  • Improved corporate engagement in order to create greater awareness of the commercial value of academic research
  • Increased output of disclosures and patents
  • Better incentives and alignment for academics to engage in commercialisation
  • Increased availability and diversity of proof of concept and very early stage funding
  • Standardised and agreed upon valuation and ownership processes throughout eco-system
  • More collaboration between universities to capitalise upon different skills sets
  • More collaboration between investors at different stages of investment cycle to ensure scale up and exits
  • More collaboration between universities, investors and corporates to develop exits
  • More collaboration throughout eco-system to support talent development and availability
  • More collaboration throughout the eco-system to increase the availability of complex infrastructure and equipment required for deep tech

Simon King, Partner at Octopus Ventures, commented:

“The UK is home to some of the world’s leading research universities which have been responsible for a huge number of groundbreaking scientific achievements. We have also seen a series of technology companies emerge from these institutions to establish themselves on the global stage, but the opportunity is much greater, and we believe the UK has the potential to produce many more of these pioneering businesses.

“The truth is that building successful companies from academic research is hard. We see this particularly in the field of deep tech, operating in areas such quantum computing and robotics, where the path to successful commercialisation can be much longer. Yet by identifying examples of best practice and areas for improvement, this research offers a clear framework for the future success and ultimately for the UK to become a global leader in academic entrepreneurialism.”

Alisdair Jones, Founder of Ideas 2 Impact, added:

Having interviewed around 1,000 university leaders over the course of the past decade, I can count on one hand those which didn’t identify academic entrepreneurialism as an area their institution could improve upon. The UK’s research excellence is without question, but the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking allows us to better understand what is working, and what could be improved upon from a commercial perspective. As an entire eco-system this gives us an incredible opportunity to collaborate and forge a global leadership role in academic entrepreneurialism. This will be of huge value to the UK’s research communities and economy.”

Brian McCaul, CEO at QUBIS Ltd, added:

“It is a testament to the world-class research and ambitious companies that have emerged in recent years that Queen’s University Belfast, via QUBIS, has achieved first-place in this ranking. With a history of strong support for commercialisation from the University’s senior management, which has included early university cash investment, Queen’s is helping inspirational founders develop pioneering technology engendered at the university and make their mark in industry on the global stage.”


Notes to Editors:

3) Shanghai Ranking – Academic Ranking of World Universities 2019

4) Kauffman Foundation – Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT

Study findings


The ranking was compiled using the following data points aggregated since 2009:

  1. Total funding per university
  2. Total spinouts created per university
  3. Total disclosures per university
  4. Total patents per university
  5. Total sales from spinouts per university

Care was taken to introduce efficiency-based indicators so as not to favour larger universities with bigger research budgets.

This ranking of university innovation focuses entirely on the capacity of universities to produce quality, investor-ready spin-out companies that maximize the economic value of academic-led innovation. It is based solely on data sourced from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and includes no subjective or opinion-based measures. The ranking is not subject to radical movements year on year because it is based on aggregated data collected since 2009 and up until 2018.

This research has been carried out by Octopus Ventures in conjunction with Ideas 2 Impact, an innovation and fundraising consultancy.

About Ideas 2 Impact

Ideas 2 Impact helps organisations raise funds for research and commercialisation, as well as putting together pathfinder teams for the development of new spin-out companies. Its founder, Alisdair Jones, has worked with universities for over a decade both investing in early-stage, research-based companies, producing research on the UK’s early-stage ecosystem, as well as promoting the research portfolios of over 500 universities across 40 countries. (www.i2impact.org)

For journalists in their professional capacity only. Personal opinions may change and should not be seen as advice or a recommendation. We do not offer investment or tax advice. Issued by Octopus Investments. Octopus Ventures is part of Octopus Investments Limited, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered office: 33 Holborn, London, EC1N 2HT. Registered in England and Wales No. 03942880. Issued: November 2019.