By Babita Devi, Innovation Director at The EpiCentre, Haverhill
Collaboration between the public and private sector across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc formed part of a recent debate between leading universities at the Innovation & Investment event at The EpiCentre in Haverhill.
The counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Cambridgeshire account for 7% of England’s economic output and this is set to grow to £235 billion by 2030. Home to some of the UK’s most innovative life science and technology companies, the potential to further strengthen innovation and output across the region is critical to support the UK’s ambition to become a ‘science superpower’.
The debate highlighted the cultural shift that is starting to take place between industry and academia. The role of universities in supporting commercialisation of IP and helping to create an environment to advance opportunities through entrepreneurship, is a welcome change and is fast becoming a critical part of the eco-system of innovation in the life-sciences and technology sectors across the Arc.
Further strengthened by the collaboration between public and private sectors, we are realising the full potential of universities partnering with industry. Oxford University and AstraZeneca jointly rolled out a vaccine benefiting three billion people. A decision to commercialise IP out of university, by working with an industry partner, demonstrated that what previously would have taken nine years, could be achieved in as little as nine months.
The vision of Cambridge University to contribute to society is supported with its research programmes, but to impact at scale it is necessary to partner with industry. The infrastructure that is needed to support innovation is based on every part of the eco-system being closely aligned. This includes uncovering IP that can be commercialised, building the right teams, partnerships, working out if there is a viable market and access to capital. Parts of the Arc such as Cambridge have firmly established investment grids, underpinned with a range of Angels, Advisors and Accelerators with an increasing gap for scale-up capital. Conversely, Oxford has a greater need for early-stage seed investment – needed to accelerate growth of companies that are still in their infancy.
However, one of the big shifts is in academia is the increasing number of students wanting to make a difference to the world. This has led to a growing number of student societies that are interested in venture capital. But capital is only one part of the formula, we need to start strengthening the ecosystems for entrepreneurship – to bring forth industry knowledge and resources into university by providing role models for upcoming entrepreneurs. And following on from university, a prerequisite is access to support and services to help fast-track learnings, intel and experiencing the benefit of being part of a collective of like-minded individuals.
This ethos underpins Oxford Innovation’s (OI) network of centres around the UK. Working with industry, academia and private landlords, OI provide a ready and affordable supply of appropriate space, ranging from offices to laboratories. In the UK, we are seeing a significant shortage in lab space. This is especially acute around Cambridge. In a survey just published by property consultants Savills the split between office and laboratory availability is 10% for the former and zero for the latter.
This has led Oxford Innovation and developer Jaynic to expand the amount of laboratory space available at the EpiCentre. It currently has 1,464 sq ft of occupied laboratory space and it is doubling up on that with the whole of the ground floor of The EpiCentre becoming a life science hub. And the laboratories are being assigned before completion, with two of the five dedicated labs already reserved.
The popularity of The EpiCentre demonstrates very clearly that the Cambridge phenomenon is spreading out into the hinterland of East Anglia as biotech and life science companies take advantage of the more cost-effective space available outside the M11 corridor but still within the orbit of the Arc.
The benefits include lower space rentals but also affordable housing as well as being free of the traffic congestion that is creating a challenge for the local authority planners in city centres. But an essential part of what OI offers, setting it apart from others, is a flexible facility with business support specifically designed to engineer and help early stage and scale-up businesses.
Hence, whilst we are starting to see some progress towards infrastructure and services, there is still much to be done. The UK doesn’t have a ‘moonshot culture as we see time and again in other parts of the world – especially the US. ‘We are conservative, and we talk ourselves out of doing the impossible’ as recently highlighted by one of the leading professors from Oxford University. We need to build resilience and greater self-belief. And most importantly, we need to find a way to share more than just capital with our rising stars. They need expertise, knowledge, and the benefit of experience.