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New enterprise plan at UCL aims for 500 new companies

University College London has set out a five year strategy to hone its commercial edge and become a global leader in enterprise and innovation

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University College London is launching a five-year campaign to boost the role of enterprise at the university.

The ambitious aims include doubling income from licensing, sponsored research and other key commercial activities; creating 500 new enterprises on- and off-campus; offering courses in entrepreneurship to all students and training for staff; and providing sabbatical leave for academics involved in innovation.

“Being enterprising and having a broad portfolio of enterprise activities is central to the core mission of a university. And a core mission of the university is social good, through education, scholarship and relationships with the outside world,” Steve Caddick, professor of chemistry and UCL’s Vice-Provost (Enterprise) told Science|Business.

There is clearly a pragmatic component to this as well. UCL believes it has a responsibility to help the UK and the UK economy. Universities have always been widely seen as central to the vitality of an economy, but “sometimes not as widely appreciated,” says Caddick. “They are now being seen as engines of growth, but I think we should also be seen as a springboard for growth.”

With almost every student wanting to find gainful employment at the end of their course, Caddick reckons the enterprise agenda is important for employability – including for making informed career decisions and potentially for setting up companies. UCL will also consider financial help for students looking to set up new businesses.

“Not all of the 24,000 students at UCL will be interested in this. But this will be about helping inform them of the breadth of opportunity available to them when they leave the university, and potentially during their time as university students,” says Caddick.

The new plan

UCL has for the past five years been gradually stepping up its support for enterprise and industry engagement and is widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s best universities for such activities. In the 2009/10 academic year, it generated more than £10 million in research sponsorship from UK industry. Its technology transfer company UCL Business earned more than £4 million in licensing income. The university co-funded more than 100 PhD studentships with industry, and currently has 34 active spin-out companies based on UCL intellectual property and in which the university holds shares. UCL also has an excellent record of supporting student businesses.

The new plan aims, “To establish UCL as a global leader in enterprise and innovation for the societal and economic benefit of UCL and the UK.” To get there, action in five main areas is planned:

1.    Internal support for enterprise at UCL. This includes creation of a new group of business liaison staff to be a central port of call for industry and other external parties. This will build and expand on the successful work carried out by UCL’s enterprise units, UCL Advances (UCL’s Centre for Entrepreneurship), UCL Business (for technology transfer) and UCL Consultants, which will each continue to grow, to support the ambitious plans for expansion in their respective activities.

2.    Supporting university entrepreneurs. UCL aims to have 250 academic staff participating in enterprise-related training by the 2014/15 academic year. It will stimulate the creation of a £5 million investment fund to support student businesses, and an enterprise sabbatical fund for academic staff to take time out to develop business activities. And it plans to create investment funds of £50 million – a tenth of that for proof-of-concept funding – to get those businesses started.

3.    Embed enterprise across all academic areas.  The university will identify and promote case studies of enterprise in every department, develop individual staff as ‘champions’ for enterprise in their field, and seek government support for funding social enterprises.

4.    Collaborate with external social and commercial enterprises.  A single brand and Web portal for industry, along with a new cross-school business liaison group is to make contact with UCL for industry easier.  UCL will aim to double its industrially sponsored research, and double its executive and continuing professional education.

5.    Maximise social impact of UCL. New communications activities are to raise UCL’s profile in enterprise. An ‘Alumni for Enterprise’ network will reach out for help from the university’s graduates now in industry. New partnerships – including with other universities – will be encouraged.

Sabbatical leave

Some of the specific steps planned are not common in European universities –sabbaticals for enterprise, for instance. As a working academic himself, Caddick is conscious of the demands that academics have on their time. “Academics are unbelievably busy,” he says. “Creating a social enterprise, collaborating extensively with industry, spending some time out in industry or having people come in from industry and hosting them – all of those activities need time.”

So the new plan is going to provide for sabbatical leave, typically of a year, to allow academics to develop an enterprise activity. Caddick expects that the leave will be financed partly through the UK’s Higher Education Innovation Fund and partly from resources such as profit made from UCL Business, the university’s technology transfer arm.

Academics will be encouraged to build this leave into their business plans, for example. “It might sound trivial, but it really isn’t,” says Caddick. “If you talk to a student about setting up a business at the end of their degree, you’ve got a good chance that you’re going to get 100 per cent of their attention. Getting 100 per cent of an academic’s attention with the conflicting demands on their time is very difficult.”

In turn, the plan for sabbatical leave will require thinking several years ahead, and Caddick is realistic about this. “If I asked someone now whether they wanted to have a sabbatical next year, for most people it would be very difficult because teaching schedules are already in place: people have already made prior commitments,” he acknowledges.

Another key plank of the strategy sounds equally simple: a single point of entry for businesses to work with UCL. “What people [from outside the university] are really looking for in the end is an email or a phone number that they can make contact and say, I need ‘X’, and what they need is the certainty that they will get a positive and quick response.”

Champions for innovation

The creation of “champions” for knowledge transfer and enterprise is another feature of the enterprise plan that Caddick highlights. “We created seven of those last year, and we are delighted that in the pilot we could identify a diverse collection of champions from a range of subjects from Scandinavian Studies through to Surgery.”

Each champion has his or her own specific area of activity. One is developing a proof-of-concept fund for the treatment of eye disease, through the Institute of Ophthalmology. Another, based in the Faculty of Engineering, is a champion for social enterprise. And while one is focused on enhancing industrial interactions, a further champion is looking at publishing and how UCL can use its expertise in language, culture and translation for business development.

Making it easy

UCL’s ambition is to become the easiest university to work with for external organisations. Caddick says that is all part and parcel of the university’s commitment to ensuring that UK companies (in particular, but not exclusively) have access to the depth and breadth of intellectual capital that exists in UCL.

“That’s not a financial driver,” says Caddick, “But there will be financial implications to it which we hope will be positive. The most important thing is that we work in partnership with businesses to help them be globally competitive.”

There are hard targets – Caddick pointed to the aim of creating 500 new enterprises within five years – but he is also clearly saying that not all of university activity should be related to short-term economic benefit. “If the message people hear ends up about money, they miss the point,” he says.

UCL’s new enterprise executive: Starting his own start-up

Peter Wrobel

UCL Vice-Provost (Enterprise) Steve Caddick doesn’t just talk the innovation talk; he’s walking it as well. The chemistry professor – he still has an active research group and teaching schedule – remains a prolific publisher of peer-review papers and is committed to undergraduate teaching in chemistry. He also chairs an investment seed fund, and has just set up, with co-inventors James Baker and Mark Smith, a biologicals company called Thiologics.

“It’s very early-phase – we have a series of patent applications that we’ve put in and we have some smart ways of modifying protein-based biomolecules for making antibody drug conjugates, protein therapeutics and diagnostics.” He smiles, “Like all inventors, I think it’s going to be incredibly successful.”

With the support of UCL Business, the company is now putting its business plan together. “We’ve got a unique set of skills and things that are going incredibly well. But actually the discoveries that we’re making are so big in their own right that we just need to scope that all out.”

British start-ups are sometimes criticised for lack of ambition. That’s one label that would be hard to pin on Thiologics. “We’d really like to create a totally new way of making antibody drug conjugates. We think we know how to do that really, really well,” he says.

In his own enterprise Caddick also stresses partnership and societal impact. “What we’re really looking for is partners who are committed to product development and long-term patient benefit – organisations and collaborators who can help us take the technology and then apply it to a clinical setting and are committed to the long-term development of a therapeutic.”

As in UCL’s overall plan for enterprise, money clearly matters but the unspoken message is: get the basics right, and the money – be it investment or profit – will follow.

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