How can universities increase diversity in spin-out founders?

Ensuring that all talented researchers can participate in spin-out leadership is core to translating world-leading discoveries into innovative and impactful businesses, writes Simonetta Manfredi in her response to the UK spin-outs review

Simonetta Manfredi 's avatar
Oxford Brookes University
11 Dec 2023
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The independent review of university spin-outs has reported its findings and recommendations to the UK government. Much post-review discussion so far has focused on recommendations about equity deals and processes. Not much has been said about diversity issues, highlighted by the review, such as that:

  • universities need to support women academic founders in their spin-out journeys
  • investors can play a role “in encouraging more diverse founding teams”
  • the movement of academics between academia and entrepreneurship needs to be facilitated by giving them time to commercialise their research and ensuring that creating a spin-out does not pose a risk to their academic careers
  • more data and transparency on spin-outs is needed through the creation of a national register of spin-outs.

So, what can be done in practice to create an ecosystem that supports spin-outs?

Supporting women in their spin-out journey

The review references some of the findings from our research about the spin-out journey from a gender perspective. The insights gained from this work have informed a set of free resources for universities to use, ranging from a video bank where women founders share their experiences to a framework for speed mentoring to connect researchers with women founders, as well as guidelines and training materials for institutions to develop gender-inclusive academic entrepreneurship.

Joining forces with women investors can also help in disrupting the gender investment gap, because women investors are more likely to invest in women founders.

Time and risk

The review’s findings highlight that many academics working on commercialisation of research reported having to undertake these activities “in addition to their main contractual obligations, often in the evening or weekends”. The review suggests that “this can impact certain demographic groups more than others, with implications for diversity of founders”.

These issues align with our research findings from interviews with women and men spin-out founders and from focus groups with early-career researchers (ECRs). In our work, ECRs included PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and research fellows interested in commercialisation of research. Some, however, felt unable to engage with it because, as one woman ECR said:Too busy – teaching, conferences, writing papers, kids/home life. Pressure to get grants, student expectations, performance metrics.

We also found that an issue linked to time is perceived risk. There was a concern that pursuing commercialisation of research could jeopardise the chances of a traditional academic career. As a woman ECR put it: “[If] you’re devoted full time to a spin-out, you’re not writing papers, you’re not going up the academic ladder...you haven’t been getting the publications and things to build up your academic career, so you end up in a nowhere land.”

To address these issues, the review recommends that the government should improve the provision of funds to enable movement or porosity between academia and industry, including funds to “buy out” academic time. This is an important recommendation. However, government funds alone will not resolve those problems unless there is a change of culture at an institutional level.

It is quite telling that many academics said that they had to undertake commercialisation of research activities on top of their main work obligations. This implies that commercialisation of research is not seen as an integral part of an academic contract. It is probably time that we reviewed academic contracts to include these activities, which are becoming more prominent and important from a research impact perspective.

This is not to say that every academic has to engage with commercialisation of research, but to recognise that the academic mission is evolving and to bring about parity of esteem among different aspects of academic work. What needs to change is well summarised by this comment by a woman founder: A lot more people would do this [creating a spin-out] if it was better recognised in promotions.

Greater porosity between academia and spin-outs

The review recommends that there should be greater porosity between academia and spin-outs, which can have important implications for ECRs. This group has been defined as “primary entrepreneurial agents”, often working in collaboration with established academics who otherwise would not have the time to create a spin-out. This is also evidenced by a higher proportion of young spin-out founders: 5.86 per cent aged 20 to 29 (compared with 4.58 per cent of founders of high-growth companies overall).

Some of these founders are likely to work full time in the spin-out, but what if the business does not succeed? The review recommends the establishment, with government funds, of an “academic returner” fellowship for researchers wishing to return to academia from the private sector. This would facilitate the return of academics who have left academia to work full time in spin-outs.

Open data about spin-outs

The review calls for the establishment of a national register of spin-outs. There is comprehensive data about spin-outs on the Beauhurst platform, but it is behind a paywall. Open-access data about spin-outs is essential to monitor progress to achieve greater diversity of founders, as I advocated in a blog post published by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

To conclude, increasing diversity of founders and ensuring that all talented researchers can access resources and opportunities to participate in spin-out leadership is core to unlocking further capacity in the sector to translate world-leading research into innovative and impactful businesses. This requires cultural change to remove the structural barriers discussed above. Universities also need to work closely with policymakers and investors as well as other key stakeholders to achieve more inclusive academic entrepreneurship. 

Simonetta Manfredi is a professor of equality and diversity management, and director of research innovation and entrepreneurship at Oxford Brookes University.

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