Susan Searle brought a Midas touch to Imperial College, where she helped build an operation that turns ideas into gold. What is the secret of her success, asks Caroline Davis.
At one time, Susan Searle made her living selling precious metals to industry; now she turns ideas into commercial gold. Searle is largely responsible for the work that has helped Imperial College, London, one of the nation's leading research institutions, develop Imperial Innovations, one of the UK's most successful technology-transfer operations.
Imperial Innovations has a portfolio of 50 spin-off companies worth an estimated £400 million, and it files almost one patent a month. The college also holds the only University Challenge Fund devoted to a single institution. Much of this success is down to Searle's vision and confidence.
Since 1997, Imperial's technology-transfer activity has grown nimbly, catching up with its strongest rivals, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and perhaps even surpassing them. Oxford first set up a technology-transfer office in 1988. It has since spun off 40 companies, creating a new one every two months and filing about one patent a week. It estimates its portfolio's total worth at £2 billion.
Cambridge's official technology-transfer activity got started only in 2000.
Before then, it did not offer formal support to academics wanting to exploit their research, which makes it difficult to calculate the full extent of its activity.
Searle, who is managing director of Imperial Innovations, is down to earth and full of energy. Her thoughts tumble out in quick succession - before the end of our interview, her mouth is dry but she still carries on talking, albeit at a marginally slower speed.
"I'm fascinated by science-based opportunities," Searle says. "Mentally, it's very challenging to look at the opportunity, to find a way forward, to create value out of it. And it's hugely rewarding to see somebody's idea, created on the bench, translated into a commercial reality."
Searle's background, which spans science and industry, makes her ideal for her job, even though she did not set out to become one of the UK's leading tech-transfer specialists. With a chemistry degree from Oxford, she began a graduate traineeship at Shell Chemicals and spent three years in product development, marketing and manufacturing - "polystyrene, polypropelene, polymers and plastics" she reels off.
Then she moved into investment banking at the Bank of Nova Scotia. From there she was headhunted to start a new business in the UK that sold precious metals to industry. She ended up forming a whole European arm of the business using her contacts from the bank.
In 1990, she quit to follow her accountant husband, now finance director of the successful Imperial spin-off TurboGenset, to Australia, where she took a job at Monash University developing technology-transfer activities. She helped create a science precinct around the university and fostered several science incubators.
After a year in Australia, Searle returned to London, where she saw that the UK was well behind in technology transfer. Monash had ten technology-transfer staff, a business park, well-established activity and a venture-capital fund backed by a number of Australian banks, while Imperial had just two tech-transfer staff. She approached Imperial but was told it had no plans to recruit or to expand its entrepreneurial activities.
Then, in 1994, David Thomas, Imperial's pro rector rang her. "He said, 'Susan, remember that conversation we had three years ago? Well we're now ready to recruit people. And you're just the sort of person we're looking for. Will you join our science and engineering project?' And of course I said 'yes'."
This, Searle says, was the point at which the college recognised the importance of commercial activity. It set up a limited company to deal with it and gave it space and a budget to develop. Early activities revolved around software licensing and instrumentation deals. But Searle and a colleague also worked on proposals for a biotechnology initiative, an incubator platform and a University Challenge Seed Fund.
The efforts paid off, and in 1997 the fortunes of Imperial Innovations blossomed. In the previous 11 years, Imperial had created four spin-offs, raised £34 million in finance and realised no equity. Over the next four years, it increased the number of spin-offs to 49, raised £134 million in finance and made about £20 million from equity.
The change was eased by an ever softening approach to commercialisation by college leaders - Ron Oxburgh was rector and Bill Wakeham deputy rector at the time - and a culture change throughout the college.
"During the early part of the growth of the company, we put a lot of effort into technology assessment," Searle recalls. "We had a programme of sending people out into the university, looking at what people were doing, identifying opportunities. At the same time, the university itself was sending a very strong message saying we encourage entrepreneurship."
That message is perhaps even stronger now with Richard Sykes, former chairman of pharmaceuticals giant Glaxo, as rector and Tidu Maini, former vice-president of systems firm SchlumbergerSema, as deputy.
Last year, Searle sold a stake in the college's innovation portfolio companies to a couple of investment houses to demonstrate that the spin-offs had value.
Imperial Innovations is one of the few university technology-transfer offices in the UK, or even the US, that turns a profit. Most of those in profit have probably generated one big winner - Columbia University's technology-transfer operation gets half of its annual £91 million licensing income from a single deal.
Much of Imperial's success is due to the institution's integrated enterprise agenda, which has been strengthened by the close relationship between Searle and Sue Birley, director of the entrepreneurship centre at Imperial's management school. University business schools and enterprise offices rarely exploit each other's talents, but Imperial now runs enterprise courses for its academics, and all engineering and physics undergraduates have to study enterprise modules.
Birley, who sits on the board of Imperial Innovations, lists the qualities that make Searle successful: "Imaginative, incredibly determined, focused, doesn't understand the word 'no', excellent strategic thinker yet good at operational detail. She's not so good at delegating, but she knows that."
Those qualities have been especially needed at Imperial. Oxford and Cambridge have always been surrounded by business angels seeking good ideas to support, but Searle has had to create an investor network around Imperial. Oxford and Cambridge also have the luxury of local science parks, but Imperial is landlocked. Unless Kensington Council sells off the Royal Albert Hall or a chunk of Hyde Park, there seems little prospect of Imperial's having one close to campus.
Such constraints make a flexible approach vital. Searle believes the age of frenetic spin-off activity has passed and that the route to tech-transfer glory lies elsewhere. Imperial Innovations has scaled back the number of companies it spins off and is now looking to balance its portfolio with licensing deals.
The cause for the shift is not a paucity of ideas from the college. It is just that a couple of years ago it was easier to find external research and development investment for a spin-off company than it was to persuade industry to fund the research within the university. The tumbling stock market and crumbling confidence in knowledge-based start-ups has forced an abrupt change of tack.
So far, Imperial has floated just one company on the stock exchange. This took eight years, exiting in 2000. Because of the downturn, Searle thinks other floats will take much longer. She now expects to incubate companies for longer, to nurse them until they are farther down the line and have a commercial manager, a board structure, a well-developed business plan and a clear route to market mapped out.
Since becoming managing director in 2001, Searle no longer works directly with spin-offs. Her role is more outward facing, talking to college management and working to extend partnerships. For example, Imperial Innovations has developed a close relationship with Exploit Technologies - the technology-transfer arm of the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Imperial shares its expertise with the Singaporeans in return for access to East Asian markets.
Searle and Imperial have built up an impressive record in technology transfer and have a clear idea of the future for Innovations. Why, then, did the government choose Cambridge for a flagship enterprise project, the £68 million joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
This is the only question that causes Searle to hesitate before speaking.
Eventually, she says: "I have to be careful what I say here. I think to an external party it was a very strange decision to make. I think there's a lot of similarity between MIT and Imperial College's activity, certainly research base and culture.
"I think it was a decision made at the top level by the government because they looked at the activities in the US and felt that in the UK we needed some help developing the activities here," Searle says. "They looked at Cambridge, which in tech-transfer terms was largely undeveloped, and put the two together."
Perhaps she means that Imperial's technology transfer was just too good.