Graham Lawton talks to the scientists who have founded companies and turned their research into gold
The first spin-off company in Oxford University's 800-year history was formed in 1988 by biochemist Raymond Dwek.
Professor Dwek was a man with a mission. He had developed a technology for rapidly sequencing oligosaccharides, short chains of sugar molecules that attach to proteins.
Oligosaccharide sequencing used to be laborious work. It could take years to complete. Dwek's new system could complete the task in days and he wanted to make the technology available to the world.
"I realised that by getting the technology out there, the science would go faster," he says. He founded Oxford Glycosystems, now called Oxford Glycosciences (OGS), to build machines that could read sugar sequences.
OGS was charged with developing new technologies and bringing them back to the university.
"In a nutshell," he says "we generated a company to develop a technology to give back to academia. It is the only such deal which is fed round in a complete loop."
OGS was started as an example to others, not for personal gain.
"It was important to make an example, a company with a clear mission statement and with products you can touch, and to safeguard the good name of the university above all."
The exemplar seems to have worked. Isis did not exist when OGS was formed. "Lots of people had mis-givings," says Professor Dwek. "They didn't understand the ideal, that this was the best way of creating the technology."
The university, though, proved to be flexible and began to recognise the need to market its intellectual property. Isis soon followed.
As something of a pioneer, Professor Dwek has strong views about the benefits of company formation. "If we are to succeed, Isis must have executive power. It must have people to scour the university for intellectual property and other people to write up business plans. Only then can the university capitalise in the way Harvard and CalTech have." He points out that there only a handful of people at Oxford have formed companies. "There are maybe three of us," he says. "Why are there not 300?" He says that he is impressed with the efforts of other universities. He picks out Southampton and Salford for particular praise.
"We're not backward here," he says. "The UK may become the second largest biotechnology country in the world."
Professor Dwek's mission is now accomplished. His technology helped to turn the study of glycoproteins into one of the most exciting areas in the biological sciences.
Oligosaccharide sequencing has taken its place alongside DNA and protein sequencing as a fundamental tool of molecular biology.
OGS has also accomplished a mission. It has now become a pharmaceuticals company in its own right, developing products based on the oligosaccharide boom it helped to create.