Dem bones, dem bones, dem very profitable bones

Queen Mary rewarded for hard graft with sale of medical spin-off company. Hannah Fearn reports

June 10, 2010

A university stands to profit handsomely from the sale of one of the UK's most successful ever spin-off companies to a global healthcare giant.

Biotech firm ApaTech manufactures synthetic bone, based on a discovery by researchers at Queen Mary, University of London. It has been sold by the university to the international medical firm Baxter International for $330 million (£217 million).

Queen Mary's equity share in the company will result in a £10 million payment upfront, with additional payments of £5 million expected over each of the next three years.

ApaTech was formed at Queen Mary's Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials in 2001, with an initial injection of £3 million from investment company 3i.

By 2009, the spin-off had generated sales of $60 million and its lead product, Actifuse, a synthetic bone graft, was being widely used by surgeons in both Europe and the US.

Caroline Quest, managing director of Queen Mary Innovation, the university's technology transfer office, attributed the company's success, and the financial return for the university, to a combination of excellent science and skilled management.

But she warned that other universities looking to follow in Queen Mary's footsteps would find it difficult to generate such a large income from a new company today. In the current financial climate, the necessary early investment would be difficult to secure, she said.

"It's a hard act to follow and I think it is harder today," Ms Quest said.

"These days you're lucky if you can get half a million pounds in the first round of investment. (Investment firms) top up funding later when they have got enough confidence in the business. ApaTech was very fortunate in that it was able to secure such a large amount of funding early on."

She added that 3i's expertise had also been instrumental in ApaTech's success. "The company had excellent commercial input right from the off," she explained.

Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, said that the university's role in developing ApaTech offered "an outstanding example of the translation of fundamental research of the highest quality into an eminently worthwhile and commercially successful application".

But Ms Quest stressed that the success of spin-off companies should not be judged only by the financial return to a university.

"It is perfectly legitimate to spin out companies that are never going to be sold," she said. "Companies outside science are often social enterprises that are not all about money - they have other, social objectives as well."

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