How members of the University contribute to 'modern Oxford'

October 13, 2000

It's goodbye to Brideshead. Tim Cook is managing director of Isis Innovation, the university's technology transfer arm. Isis works closely with the research services office in the university to patent and license inventions and to set up companies to exploit technology.

Dr Cook was appointed in May 1997 and within five months had raised the Isis budget by a factor of eight, securing £300,000 a year for patenting and a £1 million fund for research.

This fund was increased to £4 million by the government-sponsored University Challenge initiative. "Our record is getting a patent through in just over seven hours," Dr Cook said.

In 1999, Oxford set up the Isis College Fund, making £10.7 million available to Oxford spin-offs in their second round of financing.

Between 1998 and 2000, Isis started 14 companies, worth £120 million, bringing equity of £12 million.

Before 1998, Oxford had spun off nine companies, worth £170 million. In all, Isis's nine project managers oversee 368 projects, filing about 50 patents a year, with 37 licensing arrangements currently under review.

"It is crucial to understand how Oxford's policy on intellectual property rights works," Dr Cook said. "Unlike Cambridge, the university owns the intellectual property rights on its academics' work, and while at first sight this might appear to be a deterrent, the policy works."

Academics receive 63 per cent of net royalties up to £72,000, and 31 per cent up to £720,000. The university gets the rest. Academics are not left to take out their own patents. On average these cost £30,000 over the first five years, and only one in ten will be successful. Academics are also protected from what Dr Cook calls "rapacious investors".

When a spin-off is established there is no risk to the university or to the academic as it is outside investors who put the money in. This year, Isis Innovation set up the Isis Angels Network, a company set up to introduce researchers keen to spin off their work to business.

The network has 18 angels signed up, with £19 million in funds, and 36 new applications.

n Graham Richards is chairman of chemistry and founder of Oxford Molecular.

Chemistry will benefit from the £30 million awarded by the government's Joint Infrastructure Fund for a new building, he said. "We are well on the way to matching that." The university should have the required £60 million by Christmas and the foundation stone has already been laid. The building will house 400 people and encourage interdisciplinary work.

Professor Richards is "irritated" that Oxford's image is of being strong in the humanities rather than the sciences but does not believe his work "is seriously held back by it".

Oxford's chemistry department is the largest in the world and one of only two to receive a 5* rating in the last research assessment exercise - the other being Cambridge.

But Professor Richards is frustrated at the university's funding problems. To make cuts of 4 per cent he will have to renew fewer contracts. He is also frustrated that Oxford salaries are not higher and argues that departments must be free to pay competitive salaries.

He is particularly gung-ho about privatisation. "We need £4 billion to go private. The market value of spin-offs is already £2 billion, of which the university owns about 10 per cent. I'm dead keen on privatisation. I am often asked why the university puts up with such things as the teaching quality assessments. Our real rivals are Harvard, Stanford, MIT - big private American universities."

He argues that if Hefce guarantees the university a grant of about £150 million for five years, the university should be able to establish itself sufficiently as a private entity not to need Hefce money after that.

He would like to see Oxford and Cambridge go private together.

n Brian Cantor, head of mathematical and physical sciences, is one of the new divisional heads. He has left his post as head of the department of materials to head the division.

It is obvious that the department is bursting at the seams, one of the reasons why Oxford purchased 120 hectares just outside the city boundaries. Science minister Lord Sainsbury opened the Begbroke Business and Science Park in June to complement the work of the Oxford Science Park established by Magdalen College in 1991.

The site brings together industry-linked academic materials research with materials-based businesses and high-tech spin-offs and has exceeded expectations already. In the past two years the department of materials alone has doubled its income from £2 million to £4 million and with its new facilities expects to double its income again in the next two years. Three spin-offs have been established and the university has invited Oxford Innovation, part of the Oxford Trust, to run Begbroke Innovation Centre, an incubator to support high-tech start-ups.

The initial phase of development was costed at £25 million, of which the university put in about a third, the rest coming from government and industry. Begbroke was awarded £8 million under the JIF for new equipment.

Professor Cantor stressed the role of collaboration in his work. "Not only do we work closely with industry, with companies such as Rolls-Royce, Hewlett-Packard and Ford, but also with other universities, both nationally and internationally."

n Mike Smithson, director of the development office, has held senior non-academic posts at Oxford and Cambridge, giving him a unique insight.

"Superficially Oxford looks a far more formal university, with greater wearing of gowns, but I have found it to be extremely informal. But the huge difference comes in governance. While both these universities are run by scholars, in Cambridge it just takes ten signatures on a ballot to bring an issue before Regent House. I found that to be quite a dampener when I was there. There were even fears that the Microsoft deal would fall foul of Regent House."

He also argues that Oxford has dealt with the issue of intellectual property rights more effectively. "Because it resides with the individual in Cambridge, it can be difficult to even talk about."

Mr Smithson will be working closely with the five new divisional heads to promote new fund-raising initiatives, in medicine in particular. "This is a huge area in Oxford that the development office has not worked with in the past," he said.

He estimates that the university gets between £25 million and £30 million a year through fund-raising and colleges raise the same again. He aims to increase the university sum to £50 million. It is already at this level in Cambridge, with colleges adding another £25 million.

He points out that the Said Business School has been a huge fund-raising success.

"Fund-raising successes help define the image of a university, as the Microsoft deal did at Cambridge," he said. "In some ways the access furore in the summer helped us. We are keen to raise money in this area. We have to ensure that no one is prevented from coming to Oxford by finances."

n Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, is the university's spokeswoman on humanities research. She supports the new governance structure and believes it will work well with colleges.

"The colleges can offer something unique to academics and students," she said. "They foster interdisciplinarity and have their own characters - which suit the academics in them. I would describe Merton as unpretentious, with a good record on access and high academic standards."

Professor Rawson is a strong supporter of the tutorial system. "It encourages real debate and creates autonomous intellects," she said.

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