Oxford cashes in on IP and opens £60m lab

February 20, 2004

Oxford University's £60 million chemistry research laboratory, opened by the Queen this week, has been financed by a unique deal with a city firm.

A third of the funding for the building has come from city bank Beeson Gregory, which has since been renamed IP2IPO Ltd.

In return for the money, the firm will receive half of the university equity in chemistry spin-offs for 15 years.

As well as housing the largest chemistry department in the western world, the building represents a new entrepreneurialism at Oxford - one that is pushing it in a different direction from its old rival Cambridge University.

Oxford is able to strike such a deal because, unlike Cambridge and in line with all other major research universities, the university owns the intellectual property (IP) generated by academics.

Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry at Oxford, said: "It is important to understand that we have not simply sold IP rights to the bank. The typical equity split in spin-offs is: funders 30 per cent, management 20 per cent, the university 25 per cent and the academic 25 per cent. The academic still receives a significant share of the equity - it is the university's share that is split."

He said that academics in the department benefited from the bank's expertise in raising venture capital and drawing up business plans.

To date, the deal has led to six spin-off companies. The interest on the original £20 million invested by Beeson Gregory had raised £3 million for the university.

The department is building on a history of successful spin-off companies that has resulted in £40 million being reinvested in the university since 1996.

"The university has not had to put a penny into this building," Professor Richards said.

The rest of the money has come mainly from a joint infrastructure fund - an initiative involving the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

Professor Richards added: "We have had nothing from the UK's big chemical and pharmaceutical companies towards this deal. The government wants universities to work better with British industry and (Richard) Lambert concluded that business needs to do more. As this building shows, we are doing our bit - British industry needs to do its share."

A university spokesman added that the laboratory had already set a new benchmark for universities seeking to exploit IP.

"This has already become a model for activity at several other institutions," the spokesman said.

The laboratory will house about 400 researchers and be organised around interdisciplinary research themes rather than traditional sub-faculties, including chemical and molecular biology, synthesis and molecular design, and interfacial and materials science.

It will house the latest nuclear magnetic resonance machines, lasers and mass spectrometers. The department's areas of expertise also include antibiotics, a tradition dating back to its early penicillin research, and nanoscience.

Sweet smell of success for researchers

Julia Heslop, an Oxford University postgraduate researcher, welcomes the move from a 19th-century laboratory to the university's £60 million research facility.

Ms Heslop, who is studying for a DPhil, will carry out research into radio pharmaceuticals for cancer-imaging equipment and therapies at the laboratory.

"The way the building is laid out is much better, with more safety measures built in," she said.

"There will also be far more integration across groups that were segregated before - organic and inorganic chemistry."

Fellow research student John Moses agreed that there would be more scope for collaboration in the new facility.

"The old building was quaint, mixing the old and the new," said Mr Moses, who is carrying out research into organic synthesis.

"But the new lab has better safety features and doesn't have the same chemical smell as the old one - or, at least, it doesn't yet."

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