Passionate angels work wonders

May 16, 2003

David Kingham's background in hard science does not stop him enjoying the sometimes magical process of seeding business partnerships, writes Tim Greenhalgh.

The chief executive of Oxford Innovation has an enduring commitment to testable hypotheses but also has seen more than a sprinkling of fairy dust on funding deals brokered by his company, Oxford Innovation Opportunity Network.

The first-class physics graduate from St John's College, Cambridge, and former Trinity Hall research fellow has seen many companies succeed and some fail given similar conditions. Why remains something of a mystery, but Dr Kingham's goal is to maximise the chances of success.

"We encourage serendipity. The right management team and right idea can make all the difference. Business angels introduce money, passion, technical and marketing skills, and contacts. The job of our network is to create a market where wares can be shown."

Dr Kingham joined Oxford Trust, which had charitable status, in 1990. The trust had been set up five years earlier to encourage commercial applications of science and technology with a focus on helping local companies.

Soon after he joined, he formed Oxford Innovation Limited as a wholly owned subsidiary of the trust. He said: "The move gave a more focused view outside the trust's charitable boundaries. Oxford Innovation's turnover grew to be larger than the trust's."

The idea for the business angel network was sown as he was moving into Oxford Innovation as managing director. Dr Kingham was trying to match seed investors with technology innovation.

"Steve Davies of Oxford University had a research group that had just run out of money, when funding was withdrawn by BP Ventures. He was seeking capital to develop his research on chiral compounds. I could see there was a gap between ideas and investors."

In 1991, a business networking event at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory gave Professor Davies an opportunity to link up with entrepreneurs Nicholas Cross and Ian Laing. Dr Kingham brokered a meeting and the decision was taken to provide the substantial risk capital required to commercialise the research. In 1992, Oxford Asymmetry was established as a spin-off company of four Oxford employees, led by Tim Cook.

Rapid growth followed, and in 1998 Oxford Asymmetry was floated on the London Stock Exchange. In December 2000, the company merged with Evotec Biosystems AG to become Evotec OAI, a powerhouse for the discovery and development of new drugs. By then, Oxford Asymmetry employed more than 250 people, was valued at more than £300 million and was making profits of £3.7 million a year. The merger was widely regarded as bringing together two world leaders in the provision of biology and screening services and chemistry services.

Dr Cook went on to become chief executive of Isis Innovation.

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