Oxford colleges have created a fund to finance home-grown
innovations. Kam Patel reports
A good sign: research at Opsys Oxford University last week made a concerted effort to boost its links with industry with the announcement of an Pounds 11 million fund to provide financial support for promising companies spun off from the institution.
At a London conference, Oxford vice-chancellor Colin Lucas said the fund had been created by the university's colleges to back scientific discoveries over the long term while also reducing the potential risk to any individual investing body.
The Isis College Fund will operate on a purely commercial basis, and the university will hold shares in the spin-offs supported through it. Professor Lucas said the fund was already oversubscribed and additional similar schemes are being considered for launch by the university next year.
The university's claim to be a leading centre supporting the growth of high-technology industries was underlined by the announcement that Opsys, an Oxford University spin-off specialising in development of flat-panel displays, is embarking on a multi-million pound expansion. Details are still being thrashed out, but the growth plan is likely to result in an injection of about Pounds 5 million into the company to take it further down the road to being publicly listed.
Founded in 1997 by Oxford researchers, Opsys is on the verge of manufacturing its first two tiny display products for portable
electronic devices. The company is hoping this first foray into the market will place it in a strong position to be a leader for a new gen-
eration of ultra-thin, inexpensive displays
that can, for instance, be hung on walls.
"High-quality displays of any shape and size will be part of the overall design and structure of equipment and furnishings in the future," a company spokesman said.
Portable videophones and moving transparent signage on windows and vehicle dashboards showing sharp real-time images are other potential future applications. Over the next
10-15 years, the global market for such display technology could be worth billions of pounds.
Speaking at the conference in London to highlight Oxford's strengths in working with business, Professor Lucas said: "Collaboration with industry is the way of the future for our many great universities. We want to emphasise that such collaboration promises to benefit us all - nation, region, university and business partners." Working with business also offers the potential of new streams of funding for cash-strapped universities, he added.
Professor Lucas said the university's links with industry are already buoyant but there was room for collaborations to substantially increase. The university is filing one new patent a week, and these are "sifted" so that only those with some ultimately viable commercial and practical benefits are pursued, he said.
The university's commercial exploitation
arm, Isis Innovation, is managing nearly 300 technology-transfer projects, more than 50 of which have been licensed. Recent innovations emanating from university research and patented by Isis Innovation include new treatments for tuberculosis discovered at the university's pharmacology department and the development of a greatly improved method for the production of recombinant protein and its potential use in a new range of diagnostic and research tools.
Since taking the decision to participate in spin-off companies, the university has joined 19 such firms - six of them this year. Of these, five are now publicly quoted companies on the London Stock Exchange and in total worth Pounds 1.5 billion. They include Oxford Glycosciences, which was floated last year with a market capitalisation of more than Pounds 100 million. Oxford Molecular Group, listed in 1994, has an opening market capitalisation of Pounds 30 million, while Oxford Asymmetry, a chemical discovery company, was floated in 1998 with a initial capitalisation of Pounds 120 million.
Professor Lucas said it was "profoundly important" for the university that it was achieving technology transfer without compromising its mission to achieve excellence in research and teaching while retaining academic independence. He said: "Great care is being taken to insulate university work from short-term commercial pressure, though the two need to interact positively." He said university research income over the past year will again top Pounds 100 million and is expected to reach about Pounds 120 million.
Giving a keynote address, science minister Lord Sainsbury said he wanted to see more
universities and academic institutions following Oxford's example in working with business. He envisaged universities "working across the business spectrum from the multinational giants to the local small-business community, collaborating on research or the introduction of innovative new products, acting as a knowledge resource and most importantly producing the sort of graduates that industry wants".