Finance giant the Forward Group yesterday announced the creation of a Pounds 20 million fund to help Leeds University academics commercialise new ideas.
The deal, likely to be the envy of the sector, is unheard of in British higher education, according to Forward chief executive Ray Chamberlain. "We've looked extensively at the situation in the United States where this style of partnership has been developed and we are convinced that the formula we have forged with Leeds opens up tremendous business opportunities for us here," he said.
Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds, said he was thrilled with the agreement, which had taken about 18 months to put together because of the complex legalities. He stressed that Forward's management expertise was as important as the finance. A management structure offers dedicated expertise to academics wanting to take their inventions to the market.
Professor Wilson, a successful entrepreneur himself, said: "Start-up companies can find it very difficult to recruit the right calibre of chief executive because of the personal risk involved and this has been a major hurdle for us. This partnership enables our researchers to get on with what they do best and leave the business plans, cash flow analyses and commercial management to the experts."
A template spin-off company has been created. "We have had more good ideas than we have been able to find money or management expertise for," said Professor Wilson. "Now there is no real limit on us." All disciplines will benefit, in particular high-tech sectors such as bio-sciences, medicine and engineering.
The partnership will run for four years initially. Although academics will be free to work with other commercial sponsors, Forward will be the university's "preferred supplier" of financial investment and management expertise. Forward will select spin-off companies for investment against a three-year business plan and, in return, take a controlling interest. The university and academic inventors will enjoy "significant" equity stakes.
Science minister Lord Sainsbury welcomed the agreement.
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