SETsquared: does it have the key to incubator success?

Partnership of five universities has so far helped new businesses raise more than £1bn

February 11, 2016
Source: Corbis
Getting off the ground: SETsquared is jointly run by the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey

Last week, the House of Commons hosted academics, politicians and entrepreneurs to celebrate the success of SETsquared, a business incubation network run by five universities in southern England.

Among the companies displaying their wares was Sherlock, a Turin-based firm that this year hopes to launch a hidden GPS device that will warn cyclists when their bikes are being stolen – and sound an alarm to scare off the thieves.

Plenty of universities say that they provide space for start-ups to commercialise their discoveries. But SETsquared, which is run by the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, appears to have the numbers to back up its claims of success.

Over the past decade, SETsquared says, more than £1 billion of investment has gone into companies it has helped, £90 million of which came in 2015. At least 1,000 firms have been assisted since it started in 2002, and 250 are currently on its books.

Last year, the partnership was ranked as the best university business incubator in the world by the research firm UBI Global, which considered metrics such as the number of jobs created, the amount of funds invested, the number of business mentors and growth after incubation. SETsquared beat networks from the US, Canada, Taiwan, China and the rest of Europe (there were no other contenders from the UK).

The partnership has three main missions, explained its innovation director Simon Bond: to incubate new businesses, to commercialise research, and to give students better entrepreneurship experience.

“What we’re really good at is working at the tricky end of science and technology innovation and turning that into a business ready for investment,” he said. This involves getting embryonic companies ready for an injection of money by creating business plans, for example. SETsquared also runs rapid testing of ideas to see whether they can be commercialised.

Put simply, the partnership is a “very trusted networking organisation”, he explained. It hosts events to link emerging companies to mentors who can help the businesses develop, and also to investors who can provide capital.

Mentors are sometimes drawn from university technology transfer offices, but most are “experienced, current technology entrepreneurs”, Mr Bond said, who normally provide advice for free.

“They tend to be pretty wealthy people, frankly, and aren’t in it for consultancy income,” he added. “Why they do it is that they are generally interested in this sector. They like to be part of that opening stage.”

Meanwhile, capitalists join the network because they trust SETsquared to “provide them with appropriate opportunities” for investment, he said.

If SETsquared is at heart a networking organisation, could it not just as easily be run by businesses or other bodies? Mr Bond disagrees. “High-tech, high-growth potential businesses tend to be found around research-intensive universities…there is no other coming together of organisations that could pull this off,” he said. “Where you get multiple universities [and] a critical mass of talent…that’s why it took off.”

He saw no reason that it could not be replicated in other clusters of universities – in London, say – and pointed out that many individual institutions already have successful spin-out systems.

But Mr Bond extolled the benefits of having several universities working together, creating “friction” with each other and generating “new questions with new ideas” through their interactions.

The partnership employs about 30 staff, who work at six business incubation locations across the UK. SETsquared does not take an equity stake in the companies it nurtures, and so must rely on other sources of funds.

The Higher Education Innovation Fund, which was rumoured to be vulnerable to cuts before last year’s government spending review but in the end was not mentioned by the chancellor George Osborne, is a “very important source of funding”, Mr Bond said. SETsquared also makes money by providing training for corporations and public bodies.

But the largest source of funds is membership fees for businesses, which start at £1,500 a year.

Despite SETsquared’s success, Mr Bond acknowledged that the US still had a lead over the UK when it came to commercialising ideas emerging from universities.

Investors in the UK expected quicker returns than those in the US, meaning that ideas with longer gestation periods might be overlooked, he commented. There were also broader cultural factors to blame, he added, such as the different “value placed on entrepreneurship” in the two countries.

In numbers

1,000+ – the number of firms that SETsquared has assisted since it started in 2002

Campus news

Kingston University
Ultra endurance runner Susie Chan has set a new 12-hour treadmill world record at a sports science laboratory. The 40-year-old ran a total distance of 68.54 miles (110.3km) in 12 hours at Kingston University’s Penrhyn Road campus on 30 January, beating the previous record of 66.79 miles set in 2013. The record attempt was broadcast live on the internet. Hundreds of messages of support tweeted to Ms Chan were projected on to a screen in front of her during the run.

University of Cambridge 
A new exhibition featuring exhibits including a Roman baby’s feeding bottle, a tiny 400,000-year-old axe and a sledge made from a horse’s jaw sets out to give illuminating examples of childhood in the past. Hide and Seek: Looking for Children in the Past will go on display for a year at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It asks why so little is known about children in the past, despite them having outnumbered adults for most of human history.

University College London 
HIV is worryingly resistant to a key antiretroviral drug used to fight the illness, according to research. Scientists from University College London, working with colleagues from Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, found that 60 per cent of patients in sub-Saharan Africa had strains of HIV that were resistant to tenofovir, a critical part of treatment. They fear that these resistant strains could spread, setting back the global fight against HIV.

University of East Anglia 
Restructuring in organisations has a mainly negative effect on the welfare of employees regardless of whether there are job losses, according to a study. Researchers from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research found that the majority of restructures had a negative impact, both during the restructuring and in the post-restructuring period, with or without any downsizing of staff. These impacts included decreased well-being resulting from less job control and employee adjustment to change.

University of Nottingham 
A new way of using MRI scanners to look for evidence of multiple sclerosis in the brain has been successfully tested by researchers. Academics at the University of Nottingham and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust have found a way to use clinical MRI to distinguish between MS lesions and other brain white spots that are found in MS. Currently, fewer than 50 per cent of patients referred to MS treatment centres are found to have the disease, as diagnosing the illness can be challenging.

University of Salford 
The UK’s first master’s in podiatry, which qualifies students for Health and Care Professions Council registration, has been introduced. The University of Salford’s MSc will mean that graduates with associated science degrees do not have to study for a second bachelor’s degree in order to achieve professional practice status, said Jane McAdam, Salford’s director of prosthetics, orthotics and podiatry. The MSc students will be aligned with the School of Health Science’s Knee, Ankle and Foot research group.

University of Warwick 
A British university has been selected to be a partner in the largest miscarriage research centre in Europe. Funded by Tommy’s, a pregnancy charity, the University of Warwick’s researchers will be joining doctors from University Hospital Coventry to investigate the causes of early miscarriage. New trials under examination in Coventry include scratching the lining of a woman’s womb to help improve the chances of embryos implanting and the use of a diabetes drug to help women who have had five or more miscarriages.

London Metropolitan University 
Solar panels costing almost £80,000 are to be installed on the roof of a university’s £30 million science centre. The 221 solar panels above London Metropolitan University’s “superlab” in Islington will produce about 58,000 kWh each year, enough to supply 14 homes with energy. The initiative, which will cut the university’s energy bill by about £12,500 a year, comes after it was recognised at the Public Sector Sustainability Awards and Green Gown Awards for its efforts to cut emissions.

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