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

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Print headline: The incubator that makes its start-ups hot properties

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