Top spin-offs: Wealthy sultans of spin-off cash in on their ideas

January 20, 2006

Academics can strike it rich when they commercialise their innovations, but is it best to seek professional help or go it alone? asks Jessica Shepherd

Researchers who make millions of pounds from their ideas come from a broad range of scientific disciplines, The Times Higher survey on the academic rich reveals.

Academics who have made their fortune from licensing inventions or starting spin-off companies are just as likely to be engineers, chemists or physicists as molecular biologists.

About half the scientists identified in the list have exploited their work in the biomedical sciences; the other half come from the physical and chemical sciences, mechanical and electronic engineering and computing.

The broad range of disciplines is also reflected in the top 12 highest earners on our list, which was compiled using submissions from more than 100 experts. The list includes Brian Bellhouse, professor of engineering science at Oxford University, who is estimated to be worth £40 million.

Professor Bellhouse was the brains behind needle-free injection technology firm PowderJect, which was taken over for £542 million by US pharmaceuticals group Chiron in 2003. The list also features Sir Richard Friend, Cavendish professor of physics at Cambridge University, whose spin-off Cambridge Display Technology floated for £122 million in 2004.

Meanwhile, Ed Southern and Raymond Dwek, professors of biochemistry and glycobiology respectively at Oxford, are leading the way in creating fledgling technology in the life sciences. Professor Southern created Oxford Gene Technology, and Professor Dwek established Oxford GlycoSciences. Sir Greg Winter, a self-confessed multimillionaire, and head of the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said:

"There are some very lucrative fields in physics, such as superconducting magnets and transistors, but equally there is much potential to make money in biology, medicine and chemistry."

Sir Tom Blundell, a biochemist at Cambridge, is also in the top 12. His spin-off, Astex Technology, now Astex Therapeutics, has been valued at Pounds 150 million. Professor Blundell believes that until the late 1990s, physicists and engineers would have had the monopoly on cash-making ventures. "The original boom was in the physical sciences and IT in the late 1970s. But since roughly 2000, the opportunities have moved across the spectrum to the biological sciences and then pretty much across all of the scientific fields," he said. "If current spin-offs mature and their shares are offered to the public, in what is known as an initial public offering, that will give others confidence and so the opportunities to make money will spread even more."

Professor Blundell said the spread of academic riches among departments is in part down to increased interest in academics' ideas from venture capitalists and the cash-rich climate for pharmaceutical companies.

Geographical clusters

The list also reveals geographical clusters of academic millionaires.

Oxford chemistry professors Steve Davies, who has an estimated fortune of £15 million, and Graham Richards, who admits to earning "a few million", have offices within 30 metres of each other.

There is also a group of academics at Cambridge connected with high-tech spin-offs, which has given rise to the university being nicknamed "Silicon Fen" in the famous Cambridge Phenomenon report of the 1980s.

But the list spreads further than Oxbridge. Imperial College, University College London, Leeds, Nottingham, Dundee and Queen's University, Belfast, also feature.

The list was compiled using anonymous submissions from those working in technology transfer offices, regional development agencies, research councils, business schools, venture capitalist firms and university and industry partnerships.

Universities: help or hindering wealth creation?

For some academic millionaires, the creation of technology transfer offices in universities, which were started in the early 1990s, has proved nothing but a hindrance.

The offices, in some cases split off as wholly owned companies, are meant to attract research funding from industry, find buyers for inventions and help academics set up their own ventures.

One academic in our top 12 earners, Andy Hopper, a computing professor at Cambridge, who jointly founded Acorn Computers and has been involved in several spin-offs since, said: "The universities and the vice-chancellors are against you. This is shown by the cuts that the universities take from spin-offs. The companies die before they have properly started. I'd advise academics to avoid the technology transfer office and do things independently.

"Academics are not the plodders in need of the help of technology transfer offices that they are stereotyped as being. Technology transfer offices, beating their chests for business, hinder rather than help."

But others disagree. Professor Richards said: "Oxford has been supportive of my and my colleagues' ventures and increasingly so." And Sir Peter Mansfield, inventor of magnetic resonance imaging scanners, even credits part of his success to the support of his then vice-chancellor at Nottingham University.

Clive Rowland, chief executive of Manchester University's Intellectual Property Limited - the university's technology transfer and intellectual property commercialisation company - said: "A supportive university policy and acceptance of an enterprise culture is very important to success on a notable scale and in a serial fashion."

One thing remains clear about the millionaire entrepreneurs and spin-off successes in our list: their top priority is to invent, not to swell their purses. Their goal is to see their ideas developed and taken up by industry or commerce. They are dedicated to their discipline and their roles as educators and researchers first; making money and being an entrepreneur comes second.

Professor Richards said: "We are not in it for the money. Almost all academics who make money could leave academe and make more. Most have kept the day job, which means no time off and no reduction of normal teaching or administrative duties. Most believe it is valuable for their research to be exploited for the good of the nation's health."

Professor Winter said: "I get more pleasure from thinking about how what I have done has helped people with rheumatoid arthritis than thinking about my bank account. Anyway, I think I am a very poor businessman because for all the millions I have made, others have made billions from me."  

Next week: highest earners in academic publishing


The top 12 academic entrepreneurs are in a class of their own

Twelve super earners emerged when we asked a smaller sample of experts to name researchers who have made most from their discoveries and inventions.

They include Brian Bellhouse , who created vaccines company PowderJect. Professor Bellhouse, while head of the Medical Engineering Unit at Oxford University, invented a device that projects powder directly through the skin, to deliver injections. PowderJect was spun off from Oxford in 1993. A decade later, the company was acquired by US-based Chiron Corporation for £542 million.

Raymond Dwek (with Raj Parekh) created Oxford GlycoSciences. The company is based on drug technologies that will enable tailor-made treatments. The venture is believed to have made Professor Dwek a millionaire.

Steve Davies , from Oxford's chemistry department, founded Oxford Asymmetry and VASTox. Oxford Asymmetry was floated for £58 million in 2004. The company offers chemical genomics technology to aid drug discovery.

Meanwhile, Graham Richards , chairman of chemistry at Oxford, has made millions from Oxford Molecular and other ventures.

Ed Southern , professor in Oxford's biochemistry department, invented Southern blot hybridisation, a technique that revolutionised genetics. His company, Oxford Gene Technology, has patents on many techniques in gene analysis.

Sir Richard Friend , Cavendish professor of physics at Cambridge, created Cambridge Display Technology, which floated for £122 million in 2004.

Sir Tom Blundell , the Cambridge biochemist, founded the spin-off Astex Technology, worth £150 million. Andy Hopper, professor of computer technology at Cambridge, is famous for co-founding (with Hermann Hauser) Acorn Computers.

Sir Greg Winter , head of the Medical Research Council laboratory of molecular biology, created the Cambridge Antibody Technology Group, which in 2005 made a gross profit of some £68 million. Peter Jenner from King's College London, founded Proximagen, a company specialising in the discovery of therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative diseases. It was founded in 2003 with an investment of £13.5 million

John King , a former lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, is chair of Galen Pharmaceuticals, which was taken over last year in a £1.6 billion deal.

Last but not least, Sir Peter Mansfield , emeritus professor of physics at Nottingham University, created the magnetic resonance imaging scanner.


Ambition, commitment and the ability to think beyond the lab

What are the super-rich academics' secrets of success? We ask those who work with spin-off founders

Commercially successful academics tend to have a clear understanding of their own capabilities.

If they need help, they ask for it and they also realise that they will need to relinquish some control and equity to enable them to succeed in the longer term.

Robin Daniels, chief executive, Norwich Research Park

These academics are leaders in their field who are able to think beyond the lab. They are highly motivated and commercially astute people with a vision as to how their research can be applied.

They are supported and encouraged in their entrepreneurial endeavours.

Importantly, they translate this to their teams, creating a vibrant environment of new ideas. They are able to work with management teams to grow value.

Alison Campbell, managing director, King's College London Enterprises

The key to success is an overriding ambition to see an idea developed and taken up by industry or commerce, coupled with an unswerving commitment by the academic to make that happen.

Being willing to get help along the way from experienced business people and skilled technology transfer specialists often makes the difference between achievement and failure.

In any event, high levels of personal energy and resilience are required by academics because in almost every type of commercial engagement they will face high hurdles and setbacks.

Clive Rowland, chief executive, Manchester University Intellectual Property Limited

I think these academics have been so successful because they have embraced the business world and have a more pragmatic attitude than some of their colleagues.

Julie Logan, director, Enterprise Centre, Cass Business School

It is clear that expectations are rising - in government and in universities - that public investment in science should bring enhanced commercial opportunities.

The key for the academic community will be to balance the pressures and opportunities of commercialisation with the desire for further research and investigation. Universities should not simply be hothouses for enterprise, but nor should they be so removed from commerce that the ideas generated in them never see the light of day.

Andy Neely, deputy director, Advanced Institute of Management Research

All the top academic earners have great science and research as their bedrock. They also have enough commercial awareness to understand business and know when to get real business advice, support and help.

There is an element of being in the right place at the right time and then seeing and grasping the opportunity.

Bob Gibbs, chairman of Emsen, a partnership of East Midlands institutions funded by the Department for Trade and Industry and the East Midlands Development Agency

There are two vital steps to an academic's success in terms of making money: having a world-beating technology innovation and making a consistent effort over a decade or so both technically and commercially.

Ederyn Williams, director, Association for University Research and Industry Links and the technology transfer office, Warwick University

The most successful academics generally have charisma and a talent for communication. Being in the right place, having the right contacts and an appropriate track record or image are also important.

For most academics the idea of making money remains a sideline to the "day job".

It is rare for them to be single-minded about making pots of money. If they get like this they generally stop being academics.

Mark Easterby-Smith, professor of management learning, Lancaster University Management School

The successful ones often realise that their expertise is on the scientific side rather than the managerial one.

Stephen Bence, associate director, international venture management company Angle

Our academics want to bridge the gap between university-based research and getting their advances out into society. For most academics, financial success through bringing their world-class research to market is an unexpected and pleasant by-product.

Tony Raven, director, SETsquared Partnership, which helps entrepreneurial ventures at Bath, Bristol, Southampton and Surrey universities

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