The website aiming to bring greater transparency to spin-outs

Analysis of the database suggests UK universities take greater equity in spin-outs than others in Europe

February 5, 2023
Source: iStock

Improved spin-out deal terms between universities and founders would help boost the UK government’s ambition to become a science superpower, it has been argued.

Nathan Benaich, a general partner at venture capital firm Air Street Capital, has collated data from company founders in the world’s largest database of university spin-out terms.

He developed to “create a new playbook for how universities treat inventors in academic settings who want to commercialise their inventions into companies”.

Any budding entrepreneur who is facing negotiations with their institution has to scour university websites for any sign of similar terms, but Mr Benaich hopes his database will solve that problem.

“Effectively, there is no transparency, so the first step towards actioning a better spin-out policy in the UK and other nations is first to address this matter of transparency by shedding light on current practices and then comparing,” he told Times Higher Education.

Analysis of the 143 entries on the current database shows around half are classed as software product firms.

The database, which includes entries from the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, suggests lengthy negotiation processes are the norm.

Two-thirds of businesses say deals taking more than six months to complete and a quarter taking more than a year.

On average, universities take a 13 per cent equity stake, but this varies widely depending on the institution and country, with UK universities taking around three times as much equity as those elsewhere.

Founders were also surveyed on how they rated the spin-out process, giving an average score of 4.6 out of 10.

Start-ups in the UK gave an average score of just 4.2 – compared with 5.1 in the EU.

“It paints a pretty clear picture of the ecosystem, which highlights that the UK in general takes a very aggressive hand at monetising and capturing value of spin-outs,” Mr Benaich said.

“It takes a tonne of time in handling the licensing process with inventors and their companies and generally has a very low score.”

Some of the founders singled out technology transfer offices (TTOs) for criticism when they were polled.

Mr Benaich said they were generally “more a hindrance than a help”, creating a situation where there is only one exit route for a company through an “ivory tower”.

If founders are unable to find something that is workable, they tend to become so frustrated that they give up or feel forced to do a “sneak-out” – where they work on their project in secret.

If UK universities positioned themselves as being more welcoming to entrepreneurial businesses, they would attract more ambitious academics, he argued, which would be particularly helpful for the UK government’s aims of becoming a science superpower.

“You need to do everything to spur dynamism back into the system, and the spin-out solution is free and a pretty low-effort, high-reward policy to start intervening on,” he added.

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