The universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York are planning to launch a multimillion investment fund to help their academics set up high-tech spin-off firms.
Called the White Rose Technology Seedcorn Fund, it is a strong candidate for backing by the government's Pounds 40 million University Challenge Fund, financed jointly with the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
The Challenge Fund aims to support high-tech ventures. Twenty-two institutions, including the White Rose Fund, are battling for money. The winners will be announced in late March.
Revealing the bid last week at a conference on technology transfer, Sir Gareth Roberts, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, said the universities "must prepare for great success" if the scheme is backed by the Challenge Fund.
The target is to invest in 100 high-tech firms in Yorkshire over the first ten years of operation. The White Rose universities between them employ 3,700 academics and have an annual research spend of Pounds 160 million.
Ederyn Williams, managing director of Leeds University technology transfer arm, Leeds Innovations Ltd, said the White Rose Fund is bidding for Pounds 5 million from the University Challenge Fund, with the universities contributing an extra Pounds 1.67 million.
"We decided very early on that the fund must be a permanent vehicle for supporting high-tech firms in the region and that we should not blow all the money on a few ventures over a short time," he said.
Investments will therefore be made at a steady, conservative rate of about Pounds 1.2 million a year. "We hope to have companies floating on the stock market within five to seven years," said Dr Williams. "They might have accumulated profits or perhaps be sold to larger concerns. All this will help to replenish the fund for further investments. We project that there will be a low point for the fund about 2005 after which it will go back up again."
Dr Williams said the White Rose universities already have a strong track record of spinning out firms. Since 1987 the three universities have between them created 50 new firms that now employ 1,500 people.
"We want to help accelerate the process of creating high-tech industries in the region. We estimate investing about Pounds 150,000 for kickstarting each new venture," said Dr Williams The White Rose Technology Seedcorn Fund is the latest initiative to spring from the "White Rose Plan" under which the three universities collaborate on university-industry ventures.
These include a Faraday Partnership for development of advanced packaging technologies and a scheme to boost entrepreneurial activity in biotechnology.