Exclusive: From AI to healthtech, Oxford’s tech sector stronger than ever says Minister

Caroline Dinenage

With global hopes focussed on Oxford at the moment, with thousands of people across the world eager to see the updates on the Covid-19 vaccine in development by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, there is another success story brewing in the city, in Oxford’s tech ecosystem.

Caroline Dinenage, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, shares her views exclusively with Business & Innovation Magazine.

“When the pandemic hit in March, companies across the country put hiring plans on hold as a way to keep afloat through the crisis. But it appears Oxford’s startups and scaleups have bounced back with a vengeance: new research from Tech Nation and the job search engine Adzuna released this week shows there are a total of 575 IT-related open roles available, one-fifth of the city’s total open vacancies. This meant that there are more roles available in tech than in any other industry, demonstrating strong confidence in the sector’s ability to grow and develop despite the challenges of the year.

“Oxford has a rich history when it comes to tech, in part because of the university. Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web is an Oxford graduate, while the university is ranked third in the UK when it comes to producing European companies and founders. Oxford Brookes University is a vital part of the ecosystem, arming their students with business skills to help drive their entrepreneurial journey.

“Oxford’s world-class research is central to the city’s tech ecosystem, particularly when it comes to health-tech companies. Navenio, a location software startup spun out of research from the university, is being used by NHS hospitals to help staff prioritise their workload based on location using a smartphone’s sensors. This helps to improve capacity, productivity and care for patients, as well as allowing for a more targeted approach to deep cleaning spaces, which is particularly important during Covid-19.

“Another Oxford spinout which is helping towards the Covid effort is Oxford Nanopore. The unicorn company – a private company valued at $1 billion or more – is working with public health laboratories and researchers around the world to support the rapid sharing of data around the Covid-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2. In August, the company announced a partnership with the UK Government to roll out its rapid novel Covid-19 test. This will benefit thousands of people in the UK by helping them to access fast and accurate test results and help prevent transmission of the virus.

“But it’s not just the university that is contributing to the growth of the city’s new companies. Vitaccess, which started in 2017, is a digital health research scale up and strategic consultancy that works with biopharmaceutical firms to help them launch digital studies that patients can participate in via their own smartphone. The company started at the Oxford Centre for Innovation’s Pod co-working space with a small team of three. This has since grown to 42, thanks in part to advice and support from the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) and Tech Nation’s great localised entrepreneur engagement network. With its early success, the founding team is going to need to look for some new office space in the new year.

“The South East provides an array of tech specialisms. From gaming, cleantech, 5G and Internet of Things in Surrey, to VR and immersive tech in Brighton, healthtech in Buckinghamshire and defence tech in Portsmouth.

“There are also some exciting initiatives like PlusX in Brighton, a company which creates coworking spaces that drive business growth and innovation, community collaboration and social impact. Other examples include The Curious Lounge in Reading. It is clear the region is championing growth and tech expertise.

“To strengthen digital skills across the region, the Government established the South East Local Digital Skills Partnership to support people and businesses across the area acquire the digital skills they need to strengthen the local economy.

“We are also investing in specialist skills. The Government has sponsored PhDs and researchers who are developing the latest artificial intelligence technologies to transform how people live and work and help tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

“Prospective tech workers have their pick of exciting companies to work for in the city. Software engineers and developers, particularly those with Python skills, are very much in-demand. Crucially, they can command high salaries too, with the average IT salary at £48,887, £10,000 more than the general average salary in Oxford of £38,017, according to Adzuna. 

“Investors are also keeping an eye on Oxford’s tech talent and startups. Despite the challenges of 2020, Oxford tech companies have raised more than $500 million in funding this year. This has been thanks to funding for unicorns like Oxford Nanopore which raised $84.4 in October, and the AI and big data healthtech platform Exscientia which raised $60m in May. But younger startups have also been reporting healthy Series A rounds including Mind Foundry, which allows businesses to solve problems using machine learning,

“Oxford’s tech companies will change and shape our lives for many years to come. From AI to healthtech and big data, the ecosystem in the city and in the South East is paving the way for future entrepreneurs and technologies that will be essential to maintaining the UK’s reputation as one of the best tech-producing countries in the world.”

Caroline Dinenage was appointed Minister of State for Digital and Culture in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 13 February 2020.Caroline was Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care from 9 January 2018 to 13 February 2020 and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions from June 2017 to January 2018.

She was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Early Years at the Department for Education from July 2016 to June 2017. She was elected Conservative MP for Gosport, Stubbington, Lee-on-the-Solent and Hill Head in 2010.