Spinning out innovation…

Promotional Article - Photo: Sue Staunton
James Cowper

A key driver of economic growth in the UK has been its innovation and technology base. Whilst the growth has been nationwide, nonetheless there are higher concentrations of technology in particular locations.

Over the years Oxfordshire has become one of the leading hubs for technological innovation and its growth and development have been supported by investment by successive UK Governments. This has manifested itself in investment and support for key research institutions such as Brookes and Oxford Universities, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and sites at Harwell and Culham. Over the last few years there has also been the establishment of the Faraday Institute; the Diamond Light Source; the National Fusion tech platform; the National Satellite testing facility; the Rosalind Franklin Institute; the Satellite Applications Catapult and most recently, the Vaccine Manufacturing Centre.

These facilities coupled with good communications and a highly skilled workforce have led to Oxfordshire being an attractive location for technology based businesses to be based with expertise developed in:

  • Materials science
  • Life science and digital health
  • Fusion science
  • Satellite and space
  • Autonomous vehicles

Not only do companies gravitate to the county to drive forward their technologies but many businesses are started every year from within the area, commercialising technological developments originating from within the county’s research institutions. The University of Oxford alone spun out over 20 such companies in 2018. Of key importance to the capacity to generate such businesses is the availability of investment and Oxfordshire has been highly successful in attracting investment into these companies not only from UK based investors but also from overseas with key investment coming in from the US and the Far East in particular. Particularly transformative in terms of funding for spinouts has been the Oxford Sciences Innovation plc fund which raised some £600million. This fund has invested in over 50 spinouts since its first investment in 2015.

The success of the growth in the scale of Oxfordshire spinouts over recent years, however, leads to further demands if such companies are to continue to prosper within, and benefit the local economy of, Oxfordshire. With our spinout clients we are seeing that these typically centre around two key needs the continued supply of employees to help the business grow and physical space for growth.

Although many spinouts in their early years may outsource many of their activities, nevertheless if they are to grow there usually comes a time when the company will bring work back in-house and will, therefore, need appropriately skilled employees. At the moment these are coming either from the research institutions outlined above; from people being recruited from outside the area – including many from overseas or from those who are already based within Oxfordshire moving from one tech based company to another. Because of the typically very specific skills that are required from these employees it is usual that terms being offered are based on global rates rather than local ones, particularly for the more senior and influential appointments.

Once started, the majority of the businesses have tended to stay in the area as they grow and develop, moving from innovation centres to science parks such as the Oxford Science Park, Begbroke or Milton Park. The increased availability of investment however over the last few years has meant that the more successful spinouts have grown rapidly and need increased space more rapidly than such businesses would have done previously. This could potentially form a constraint to the increasing success of the county’s commercialisation of its technology if facilities cannot be built quickly enough. This is emphasised by the building being carried out at Milton Park, Harwell and the Oxford Science Park, all of which have a number of new facilities.

So spinouts in Oxfordshire are prospering but we have to ensure that as they expand the county retains the ability to support that growth – by ensuring the area continues to be attractive for the sort of workforce required and that the specialist facilities required by spinouts continue be provided in sufficient scale.

Sue Staunton is a partner at James Cowper Kreston and head of the firm’s specialist technology team. Sue and the team work closely with spinouts from research institutions across the country including Oxford and Cambridge Universities; Imperial; UCL and Warwick. The team currently advise over 100 such entities and their founders at all stages from initial set up through to IPO.

Sue Staunton 01865 861 166