How Queen’s University Belfast became the UK's best university for commercialising research

Queen’s University Belfast has been ranked the most effective university in the UK at commercialising academic research, beating the innovation powerhouses in Oxford, Cambridge and across London to the top spot.

The rankings were compiled by Octopus Ventures, a European venture capital firm, by calculating each university's production of intellectual property, creation of spinout companies and the successful exits of those spinout companies relative to their total funding.

That return on investment helped give Queen's University Belfast (QUB) an edge over Russell Group institutions, which win the majority of the competitively available funding for research. The report gave much of the credit to QUBIS, the university's dedicated commercialisation arm, which runs a range of customer-discovery programmes that help validate market interest in early-stage research.

This correlation between access to early-stage funding for the development of proof-of-concepts and prototypes and a spinout's long-term prospects was found throughout the report. For example, Oxford Nanopore received early-stage funding from leading patient capital fund IP Group to support the initial development of its DNA sequencing technology. The company has since gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.

Read next: Who are the UK's tech unicorns and how did they reach their valuations?

"Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts. That's a key takeaway," Simon King, a partner at Octopus Ventures, told Techworld.

Early investment schemes

QUB was followed in the rankings by the universities of Cambridge, Cardiff, Queen Mary University of London and Leeds. The top ten was then rounded out by Dundee, Nottingham, King's College London, Oxford and Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine.

A number of these universities have recently established partnerships with venture funds to improve access to early investment, including Imperial College's work with Imperial Innovations and Oxford's alliance with Oxford Sciences Innovations (OSI).

The Octopus Ventures research shows that Oxford has produced a lot more spinouts since OSI was set up in 2015, but the university will have to wait to sell these businesses to profit from this partnership.

"As we start to see crystallisation in one way, shape or form of some of that value, I think it will push Oxford further up the rankings," said King.

The research also identified a connection between commercial success and collaboration with other universities. King points to the Helix Centre, a digital health innovation lab launched as a joint venture between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art, as a prime example of how this can work.

"That's fantastic because you bring with technologists and science out of Imperial, and you bring the product design expertise out of the Royal College of Arts, and you bring those two things together and create not just amazing technologies, but amazing products that people want to use," he said.

Room for improvement

The UK ranks third globally in both the number of PhDs produced (behind the USA and Germany) and publication of academic papers (behind the USA and China), but the country's universities have created few lucrative companies compared to those in the US.

Read next: University spinouts: what are the benefits of the system and how does it work?

King believes much of the gap is due to the historical relationships between universities and startups in the US, such as Stanford's long-established connections to Silicon Valley.

"Silicon Valley just has more funds and more successful companies that are then recycling both money and experienced talent back into that ecosystem, and spinouts will benefit from that in the same way that the startups in that ecosystem do," he said. "I think here we're starting to see the beginning of that flywheel, but we're still early in it."

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