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Increasing university spinouts: we need to talk about people

  • 19 April 2024
  • By Simonetta Manfredi
  • Simonetta Manfredi, Professor of Equality and Diversity Management and Director Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Oxford Brookes University.

It has been said that the translation of research into profitable and impactful businesses is one of ‘Higher Education’s best-kept secrets’! University spinouts can bring to market cutting-edge research and technology, create jobs and contribute to economic growth. No matter which party wins the next general election, they will want the sector to grow its capacity for spinout creation.

However, if we want more successful spinouts we need to talk about people: the founders and the pipeline of talented researchers who could become the next generation of founders. At Oxford Brookes University we carried out a project, funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), to promote gender inclusion in spinout leadership. We interviewed women and men who created spinouts to learn from their lived experiences, what motivated them, and what challenges and enablers they encountered along their spinout journey. We also explored the pipeline of potential founders through focus groups with Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in STEM, including PhD students. Here are some of our findings.

‘It is every academic’s dream to have your technology applied to products’

All the spinout founders we talked to share the same motivation for spinning out. They wanted their research and discoveries to make a real difference and benefit society. Female and male founders respectively said: ‘It is every academic’s dream to have your technology applied to products’ and ‘I want to see the research that we are doing have an impact, not just necessarily for REF’. Autonomy and flexibility were also important drivers, especially among the younger generations of founders. One man said: ‘I did not like the 9-5 environment, I wasn’t motivated enough… so it’s really having the flexibility with my time, it [is] really important to me’.

For some women instead the autonomy and flexibility associated with running a spinout made it easier to manage work with their childcare responsibilities. They felt that in a full academic job, they had very little control over multiple commitments such as teaching, administration, pastoral care, research and other endless demands.

‘In a sense being an academic is the safest form of entrepreneurship you can undertake’

The attitude towards risk associated with setting up a business appeared to depend on the career stage of the founders. It ranged from the ‘nothing to lose’ sentiment of students who had just completed their PhD, who have no obligations and are not leaving a job to get involved in a spinout, to the view from established academics that ‘academic entrepreneurship being the safest form of entrepreneurship you can undertake because you are paid a salary and you can go and be entrepreneurial’. For the ECRs however, it was a different story, with much more at stake both professionally and personally. ECRs occupy what we defined as ‘a double-mid zone’ as they are no longer students but not yet established academics. They play a very important role in the creation of a spinout often working alongside established academics who otherwise would not have time. As one ECR woman said, ‘I felt all the risk was on me’.

‘I like the fact that my name doesn’t give away if I am a man or a woman’

The experiences of several female founders pointed to gender bias, especially among investors, usually men used to see men pitching for investments. For this reason, one female founder said that ‘I like the fact that my name doesn’t give away whether I am a man or a woman’ as she felt that it worked to her advantage when meeting with investors. However, those whose name would give away their gender felt that when meeting with investors they were entering ‘a very male biased…world’.

Female founders are still under-represented in spinout leadership. In 2023 17% of spinouts had at least a female founder and only 7.6% had all female founders. These figures have been improving over the last few years, which is encouraging. However, much more progress is needed, especially as many spinouts are in life sciences where there is a high number of female scientists.

‘What if IBM comes along and says, we love your idea – can you give it to us?’

We found a real appetite among ECRs to find out more about the commercialisation of research and spinouts, but a feeling that there is not enough information aimed at this group. In addition to the perceived lack of information, other key barriers for ECRs to become involved in spinout creation were:

  • Lack of time as they felt ‘overburdened with duties’.
  • Concerns that getting involved with spinout creation could be at the expense of a future academic career. For example, one group discussed the ‘secrecy of patents’ which means ‘you would have to delay publishing while the patent was going through’ which was difficult to reconcile with ‘the pressure to get your next publication’.
  • Precarious jobs, as one said ‘because you are on only a short-term contract, you are always looking for the next job’. For international ECRs this was compounded by worries about ‘can I stay in the country?’ due to the complexity of visa regimes.

In conclusion, all of the above show that the sector needs to focus more on its researchers who want ‘to make a real difference’ rather than processes and equity deals if it wants to grow an inclusive and impactful innovation ecosystem.

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