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The university spinout report 2021:
which UK universities top the rankings for turning innovation into commercial success?

Analysis reveals the most successful spinout companies founded at UK universities since 1998, and which industry attracts the most investment.

This study was conducted by Intellectual property service and R&D tax credit specialists GovGrant. Material is available to re-publish, with credit (including link) to GovGrant. This report was published on 16 September 2021. Please get in touch for additional information.

Facebook, Google, FedEx – some of the best-known global companies have been founded at universities. These also happen to be some of the most valuable companies in the world. Fuelled by Google’s success, its parent company Alphabet is now worth more than $1.6 trillion.

UK universities rank among the top universities globally, comprising four of the top 10, according to leading authority QS World University Rankings. UK institutions are renowned for world-changing innovation, particularly in fields such as pharmaceuticals, engineering and IT.

At GovGrant, we know that universities play a key role in transforming innovations into commercial success. Through careful research, we have identified which UK universities have the best track record of supporting new business, and can claim to be the UK’s top business spinout and innovation hubs.

University spinouts report

To gain insight into UK spinouts, this report – produced by our specialist research team at GovGrant – analysed data for companies founded between 1998 and 2018.

We analysed 958 spinouts, a sample that comprises £19.20 billion of capital invested, 4,495 deals, and 1,907 investors. It tells us:

  • The most successful companies founded at UK universities
  • Top universities for commercialising innovation through spinouts
  • Industries that attract the most spinout investment
  • Who the top investors in university spinouts are

What is a spinout?

Commercialising academic innovation is usually done through a spinout. Their defining characteristic is that their core ‘product’ comes from university-owned intellectual property.

Beauhurst describes an academic spinout as, “a company that has been created off the back of university research and IP, and developed and commercialised by the institution’s enterprise team. Usually, the management team will be former or current researchers, sometimes even PhD students. The university, or one of its connected venture funds, will provide the company with startup capital, and will usually act as a significant shareholder in the company from the start. Additionally, the company will frequently continue to have access to the academic institution’s workspace facilities.

Startups that originate from universities, on the other hand, don’t use university intellectual property. They are founded by university employees or graduates who have been inspired by academic research.

Then there are student-owned companies and not-for-profit organisations that have no direct links to university research, but may have connections to university spinouts or startups.

University ranking data – which have had the most spinouts?

Valuation is just a small part of the UK university spinout success story. The sheer number of spinouts created by our universities is further enhancing the UK’s international reputation for innovation – and inspiring future academics.

Below are the top 10 UK universities by the number of spinouts they have solely produced, excluding spinouts that are partnerships between institutions. These are some of our leading innovation hubs.

Which universities produce the most spinouts?

Oxford (1) and Cambridge (2) are two universities with well-established, global reputations for the quality of their research. It also makes sense that there are two institutions – Imperial (3) and UCL (4) – from London, one of the world’s pre-eminent business capitals. Scottish universities are also well represented, with Edinburgh (joint 5) and Glasgow (joint 9) both featuring in the top 10.

Which universities have produced the most spinouts over the past decade?

Taking figures for the last decade, the top seven features the same universities. However, further down the list, the University of Strathclyde have worked their way into the top 10, having come just outside it prior to 2008. The real surprise with the latest figures is that the Royal College of Art comes in at number eight on the list. Its inclusion highlights how more innovation at universities is happening in new areas and isn’t just the preserve of traditionally scientific institutions.

Which university’s spinouts have the highest total value?

Accounting for almost 16% of the UK’s university spinouts, University of Oxford spinouts have a total value of £6.4 billion, with £2.9 billion by way of investment. Imperial College London is next on the list in terms of value (£2.7 billion) even though its startups make up less than 9% of the startup landscape, compared to the University of Cambridge, where more than 11% of startups have originated.

The University of Cambridge and University College London complete the top four, both with spinouts worth a total of £2.6 billion. After these, the figures drop off in terms of the total shares of spinout numbers and value.

When determining spinouts total values here, our data uses public valuation, last known private valuation and valuation when acquired/merged, all at time of data collection. The totals raised by spinouts, meanwhile, do not include merger & acquisition capital.

Which universities have the highest total value of spinouts?

On average these institutions have helped their spinouts turn every £1 of capital raised into £2.30 of value. Among these top universities, the University of Bristol lays claim to the most efficient spinouts creating £3.85 of value for every £1 of capital raised.

What are the most successful companies founded at UK universities?

The top 10 UK spinout companies in the UK by valuation are worth approximately £8.5 billion. Of these 10, eight are in the healthcare industry, carrying out activities within drug discovery, diagnostic equipment, and therapeutic devices, highlighting the field’s immensely lucrative nature.

Top 20 spinouts by valuation

Note: Previously this report has been shown with a listing for the company OxSight. It has been highlighted that the company valuation given was a one-off error with PitchBook source data. Additionally, this report previously showed a listing for the company Cytora, however upon reclassification in Beauhurst data to show MeiraGTx as a spinout, it has subsequently been removed from the top 20. The report has been updated to reflect the correct associated figures, as a result, there have been various changes to figures throughout the report. 

Top spot goes to Oxford Nanopore, a technology company (although it has healthcare applications) founded at the University of Oxford in 2005 and produces devices that analyse molecular structure. At number two is Ceres Power, an engineering firm that specialises in the creation of fuel cell technology and was founded in 2001 at Imperial College London. Next comes the first healthcare entry Exscientia, an artificial intelligence-driven drug discovery company, which was founded in 2012 at the University of Dundee.

Unsurprisingly, the world-renowned University of Oxford university claims five spinouts in the top 10. Perhaps more surprising is the absence of spinouts from the University of Cambridge in the top 10, with their first entry, Inivata, down in 17th position. Collectively, companies from the University of Oxford in the top 10 are worth £4.33 billion, over 50% of the top 10’s total value.

If we look at just the last 10 years though, only three spinouts are from the University of Oxford (worth a total of £1.47 billion). There are three more from University College London founded in the last decade, claiming four spots in total. Seven companies from the last 10 years were also in the top 10 for 1998-2008, signalling that spinouts have become more valuable in recent years.

The 10 most successful spinouts of the last decade

Which industries raise the most spinout capital?

Our report unearthed some interesting points regarding spinout areas raising capital, giving us a clearer picture of the UK spinouts landscape. It’s important to note here that capital raised and capital invested are different measures. Capital invested includes merger & acquisition deals, whereas capital raised does not. So, while the total capital invested in UK spinouts is £19.20 billion, the total capital raised is £11.99 billion.

Healthcare dominates the scene, accounting for 61% (£7.4 billion) of all capital raised and 47% (446) of the spinout cohort. IT comes second with 18% (£2.2 billion) of capital raised and 25% (242) of the spinouts.

Which industry groups attract the most investment?

  • Just over half (£6.1 billion/51%) of all capital raised went to 266 (28% of the total) spinouts in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology
  • More healthcare spinouts raised capital (£1.0 billion/8.7%) in the field of devices and supplies, a group of 132 (13.8%) companies
  • There was slightly more raised by computer hardware spinouts (£1.1 billion/9.5%), who comprise only 50 (5.2%) companies

Going into more detail, which type of economic activity sees most investment?

  • Within pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, 119 (12.4%) drug discovery spinouts account for £3.6 billion of capital raised (29.9%), and 114 (11.9%) biotechnology spinouts account for £2.2 billion (18.25%)
  • In healthcare devices and supplies, 61 (6.4%) diagnostic equipment spinouts raised £666 million (5.6%) of capital, and 28 (2.9%) therapeutic devices spinouts raised £183 million (1.5 %)
  • In terms of computer hardware, investment here is primarily made up of £1.06 billion (8.8%) capital raised by 37 (3.9%) electronic equipment and instruments spinouts

Verticals

  • Verticals increasingly highlight the dominance of healthcare, with 314 (32.8%) spinouts in life sciences raising £7.9 billion (65.7%) and 103 (10.8%) oncology spinouts raising £2.7 billion (23.2%) of capital
  • The prominence of 336 (35.1%) technology media and telecoms spinouts is also evident, with £2.8 billion (23.4%) of capital raised in this area

Which industries see the most spinout investment?

Who are the biggest investors in university spinouts?

Like Innovate UK, Horizon 2020 also provides public sector grants, but with funding from the European Union to secure Europe’s global competitiveness. In addition, Scottish Enterprise is also a government entity, but takes part in seed & venture capital rounds, as well as grant activities.

Grant awarding bodies are still very much considered investors. Although they do not take an equity stake, they still have a direct interest in the companies performing well and are still looking for a ‘return’. This ‘return’ is not an increase in value of their equity but a ‘return’ by other means, such as increasing economic activity and tackling societal challenges: creating more jobs, increasing spending within the economy, and helping to confront the climate crisis, etc. Therefore, Innovate UK, Horizon 2020, and Scottish Enterprise’s active portfolios also include companies that have received grant funding from the respective investors in which no equity stake has been taken.

University-related investors make up the largest group of the top 10, with Oxford Sciences Innovation, Oxford Spin-out Equity Management, Cambridge Enterprise and SETsquared Partnership all claiming spots.

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Methodology:

  • List of 1,981 spinouts sourced from Beauhurst, using their defining criteria. https://www.beauhurst.com/
  • Spinout list run through a search on the PitchBook database, obtaining 1,101 results (hit rate of 55.58%). https://pitchbook.com/
  • Results were reviewed and a limit of a company founding date between 01/01/1998 – 31/12/2018 was applied, obtaining a final list of 957 spinout companies
  • Final list and applicable data were downloaded from the PitchBook platform on July 16th 2021.
  • Analysis was subsequently carried out on this data and the findings are presented as in the report above.
  • Results were also filtered to show the most successful spinouts from the past decade, 01/01/2008 – 31/12/2018.