OXFORD, England—The world’s oldest universities are learning to promote their newest technologies using American-style entrepreneurialism.
Across Europe, academic institutions are intensifying efforts to get promising ideas out of their labs and into commercial use, following the successful examples of Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other U.S. leaders in the field.
Breaking with ivory-tower traditions, European schools are encouraging their academics to license technological breakthroughs or start businesses. The storied institutions are establishing tech-transfer offices and investment funds to speed commercialization.
“We’ve set up more companies in the past five years than in the previous 795,” said
University of Oxford’s pro-vice chancellor for innovation, at a recent conference on artificial intelligence that touted Oxford’s AI-related startups.
Oxford until 2014 established at most five companies annually using technology developed in its labs, lagging behind rival Cambridge University. Since then, Oxford has ramped up to at least 20 a year, boosted in part by Oxford Sciences Innovation, an investment fund set up in 2015 independent of the university. With £600 million ($737 million) raised from global investors ranging from
and Sequoia Capital of the U.S. to
Tencent Holdings Ltd.
and Huawei Technologies Co. from China, it is the world’s largest fund targeting academic spinouts.
Academics can find startup life liberating. “Universities and governments work at a very different speed,” said
a professor of mechanical engineering who co-founded First Light Fusion Ltd., an OSI-backed Oxford spinout.
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ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology where Albert Einstein studied, has spun out at least 20 companies annually since 2007, making it a world leader, according to Global University Venturing, a company that tracks spinouts.
Not every university has the potential to become another Stanford, seeding Silicon Valley, say spinout veterans. To succeed, schools must be in communities that nurture tech ecosystems, with financing nearby and veteran entrepreneurs willing to advise novices. Tenured professors outside Europe’s startup hot spots often still balk at disrupting the routine of research, teaching and publishing scholarly articles. Smaller, less-known universities and institutions in Southern and Eastern Europe lag behind the pacesetters.
At Oxford, which has quietly built a tech cluster, “alumni always want to come back to help,” said
chief financial officer of OSI, the investment fund.