Annual Review 2021

Highlighting the activities of spinouts, startups, and social enterprises from Oxford University Innovation

In 2018, the United Nations laid out its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals that it described as a “blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”. Ever since, the SDGs have become guiding principles in innovation (and not just because innovation forms part of goal 9).

University innovation has historically already been tackling some areas of the SDGs. At Oxford, spinout companies are tackling the goal of affordable and clean energy, with solar panel firm Oxford PV leading the next generation of perovskite technology and First Light Fusion moving us closer to the promise of fusion energy. Similarly, Oxford’s ground-breaking research in the life sciences has translated into countless spinout companies, many of which have long-since graduated from concept stage to publicly listed companies creating impact and improving lives in the UK and beyond.

However, there are goals in the SDGs, such as eliminating poverty and hunger, where the profit-centric model of the traditional spinout is not appropriate. To address these goals, the University is increasingly turning to purpose-driven companies, social ventures, to translate its ideas into impact.

Social Ventures

Since we began creating social ventures at the end of 2018, OUI has started 11 new companies that are tackling five of the SDGs.

One such company is the Global Health Network (GHN), a social venture which is aiming to improve research outcomes for diseases and regions where evidence and data is lacking. It does this by enabling an open movement of research information, data and know-how between organisations and communities in these areas through its eponymous digital platform. The GHN aims to be an “open online science park”, with organisations and networks owning their own hubs on the Network, providing them with workspaces that allow for both the amassing of data and documents by individual hubs and the seamless sharing with other hubs. Ultimately, GHN aims to catalyse safe, ethical and robust research in areas where this is currently lacking, laying the framework for health research that can positively impact some of the most deprived regions of the world.

The mission to help the most vulnerable in our society is also carried forward by two social ventures tackling poverty in two different ways: Greater Change and sOPHIa. The former is focused on helping the homeless in the UK by enabling secure, cashless donations from the public which assist them to raise funds to move away from destitution. Greater Change partners with local homeless charities to find out what’s needed to help individuals get back on their feet – for example, cash for ID or deposit on a rental property. It then works with the individual and the charity to create a narrative and a fundraising page which passers-by can interact with and donate to. Meanwhile, sOPHIa is working with companies in Latin America to identify policies and practices which keep people in poverty and collaborates with them to find solutions which can lift them out of it.

One of our social ventures, Skylark Works, exists primarily to help other social ventures and charities thrive. The consultancy company works with nonprofit organisations to help them define the impact they aim to achieve, as well as working with them to develop the agility and sustainability required to ensure the impact they generate is long-lasting. The company draws from its commercial work with socially-minded corporates, as well as philanthropic donations and sponsorship, to be able to offer this support to non-profits on a pro bono basis. This allows Skylark to bring its network of associates linked to Oxford University to help nonprofits achieve their goals.

Finding new ways to help social ventures achieve their potential is an aspiration OUI shares with Skylark. In order to do this, OUI has partnered with 11 other institutions, including the University of Cambridge, to launch Impact12.

Set up in May of this year, Impact12 is a fund offering bespoke investment support for social ventures. Initially raising £8m, Impact12 will be deployed across a region supported by 12 universities which encompasses Oxford, Cambridge and the Midlands. Our shared vision for the fund is that it can be used to combine the ideas, resources and gravitational mass of Oxbridge with the community-centric social expertise of other partners to unleash a tsunami of social ventures across England.

Together with our peers, we firmly believe that these companies have a critical role to play in addressing the toughest societal challenges. Through the creation, support and growth of social ventures, our social venture programme will help us achieve the goal of harnessing sustainable innovation emerging from Oxford and other universities to create positive societal change in the UK and beyond.

Spinout companies are already tackling the goal of affordable and clean energy, such as cleantech firm Oxford PV leading development of next-generation solar panel technology.

Our social venture programme will help us achieve the goal of utilising sustainable innovation emerging from Oxford and other universities and create positive societal change in the UK and beyond.