Annual Review 2021

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

To foster the culture required for a world-leading innovation ecosystem, a critical component of our work is building the entrepreneurial infrastructure that allow innovative ideas to flourish.

To stimulate this culture, OUI created the Startup Incubator, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Over that period the incubator has aided the creation of 57 startups and is continuing to build up momentum. At present, the incubator has seen a year-on-year increase in enquiries and received over 150 applications with 100 active projects currently on its books.

The current cohort range from companies like Ujji, which is developing an app for personal development, through to Debug, a cleantech company examining how insect protein can be used in animal feed and petfood, and Polymaths, an AI-driven drug discovery company.

Support for Startups

Startups joining the incubator go through a three-phase process of support.

“Phase I is essentially a six-month accelerator,” explained Cath Spence, Deputy Head of Physical Sciences at OUI. “Over the first three months, we train teams on design thinking, competitive analysis, customer discovery, lean canvas, prototyping and basic financials, with the later three months working on pitch crafting ahead of an investor demo day that the incubator organises.”

“The purpose is to make or break an idea,” added Cath. “We give the incubatees training and support, go through step-by-step with them and pull their idea apart. Then we see what’s left and agree how to turn that into a real company.”

Once the projects have cleared the demo day, startups move onto the mentorship stage. This programme gives access to support from OUI’s extended network of entrepreneurs, previous incubatees who have graduated, and partners in the ecosystem such as the Oxfordshire Business Network, the Bioescalator, the Oxford Foundry and Oxford Science Enterprises. Together, individuals from this group will provide advice and guidance to the incubatees. The Incubator team is currently working on adding a board-shadowing pilot programme to the mix, allowing early career researchers to get hands-on with entrepreneurship, and opening up its mentorship programme so it can be an asset for the whole Oxford ecosystem.

Typically, following a first round of investment, Incubator companies will be assigned an OUI investment manager to help them build the corporate structure and operations of an active business. That investment manager will be available to them until a successful exit.

The Incubator is currently gearing up to welcoming its latest cohort, as well as the return of the popular Student Entrepreneur Programme (StEP).

“We had to close off the last StEP virtually under the first lockdown but decided to hold off a new iteration until COVID passed,” said Cath. “This sort of hands-on entrepreneurship is very much a contact sport.”

The new StEP will begin in October, and will offer teams the opportunity to commercialise intellectual property from OUI, training and mentorship from the Foundry, a £1,500 stipend, and a chance at receiving investment from OSE.

Another critical part of this infrastructure is the Oxford Foundry which is also playing a leading role in stimulating startups. The Foundry has now had three cohorts pass through its doors, supporting 32 ventures in total. Collectively, those companies have raised over £43m, are valued at over £150m, have created over 170 jobs, and 86% are revenue generating.

“The last twelve months have been both chaotic and devastating, but a result of that has been to push forward entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Ana Bakshi, Director at the Foundry. “Events over the last year – climate change, Black Lives Matter, COVID – led us to review ourselves and our purpose. Last year has taught us that we need change, that entrepreneurship can be that force for change, and the Foundry can be the enablers for that change.”

Within three weeks of the first lockdown, The Foundry launched its Pandemic Response Programme, which included a COVID startup grant. It aimed to be a rapid solutions builder, received 200 signups from the Oxford community and raised £200,000 in two weeks.

Looking forward, The Foundry and the OUI Incubator will be working with other partners to develop further support for entrepreneurship and increase Oxford’s presence as a startup hub. For this to be a success, we are actively searching for and looking to partner investors excited about early-stage companies to get involved in the wider Oxford ecosystem, as well as corporates interested in building relationships with our startup portfolio by providing mentorship, resources and access to markets.

OUI created the OUI Incubator, which is now celebrating its 10th year in business. In that time, the incubator has aided the creation of 57 startups, and is continuing to build up momentum.

The Incubator team is currently working on adding board shadowing pilots to the mix, allowing early career researchers to get hands-on with entrepreneurship, and opening up its mentorship programme so it can be an asset for the whole Oxford Cluster.