Annual Review 2021

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

Ahead of the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow in November 2021, the eyes of the world will be on the UK and what we as a nation can bring to the table in tackling the biggest looming threat to the planet: climate change.

While the UK has taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint and become carbon neutral by 2050, the average UK citizen is still contributing seven tonnes of emissions per annum, which is above the global average. Further, the UK’s emissions since 1750 are estimated to be around 80 billion tonnes, placing the country fifth for overall cumulative emissions.

Much of our carbon debt comes from the Industrial Revolution and the following decades. Arguably, as it was UK technology and innovation that underpinned the Industrial Revolution, with environmental consequences that were unimaginable at the time, the UK has an obligation to play a role to play in moving the planet towards a more sustainable future. Simply put, can we as a nation use that same flair for innovation that created the crisis to get us out of it?

At Oxford University Innovation, we certainly believe so. Oxford’s researchers from all four divisions are addressing the imperative need for a sustainable future. While a good portion of the University’s output on sustainability tackles policy and governance, Oxford’s ideas are also powering an array of commercialisation opportunities.

Cleaning up with our IP

The intellectual property in the OUI portfolio includes cleantech projects which stretch across transport, sustainable materials, energy and cleaning up the environment. We’re supporting researchers working on hydrogen fuel and electric vehicles, sustainable chemicals, energy storage and fusion, and carbon capture and recycling projects, and many more projects in these sectors.

To date, the University has created 24 spinout companies in the cleantech space, representing nearly 10% of our overall portfolio. The OUI Incubator is filling up with cleantech ideas, such as Debug which is looking to deploy insect protein in animal feed and pet food. Our social venture programme is a natural fit for cleantech and targeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with our 11 social ventures already addressing 5 of the 17 SDGs.

While many of these companies are still in the early stages of their development, some of our more mature spinouts are making waves in the cleantech space.

Oxford PV is developing next generation perovskite solar cell technology. During 2020, the company set a new record for solar energy, converting 29.5% of sunlight into energy. Compared to the current generation of silicon-based solar cells which have conversion rate of 15-20%, Oxford PV’s technology is light years ahead of the competition. The company also unveiled a research programme to take its technology to 37% efficiency over five years in 2018, and followed the news by raising £65m during 2019. Oxford PV plans to begin selling its products to the public next year.

Another company working on energy solutions is First Light Fusion. Aiming to deliver fusion energy over the next decade, FLF recently raised $25m in December 2020, which the company used to complete upgrades to its “Machine 3” – capable of discharging 200,000 volts and in excess of 14 million ampere (equivalent to nearly 500 lightning strikes) within two microseconds. The next step for the company will be demonstrating “gain” (ie. more energy created in the reaction than it takes to generate it) in the coming years with plans to open a plant in the 2030s.

Beyond energy production, electric motor spinout YASA recently teamed with Ferrari to help the Italian supercar manufacturer deliver its first e-supercar. Earlier in the year the company opened its first Oxfordshire-based manufacturing facility, putting Oxford technology in the driving seat of the electric car movement. As this report was being prepared, the company was acquired by Mercedes Benz. YASA will keep its staff, locations and branding, and the deal opens up a new and exciting chapter for one of Oxford’s biggest cleantech assets.

A novel addition to our cleantech line-up this year has been Ivy Farms, the first UK company working on cultured meat. Formed in 2019 but coming out of stealth mode in 2021, the company aims to deliver lab-grown pork products before moving onto beef in a way that eliminates suffering for animals. Bovine emissions alone presently account for twice the environmental impact that all the world’s vehicles add to the atmosphere. Consequently, should Ivy Farms prove successful in its efforts to move meat eaters from traditional methods to cultured meat, its impact on both deforestation and cattle emissions would be immense.

Solving the climate crisis will require a multi-faceted approach that stretches over all sectors of society. However, at its core, we need technologies that both address our current damaging lifestyles, and underpin the needs of future generations in a sustainable fashion. Accomplishing this goal will require innovators in vibrant and supportive ecosystems from around the world. The University stands with those innovators to deliver a better, cleaner world, and OUI is ready to help Oxford achieve that impact.

Oxford PV is developing next generation perovskite solar cell technology. During 2020, the company set a new record for solar energy, converting 29.5% of sunlight into energy.

Oxford PV’s worlds most efficient panels

Beyond energy production, electric motor spinout YASA Motors recently teamed with Ferrari to help the Italian supercar manufacturer deliver its first e-supercar and has been acquired by Mercedes Benz.

YASA’s proprietary axial-flux electric motor