A new Research England study provides fresh insights into factors that enable university entrepreneurial ecosystems to flourish, and highlights areas where UK strengths are recognised in Europe, and where we can learn from European counterparts.

Hosted by NCUB, a Research England/London universities group has today launched a report commissioned from SQW that examines and compares university entrepreneurial ecosystems in the UK and in wider Europe. This provides additional insights to our previous US/UK ecosystem comparison study. Research England takes three main messages from European perspectives:

  • Ecosystems are diverse but we can learn from international best practice – and share learning from our areas of strength.
  • Building a high-quality ecosystem requires attention to a range of conditions and factors. The UK is regarded as strong on access to finance, for example, but we can learn from Europe on the distinctive talent developments needed for entrepreneurial ecosystems.
  • Big national regulatory levers – implementation of Bayh Dole in USA for example – don’t achieve much without attention to these details.

Diverse models – common challenges

Just as in the US and UK, universities in Europe act as anchors for innovation and for clusters. University ecosystems are made up of a complex interaction between universities and their local environments. We understand that ecosystem models are not necessarily directly transferrable, but a response to specific opportunities.[1] As such, we recognise too that policies and approaches employed to commercialise research are a product of the wider national legislative and regulatory environment, alongside these specific ecosystem features. A change in policies can have unintended consequences if the wider web of enabling conditions is not properly accounted for – for example an often cited paper comparing the very different university IP ownership regimes in Sweden (professors privilege) and the USA (university ownership) suggests that the disruptive effects incurred from changing policies can be significant.[2]

But we can still learn from the experience of other ecosystems – and we have.

The SQW study took five of the most developed UK ecosystems (London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge) and identified relevant matches with ecosystems in Europe for comparison.

Out of the conversations between these matches we found that:

  • the UK ecosystems are recognised as being world leading in attracting private investment and raising and university funds, while European ecosystems are similarly admired but on supporting student enterprise and developing a culture of entrepreneurship.
  • There are also fascinating examples of both similarities and differences:
    • spin-outs at ETH Zurich are predominantly founded by PhD students, at Oxford by senior academics.
    • Helsinki, Dublin and Edinburgh all grapple with how best to attract and retain talent – Helsinki and Dublin are looking to develop joint initiatives with their ecosystem partners to holistically address the problem.
    • Manchester and Vienna employ different but complementary approaches to business engagement – Manchester has strong established links with larger corporates, while Vienna has similar but with their local pool of start-ups.

A framework for future collaboration

UK and European researchers, universities and businesses have a long history of successful collaboration but there is so much more that we can learn from each other – some examples:

What European ecosystems say they are interested in about the UK Finance/seed funding for early stage, raising university funds
What UK ecosystems say they are interested in about Europe Approaches to supporting student enterprise, attracting/retaining talent and skills, entrepreneurship training
Both ways Developing industry partnerships/business links, encouraging a culture of commercialisation, using experienced successful entrepreneurs to support future success

A recipe for success

The UK is building on world leading strengths in our universities and their technology transfer offices. Research England has played a key role in creating a supportive environment to enable their success –through a new strengthened focus on commercialisation in the £250M/year HEIF, the £125M Connecting Capability Fund (CCF) programme and our RED fund. Our CCF projects have been another way to explore different ecosystems – as example, in the Northern Accelerator project led by Durham University for the North East. Through RED we have also supported important collaborative partnerships like the TenU.[3]

UK ecosystems are among the best in the world at commercialising research – and at RE we are keen to build upon our successes by seeking new and innovative approaches to supporting ecosystem collaborations and international partnerships. The SQW report provides important insights on how we could take this further.

We would be interested to hear from university ecosystems partnerships interested in contributing to our international matching and analysis work– get in touch at KEPolicy@re.ukri.org.

[1] See, for example https://www.ukri.org/blog/is-london-the-uks-silicon-valley/

[2] Åstebro, T., Braguinsky, S., Braunerhjelm, P., and Broström, A. (2018) Bayh-Dole versus the “Professor’s Privilege” (Working Paper No. 2018: 56). Swedish Entrepreneurship Forum, Sweden.

[3] https://ten-u.org/