Collaboration for researchers and academics can take many different forms, and is instrumental in ensuring Knowledge Exchange between researchers and businesses. We are currently seeing researchers partnering with both businesses and university spin-outs across the UK to play key roles in the fight against coronavirus. From developing rapid testing systems to working towards a vaccine, researchers across the UK have been fundamental contributors in this time of crisis.

The spotlight on Knowledge Exchange being discussed daily in the media, perhaps by a different name is giving KE a big push. Due to its pertinence, the flow of knowledge between researchers, businesses and the NHS is taking centre stage and being discussed more widely than before.

Exchange of knowledge and ideas has clearly been beneficial in working on innovative projects in response to Covid-19, but it will be interesting to see how this momentum is used to propel innovation and collaboration in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Spin Outs & Coronavirus

University spin-outs are instrumental in transforming university research into applied inventions, allowing for previously unexploited research to be developed into a practical application. Approximately 3000 IP-based spin-outs were established in the UK between 2003-2018, and the commercialisation of university research has been used as a key mechanism for the transfer of specialist research knowledge into society.

During this period, many MedTech spin-outs received funding in efforts to try and find a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19. Investment in small start-ups and spin-outs developing technologies that are needed urgently is unsurprising but it is encouraging to see so many UK based university spin-outs be so involved in the fight against COVID-19.

Post-pandemic, will the commercial potential of spin-outs be leveraged, or do trends suggest a halt in investment due to competing priorities?

Oxford University Innovation (OUI) have speculated that spin-outs could be hit harder by the recession post-COVID-19 than from the 2008 financial crash. The widespread global impact of coronavirus has meant that there are no markets globally that have been unaffected by the pandemic, and thus securing future funding for university spin-outs will likely prove difficult.

Early stage spin-outs are expected to face a higher risk from the slowdown of funding due to not having yet secured revenue. This is of course further impacted by the fact that being reliant on research ideas and finding the most suitable path for commercialisation, they will likely struggle to attract capital. This is worsened by the fact that many spin-outs may have seen their operations halted temporarily, as labs not focused on coronavirus related research have been closed. The ways in which Universities have been supporting their spin-outs was discussed in April’s blog post, but with the economic impact of the crisis worsening, ensuring survival of spin-outs becomes a more difficult feat.

What does the future hold for Spin-outs & Knowledge Exchange?

Technological knowledge often is the product of human capital, and by employing a structure that enables researchers to work on collaborations with businesses, it allows for rapid improvement and widens the existing range of technological capabilities. Having more fluidity in the career trajectory of researchers is beneficial both for academics looking to widen their skill set and gain industry experience, and for businesses to be able to benefit from working with highly skilled specialists.

We have seen such commendable technological advancements in this period and so many beneficial examples of businesses and researchers working together directly that keeping up this momentum in aiding recovery from COVID-19 is key. We are currently in the beginning of a recession, and typically when faced with a crisis, businesses focus on short term needs. This issue also currently applies to Universities, due to the high probability of fewer students choosing to enrol next September, financial priorities will likely cause funding to be diverted from spin-outs. However, data collected from the early 1980’s, early 1990’s and 2001 recession years indicates that companies who continued to invest in innovation improved against competitors in the recovery phase.

As a proportion of total deals, Government and corporate investors have been less likely to be involved in University Spin-outs, with Private equity and Venture Capitalist firms making the most deals with spin-outs. However, there have been several UK spin-outs who have recently gained funding from Innovate UK, particularly MedTech spin-outs such as InoCardia who have received £50,000 from the government to assess the risks of new COVID-19 drugs having a negative impact on the heart, or Thomson Screening Solutions Ltd. who are using their technology to administer large scale Coronavirus testing. Whilst the financial impact of COVID-19 cannot be measured accurately, and therefore optimism for innovation investment may perhaps be misplaced, it is clear that the benefits reaped from investment in spin-outs and partnering with researchers thus far have been notable, and it would be an extremely positive outcome to see more successful collaborations in the future.