Spinning at speed

Spin-out companies form an important part of Teesside University’s business agenda as director of academic enterprise Laura Woods tells Peter Jackson.

Money is not the main reason behind Teesside University spinning out commercial businesses from the fruits of research. As Laura Woods explains, the key driver is academic.

“The reason we do them is because we want to keep relevant to the economy and society the research we do at Teesside. We are very focused on making sure all our activity has a direct application to the needs of business and society.’’

Spin-outs also fulfil a broader purpose of demonstrating to the world at large the practical benefits of university research. Also the university wants to keep its academic staff close to the world of business.

“Developing a spin out is a bit of a steep learning curve for everybody involved because everyone takes a different path,’’ she says.

“It’s a really useful experience for our colleagues going through that process.’’ For the academics involved the experience gained in setting up and running a spin-out informs and enriches their teaching.

“It has a massive impact on their teaching and their research, so it’s students who ultimately get the benefit, of these experiences,’’ says Woods.

The university will not set up a spinout unless it feels there is a real chance of commercial success and it has five currently operating.

They are an important element of what we are doing so we make sure we put resources and support into making them happen where there is a strong case for a spinout,’’ says Woods. It is not the only way to commercialise research.

It did its first spin-out five years ago. They developed from the considerable work Teesside does in encouraging start-ups by students. The university’s intellectual property, IP, policy is that the fruits of a student’s research belong to the student but when the product or idea results from a member of staff’s work at the university the IP is the university’s.

In some cases licensing is felt to be more appropriate. In other cases the university decides that the research does not present it with an appropriate commercial opportunity but it will give the IP to the member of staff and allow them to develop the idea commercially.

When research does result in a spin-out the university and staff member agree the division of equity and set up a board to manage the company. Teesside would hope it would go on to attract investment from a venture capitalist and over time its equity stake would fall.

Teesside has conducted an audit of all its research and looked at what commercial opportunities this throws up.

“So we have a number of potential spin-outs on the books now that we are developing alongside the ones that are already in place,’’ says Woods. The spin-outs present a challenge for the staff involved.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s never straightforward but once somebody is engaged in the process then they really get enthused by it,’’ says Woods.

“It makes a massive difference, it’s such an exciting place to be when you are developing a new company, especially if you have the support you need which we try to make sure is there.

“We try to make sure we provide the right support, either from within the university where we have knowledge transfer and commercialisation expertise or working with external partners making sure we have commercially minded people who can provide the advice and the guidance and the support to help the business go in the right direction. It would be too easy to set up a spin-out and say, right, you’re on your own and then watch it fail because the person involved hasn’t got the know-how and expertise to make it a commercial success.

“That’s a fundamentally important part of it all.’’

But, however daunting the process, those involved enjoy the ride. “The people who are establishing the spinouts are really good advocates of that process and they help the enthuse and encourage others to do the same,’’ says Woods. “It’s a hard world but once you’re involved you get totally immersed in it.’’