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16 August, 2021 - 23:50 By Tony Quested

Cambridge Enterprise sowing the seeds of commercial excellence

Recent research showed that the University of Cambridge has produced more graduate founders than any other UK university. It competes with the best of the US – and that means Cambridge is in a global elite for technology transfer.

Cambridge Enterprise – the University’s tech transfer powerhouse – excels at the very coal face of academic research and its subsequent commercialisation.

The university’s research output is prodigious and diverse. It ranges from the bleeding edges of life science and DeepTech and embraces globally sought-after technologies that extend battery life, enhance quantum computing, accelerate 3D printing techniques, fast-track genomics and synthetic biology propositions and improve prognosis for patients suffering from all manner of diseases.

Cambridge Enterprise’s portfolio companies have progressed to raise more than £2 billion in further investment and grant funding after being identified and championed. 

The successes are way too many to mention here but have included XO1 – a privately held asset-centric virtual biopharmaceutical company founded to develop the anti-thrombin antibody ichorcumab. It was acquired by Janssen Pharmaceuticals in 2015 for an undisclosed sum.

Another major coup was the acquisition of BlueGnome by Illumina in 2012. BlueGnome specialised in the screening of genetic abnormalities associated with developmental delay, cancer and infertility. 

It was also one of the first companies to receive funding from Cambridge’s Challenge Fund. 

Cambridge CMOS Sensors, Lumora, Quethera and VocalIQ are just a few of the other stand-out successes championed via the University’s Seed Funds. VocalIQ was snapped up by Apple in a bid to improve the performance of its Siri virtual assistant technology.

For the record, Cambridge Enterprise invests the University’s seed funds in new companies started by academics, researchers, staff, and students, building a bridge between research and commercial development.

Early stage capital and support is pivotal to the success of new technology companies in what is often seen as a high-risk section of the investment spectrum. 

Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds invests in University spin-outs alongside venture capital firms, business angel networks and others seeking to invest in early stage opportunities.

Christine Martin, currently Acting Head of Seed Funds for Cambridge Enterprise, has overseen spin-outs such as Z-factor (now a Centessa company), PhoreMost, Qkine, PolyProX, Pharmenable and Spirea. 

Previously, she worked for six years in the Life Sciences Tech Transfer team managing licensing of University IP. Dr Martin also managed the University of Cambridge-GSK open innovation drug discovery initiative based at the SBC, working closely with academics to gain funding to develop translational projects.Prior to that, she spent 11 years working for Biotica, a biotechnology spin-out from the University of Cambridge as department director and project leader.

Dr Martin, who marks 10 years with Cambridge Enterprise in September, leads an initiative which supports founding teams taking opportunities to an investment committee packed with experienced investors and entrepreneurs.

The committee is led by former DisplayLink CFO John Lee and includes Dr Keith Blundy, Charles Cotton, Derek Jones and serial ‘Dontrepreneur’ Steve Young, who sold speech technology pioneer Entropic to Microsoft in 1999 and VocalIQ to Apple a decade and a half later.

Dr Martin pays tribute to “an amazing team” running Seed Funds which had around 116 companies in its portfolio at the end of July. She acknowledges the tremendous hard work put in by all involved at Cambridge Enterprise to ensure that student entrepreneurs and faculty are well aware that support for their budding ventures is on hand.

And she pays tribute to sister organisations such as Cambridge Innovation Capital and Parkwalk Advisors who co-invest in exciting propositions. Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds does not act as lead investor as opportunities snowball, rather an anchor presence around which waves of syndicated investment swell.

Dr Martin says: “We want entrepreneurs whose companies we support to be ambitious but we always endeavour to ensure that they have a solid and credible financial plan going forward. We want their success to be long term and sustainable.

“We often become involved before promising propositions have a formal business plan but our experienced technology transfer specialists work with prospects to develop the value proposition and commercial strategy to prepare them for a funding round.

“We prepare them to pitch to the Investment Committee but only when we believe they are ready. Each company has a Seed Funds champion. The pitch to the Committee is relatively short, maybe half an hour, and with lots of questions. The experience these young companies gain through this process is invaluable.

“If the Investment Committee endorses the business we will take a stake in the initial investment round but this will usually be as a share in a broader syndicate, not as lead investor.

“It is very rare that if we endorse a company to the Investment Committee our recommendation for support is refused. There are often conditions to an investment, and occasionally the Investment Committee will say ‘this one is not for us’ but companies are always welcome to try elsewhere and prove us wrong. 

“Because we don’t back a venture doesn’t mean that there aren’t investors out there that will find the proposition attractive.”

Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds (which includes the University of Cambridge Enterprise Fund co-managed with Parkwalk) has invested around £8 million a year over the last three years in fledgling enterprises and takes its responsibility to ventures that seek help incredibly seriously. 

The returns consistently being achieved on ventures that Seed Funds supports evidences the thoroughness and dedication that Dr Martin’s team brings to each and every one of the propositions it is asked to determine and nurture. 

“Beyond funding support we take our mentoring role extremely seriously,” Dr Martin says. “Young businesses need finance but they also need strong guidance to ensure they understand the real value in their venture and how best to maximise it.”

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