Raven conducts well orchestrated Cambridge Enterprise mission
Tony Raven, CEO of the university’s commercialisation arm, Cambridge Enterprise, has presided over the organisation’s most successful ever era in terms of money raised to back ‘light blue’ spin-outs and support their sustainable advance to a global stage.
He hands over the reins in September to Dr Diarmuid O’Brien, chief innovation & enterprise officer at Trinity College Dublin, who has been appointed to sustain CE’s impressive track record of success in supporting Cambridge innovation.
Dr Raven points out that this success has been much broader and deeper than mere investment in University spin-out enterprises. First-class consultancy services in addition to technology transfer prowess are other aces in the Cambridge Enterprise hand.
Very much a team player, Dr Raven is swift to offer an analogy that epitomises his role: “I imagine myself standing on a podium and there is no orchestra in front of me. I cannot produce anything on my own.
“Without the key players within Cambridge Enterprise we would not have been so successful and would certainly not be facing the exciting future before us.”
Dr Raven says the University as a whole is very positive about the future as the UK emerges from a series of Covid-related lockdowns.
“Personally I am amazed how business has carried on regardless. Looking at Cambridge Enterprise we started the pandemic with the view that our portfolio companies would hunker down to survive the ensuing 12 months.
“The pandemic has really brought out the role of Cambridge and other universities in terms of resilience and also innovation in a crisis. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid is just one example. Wherever one looks, universities have combined with businesses to help fight coronavirus.
“The Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine is on our doorstep. The other major Covid vaccines are collaborations between large corporates and universities.
“Wherever one looks Cambridge University innovations are making an impact in a number of significant commercial arenas and academic IP generally is a game-changer in so many business segments.
“Not least of these is in climate change where university ventures are driving the UK toward a zero carbon future.”
More Cambridge University dons and student entrepreneurs than ever before are aware that Cambridge Enterprise is on the doorstep to secure essential growth capital and underpin commercial progress.
That doesn’t mean that every investment proposition raised secures backing from CE. Dr Raven says: “We are seeing a rising tide of investment opportunities but one cannot back them all. We do get our ‘Your baby’s ugly’ moments’ but thankfully they are few and far between.
“We are getting better at saying no to propositions that are wanting in some way but even better at explaining why we are saying no.
“We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom and people we turn down have many alternative options to try to raise growth finance. We wish them well and tell them that if they are successful elsewhere to come back and have a glass of champagne with us.”
Figures vary, depending on the source of your information, but even hardened VCs have been shown to get investment decisions wrong as often as nine times out of 10. The truth of commercial success is some years down the track so it can often take a relative age to prove decision makers deliriously right or disastrously wrong.
Within this framework, the volume and variety of CE-backed ventures has never been higher – or more likely of ongoing success. Dr Raven’s team has developed unprecedented links with serial entrepreneurs in Cambridge and has strengthened relationships and contacts among alumni around the globe.
“This is where we are so lucky,” says Dr Raven. “As I have said before, our serial entrepreneurs have not sold companies and headed for yachts in the Caribbean or retired to the golf course. They are here in the cluster in labs, working with students, collaborating with companies and investing in the potential of young businesses that they meet.”
Circumstances vary regarding investment opportunities for companies starting within the university but Cambridge Enterprise will typically cover around a quarter of a round and will usually follow on in subsequent raisings.
Dr Raven believes that the fact the University is seen to be putting money into one of the ventures it has bred adds credibility.
“It changes the whole perception if we are seen to have skin in the game,” he believes.
As he surveys the landscape he inherited and has helped to continue shaping, Dr Raven is enormously enthused about potential future opportunities for Cambridge University innovation that can help change the world.
He is heartened by the enthusiasm of global governments to champion university research and its broader application for boosting economies.
He is enthused by the way governments, academia and the corporate world have joined forces to de-risk opportunities arising from blue skies R & D and build bridges of economic and technological certainty across so-called valleys of death.
Dr Raven believes Cambridge – “a great place with great networks” – is well positioned to help drive global science & technology advancements that will help make the world a better place. He cites rising volumes of US, Asian and European investment in Cambridge innovation and believes the cluster is perfectly poised to benefit from what many predict will be a major exodus from Silicon Valley towards focused corridors of academia-driven enterprise such as Cambridge.
By the time he leaves, Dr Raven is confident that CE will be handing new CEO Dr O’Brien a torch of enlightenment to carry into fresh innovation forays with genuine global impact.
• This is the second in a series of articles on executives leading Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.