Universities need more entrepreneurship initiatives if UK is to rival US, says Deeptech Labs chair

03 May, 2024
Ewan Kirk, a leading UK technology entrepreneur and early-stage investor, has warned that the quality of spin-outs from British universities is too low.
Ewan Kirk, founder of Cantab Capital Partners and Chairman of Deeptech Labs

Kirk, who founded Cantab Capital Partners and is the Chairman of VC fund and accelerator Deeptech Labs, says many UK universities aren’t properly equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to successfully found and scale successful start-ups.

He notes that the Golden Triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London is a world leader in facilitating entrepreneurship but says this success must be replicated across other regions and universities to unlock the full potential of the nation’s higher education system.

Data from Beauhurst reveals that just 2.52 per cent of UK spin-outs were high-growth companies last year and Kirk believes this is having a detrimental impact on the UK’s reputation for entrepreneurship – with Silicon Valley continuing to dominate as a hub for innovation and business.

CEO of Microsoft AI Mustafa Suleyman recently told the Evening Standard that “being a founder is cooler in Silicon Valley” and that entrepreneurship in London is “expensive and inaccessible”. Kirk says UK universities can help rectify this issue by introducing more entrepreneurship-focused courses and initiatives.

As the Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, Kirk provides lectures, course material, and mentorship to mathematics students embarking on, or exploring, entrepreneurship.

He says: “The UK wants to become a science and technology superpower and the greatest tool in our arsenal for achieving this and re-energising our economy is our university spin-out ecosystem. But currently our educational brilliance often isn’t translating into the business world to the extent it could be.

“We have a world-leading higher education system. UK universities are at the forefront of some of the world’s greatest research and innovation, but only a fraction of university spin-outs become high-growth businesses.

“If we are to truly unlock the economic potential of our educational and academic ecosystem, every science and technology student and academic must be made aware of the entrepreneurship opportunities available to them.

“Of course, starting a new business is always fraught with risk, and success can never be guaranteed, but the higher education sector in the UK could do much more to promote and support a culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship.”

Many UK universities have struggled in recent years, with inflation increasing salaries and operating costs leading to spending per student plummeting since 2012, according to the FT.

Kirk, who also founded the Turner Kirk Trust, a philanthropic foundation that sponsors STEM and education causes in the UK, says the nation must do more if it’s to continue attracting world-class talent and investment to its higher education sector.

He says: “The US has a better regulatory system and capital-friendly environment for entrepreneurship and enterprise. While we can’t compete on these grounds in the short term, we can develop a similar culture of risk-taking by bridging academia with practical know-how as early on as possible.

“Our spin-out ecosystem needs a holistic approach, covering everything from course content and private-sector partnerships to investment incentives and research infrastructure. Engendering a culture of innovation throughout our higher education system must be at the core of our approach.

“Many of our universities are now embracing commercialisation, offering assistance with IP development and various services for founders, but there is still far more we can do.”

A 2023 report by Sifted found that Oxford, Cambridge, and London account for 46 per cent of all UK spin-outs. Kirk believes more British universities outside this bubble must offer the same culture and level of support and access to networking opportunities to facilitate more spin-outs to unlock the whole of our higher education success.

He added: “The Golden Triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London is already a world leader in this space and university-investor partnerships such as Northern Gritstone and Midlands Mindforge are also making inroads. But this is not true across the board and it doesn't reach all students and academics.

“Stronger entrepreneurship representation at universities helps build a much healthier attitude to business and will unlock equal opportunity beyond the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

“People seem to forget that as much as 80 per cent of billion dollar companies are co-founded, most often by two individuals who meet at university. This suggests the earlier we can encourage peer-to-peer collaboration and support it, the better.”