Over the past 15 years an entrepreneurial spirit has gradually suffused the academic world. University researchers who would once have regarded commercial exploitation of their work as decidedly dirty now see it as deeply desirable.
The Institute of Biomedical Engineering, recently established at Imperial College London, provides a good illustration of this new spirit. IBE staff have been enterprising not only in spinning out companies – seven so far – but also in raising money to build and run a postgraduate research institute at the heart of Imperial’s South Kensington campus.
A particularly innovative feature of IBE’s £28m fundraising was the £10m invested by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a charity that focuses on culture, education and the environment (see below).
The driving force behind IBE’s creation is Chris Toumazou, an Imperial College veteran who joined its electrical engineering department as a postdoctoral researcher in 1986 and became one of its youngest ever professors in 1993.
Prof Toumazou, now 46, says: “Richard Sykes [rector of Imperial College] and I could see we had one of the largest and best medical schools and one of the largest and best engineering schools in Europe, but there was nothing to bring them together. Now we have a world-class interdisciplinary research institute to do that.”
In his snappy suit and red tie, he exudes energy as he explains the IBE’s inception while striding the corridors of the institute.
The focus is on “disruptive technologies” rather than progressive improvement, says Prof Toumazou, who was born and bred in England although his family background is Greek Cypriot. The main fields in IBE’s research agenda are bionics and personalised medicine, bio-nanotechnology and robotic surgery.
At the same time, spin-outs are at the top of IBE’s commercial agenda, with Prof Toumazou himself leading the way. “Academics are becoming much more entrepreneurial these days,” he says – with Imperial Innovations, the college’s technology transfer and venture capital company, to provide advice and seed funding.
“The old university attitude of ‘publish or perish’ has changed,” he adds. “Students and academics are realising that institutions such as Imperial College are also wealth-generators. It is very satisfying to be in a university where you have the freedom to innovate and yet know that there is a path to translate your work into industry.”
Prof Toumazou’s own research background is in ultra-low-power semiconductors, which he has developed into wearable “smart sensors” for continuous monitoring of the human body. “We can replace the big monitors in hospitals with intelligent, disposable plasters that you throw away after wearing for a couple of days,” he says. These “digital plasters” are being designed both for patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes and for healthy people, such as sportsmen.
His spin-out company, Toumaz Technology, was set up a little before IBE was formally founded in 2004, although Prof Toumazou now counts it as the institute’s first start-up. Armed with the rights to exploit intellectual property created by his IBE research group, Toumaz raised £2.8m equity funding and then, in October 2005, was acquired for £17m by Nanoscience, a specialist investor in emerging technologies listed on Aim, London’s junior market.
A more recent spin-out in personalised medicine is DNA Electronics, which is developing a cheap pharmacogenetic test for use in family doctors’ surgeries, to predict how patients will metabolise prescription drugs. “By using the test before prescribing, doctors will be able to ensure that they give the right drugs to the right person first time round, avoiding adverse drug reactions,” says Prof Toumazou.
Early this year DNA Electronics will complete a prototype to demonstrate the speed and accuracy of the technology. Then Imperial Innovations will look for first-round investment and clinical validation of the technology.
Another IBE start-up, BioCeramic Therapeutics, demonstrates the benefits of having a truly interdisciplinary research centre, bringing intellectual property from Imperial’s department of materials into a biomedical setting.
Daniel Green, BioCeramic chief executive, was a pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times in the 1990s. Since then he has held senior roles in several life sciences investment funds. His current position stems from a period spent in 2006 as part-time “entrepreneur in residence” at Imperial.
“Susan Searle [chief executive of Imperial Innovations] asked me to look around and see whether I could find anything that could make a particularly good start-up,” says Mr Green. “The challenge in starting a company from academia is not how good the science is but whether or not the science is commercial. We need to put together science that will appeal to investors rather than necessarily winning Nobel prizes.”
He selected technology from a veteran professor, Robert Hill, and a younger researcher, Molly Stevens, that together could form the basis of a company specialising in “smart materials that help the body repair itself”.
Mr Green says: “Both of our founding scientists understand that companies are the way to turn academic research into products for the benefit of patients.” His company has a small laboratory and office in the Imperial bio-incubator unit in the IBE building.
Last year BioCeramic raised slightly more than £1m in first-round funding from three institutional and two private investors. The strategy is first to develop materials that accelerate bone growth – these are already giving encouraging results in pre-clinical tests – and later to extend the technology to promote the repair of any tissue in the body.
The IBE is the first of its kind in the UK. “There are some similar institutes in the US, for example at Johns Hopkins University, but few universities have the excellent engineering and medical schools that you need for biomedical engineering,” says Prof Toumazou.
“The only institution like ours in the UK is at Oxford University,” he adds. “Oxford recently launched an Institute of Biomedical Engineering with a similarly entrepreneurial model and with the objective of creating good intellectual property.”
The field is likely to expand further in the near future, because the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest research charity, has identified biomedical engineering as a field for substantially increased funding.
“Medical engineering is one of the areas in which the traditional ‘silo’ structures of university disciplines have not encouraged collaboration,” says Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust. “We want to play a role in breaking down the walls between the silos.”
As a statement of intent, the trust has just given a £2.1m grant to Imperial’s IBE to help develop a surgical robot, the “i-Snake”.
This will enable surgeons to carry out minimally invasive “keyhole” operations for a wider range of conditions.
“Gone are the days when the surgeon’s knife ruled in the operating theatre,” says Ted Bianco, Wellcome’s technology transfer director. “The future of surgery is in smart devices like i-Snake.”
Fred Cornhill, director of the Oxford Institute of Biomedical Engineering, says: “For institutes like ours and Imperial’s, the first objective is to focus on the patient. Spin-outs and partnerships with industry go hand in hand with patient focus.”
The London-based Esmée Fairbairn Foundation did not put £10m into the Institute of Biomedical Engineering as an act of charity. “It is 100 per cent a commercial investment,” says Ron Clarke, the foundation’s finance director.
“We are fortunate to be able to take a very long- term view of our endowment,” he adds. “It could be a number of years, possibly as many as 15, before we see anything substantial coming out of this but the upside potential is almost unlimited.”
Susan Searle, chief executive of Imperial Innovations, the college’s technology transfer and venture capital company, says: “Essentially, it is a very simple deal. Every time we commercialise technology from IBE, whether it is through a start-up company or a licensing agreement, Esmée Fairbairn gets a share of it.”
In addition, the foundation has a right to invest additional funds in specific IBE spin-outs.
Universities have agreed similar funding deals with financial institutions, to raise money for big capital projects. But this is thought to be the first with a charity.
Mr Clarke says the investment in IBE represents only about 1 per cent of Esmée Fairbairn’s total assets: “We are not taking a great risk with this, but it is a one-off arrangement that we are unlikely to replicate.”
Starter for seven
The Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London has spun out seven companies so far:
● Toumaz Technology Ultra low-power wireless body monitoring
● Heliswirl Technologies Liquid flow applications based on blood vessels
● BioCeramic Therapeutics Repairing bones and other body tissues
● Sensixa Personalised monitoring for athletes
● DNA Electronics Disposable gene testing
● Smart Surgical Appliances Tools to improve safety and efficacy of surgery
● InnovOrth Orthopaedic devices and implants