Introducing the Global University Venturing Powerlist 2018

When Global University Venturing published its five-year data review in May this year, providing an in-depth overview of the innovation ecosystem, we counted 318 funds in our database – nearly a fifth of which had been raised in the preceding 18 months.

It proved there is a staggering amount of capital being poured into an industry that is all too often blamed for not being equipped to generate enough, well-resourced or unicorn-achieving companies, depending on which policymaker you ask.

Yes, there might be some truth to the statement that not enough spinouts make it to a $1bn-plus valuation, particularly in non-US markets – though decision-makers elsewhere ought to understand that even in the US not all ecosystems are created equal.

But there is another truth. Rather than reaching a peak in the number of university venture funds after the frenzy leading up to May, there has been a steady flow of new additions with more than 30 fundraising reports between May and October, the time of going to press, despite the fact that we have had the summer months in between – though as regular readers of Global University Venturing will know, those months were anything but quiet.

Some that are worth mentioning include the $330m Leap Fund, launched by UK-based charitable foundation Wellcome Trust to help accelerate research commercialisation originating from universities and companies. It is expected to begin operations from 2020 and will initially run for five years, awarding significant freedom to the eventual chief executive who will be able to shape the portfolio, sign off on high-risk decisions and reallocate funds to projects as needed.

Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust, said at the time of the fund’s launch: “We hope that by 2030, the Leap Fund will have produced a small number of breakthroughs on a vastly accelerated timescale. These may open up entirely new areas of research, allow new scientific questions to be answered, change existing practice within a field or deliver transformative health benefits.

“We do not expect all projects to succeed, but we think the possibilities are incredibly exciting. And in taking some risks and backing at scale, we think we can deliver transformational developments that will improve people’s lives around the world.”

Taking big risks is also a key aspect of the Engine Fund, backed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology with $25m, which had an initial target of $150m but broke through that goal in a spectacular fashion when investors ploughed in a total of $205m. The fund invests in companies that join the Engine incubator and while many spinouts have the potential to be ground-breaking, this is especially true of this lot. The fund and incubator specialise in so-called tough tech – technologies that take significant resources to be developed but could have a fundamental positive impact on society, such as fusion energy, biotechnology and robotics. It is no coincidence to find Katie Rae, chief executive of the Engine, near the top of this inaugural GUV Powerlist.

Neither is it coincidental to find university venture fund leaders from further afield on the list, such as Peter Devine, chief executive of Uniseed, and Bill Bartee, general partner of Main Sequence Ventures. Spinouts increasingly have to compete in a global market and it seems that no institution – understandably – wants to be left behind.

The GUV Powerlist 100 is a direct result of that aforementioned 2013-17 data review and is an initiative developed by the GUV Leadership Society’s advisory board, chaired by Christine Gulbranson, senior vice-president at University of California, in May at our GUV: Fusion conference in London, UK.

It is worth stating that neither Gulbranson nor any other member of the Leadership Society had any influence on the GUV Powerlist and those that were included made the cut purely on the merits of their work.

The ranking was inspired by the GCV Powerlist 100, a similar project by our sister publication, Global Corporate Venturing, that celebrates the leaders of corporate venturing.

For the purposes of this new ranking, Global University Venturing adopted a fairly wide definition, counting both pure-play university venture funds and external vehicles, such as Osage University Partners, IP Group and Allied Minds, that specialise in funding spinouts.

To rank the funds, we used a range of quantitative and qualitative metrics, with the former including:

  • How long a fund has been in operation.
  • The size of the fund.
  • The number of portfolio companies.
  • The number of exits.
  • The number of co-investors.
  • The total amount invested to date.
  • The total amount generated from exits to date.

These quant metrics were weighted, meaning a fund launched in April 2017 with 10 investments was ranked higher than a fund launched in May 2015 with two investments for that metric.

A humbling number of thought leaders on the ranking chose to share confidential details with Global University Venturing, though in a handful of cases the publication had to rely on publicly available numbers and this may have influenced the position of some. We took every measure to minimise such issues.

Global University Venturing also considered a range of qualitative measures, such as how engaged a fund is within an ecosystem and particular challenges for the leader in developing the role, or building a team, or within an institution. In some cases, these qualitative measures had a significant impact on the ranking.

Global University Venturing is honoured to present this inaugural Powerlist 100 and we would like to thank everyone for participating. It was a complicated process and there are some surprises in the ranking that none on the editorial team would have predicted. Admittedly, finding Jim Wilkinson and the $800m Oxford Sciences Innovation at the very top of the ranking was not one of those surprises.

Many will surely make a return in next year’s ranking as well, though with the constant waves of new funds it will be interesting to track any fresh additions.

For now though, pour yourself a glass of champagne, take a moment to celebrate your achievements and read on to find out which one of your peers features this year.

GUV Powerlist 2018: Contents