With hundreds of university venture funds, internal commercialisation vehicles and third-party firms the reality in today’s innovation ecosystem, selecting the nominees and the winner for Investment Unit of the Year is increasingly challenging.

Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds, the early-stage investment division led by Anné Dobrée within University of Cambridge’s wholly-owned commercialisation arm, Cambridge Enterprise, winning this year’s award is therefore a significant and highly deserved achievement.

The fund currently has $13m in cash and another $26m in investment holdings. The portfolio consists of 86 companies – 51 have received capital and 35 are backed on an equity-for-intellectual-property basis.

Apart from Dobrée, Seed Funds has another eight members of staff – all but one of them are women, a gender balance that remains a rarity in any business or academic context. What is just as unique is for a technology transfer office to have this much financial firepower when it comes to its spinouts – though Seed Funds also backs student startups.

With a funding limit per company of $1.3m, Seed Funds may be limited in how long it can follow, but its expertise in the early stages has helped many portfolio businesses achieve heights that would have been more difficult otherwise.

One of these was XO1 Therapeutics. Dobrée told Global University Venturing: “We have had quite a few successes. I am most proud of anticoagulant drug developer XO1. They were bought by pharmaceutical group Johnson & Johnson in 2015 and that was a real highlight. It was a technology that Cambridge Enterprise had nurtured from the start.

“The tech transfer team did a lot of work on it, we got life sciences investment firm Medicxi involved, and we invested. The founder of XO1, Jim Huntington, has since gone on to create another four companies. His co-founder, Trevor Baglin, has switched from research to venture and is using his skills there.”

Nobody at Seed Funds has been resting on those laurels. Other companies backed by Cambridge Enterprise include epigenetic technology spinout Cambridge Epigenetix, which raised $30m in a series C round led by investment firm Ahren Innovation Capital in May 2018.

Even more recently, Cambridge Enterprise led a $4.4m seed round for cancer therapy developer PolyProx Therapeutics earlier this month together with Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), the institution’s patient capital fund, and RT Capital.

Another Cambridge Enterprise portfolio company, insurance technology spinout Cytora, collected $32.6m in a series B round last month also backed by CIC. And Aqdot, a chemicals products manufacturer, closed a $7.8m series B round backed by commercialisation firm IP Group and its fund management arm Parkwalk Advisors, also in April.

Laying the groundwork for all of these is not an easy task, but a 4.3-times cash return on realised investments is enough to make any institutional investor jealous – and all that despite the fact that Seed Funds cares about impact first and considers financial return a side-effect.

Tania Balsa of Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds (m) collecting the award. Photograph: Bart van Overbeeke / GUV

Other nominees

IP Group
Karolinska Development
Mars Innovation
UCL Technology Fund