George Baxter of Edinburgh Innovations chaired TenU’s fourth event, leading a discussion on growing regional innovation hubs.

On our fourth event, TenU Hosts Regional Opportunities, a panel of experts debated emerging trends in regional entrepreneurial ecosystem development. In the light of growing interest by US and UK governments in investing in and growing regional innovation hubs, TenU convened this event to find out about the wealth of opportunities in the regions, the initiatives underway to develop regional ecosystems further and the incentives needed to increase their potential.

The event was chaired by TenU member George Baxter, CEO of Edinburgh Innovations. He was joined by two technology transfer leaders, Andrew Wilkinson, also TenU member and CEO of University of Manchester Innovation Factory, and Nichole Mercier, assistant vice-chancellor and managing director of the Office of Technology Management and Tech Transfer at Washington University in St Louis (WashU); two venture capital investors, Kirsten Leute, partner at Osage University Partners, and Liz Roper, partner at Epidarex Capital; and entrepreneur and investor Vikas Shah.

A broad range of insights were offered by the speakers which are summarised in the following four points.

1. Collaboration is at the heart of ongoing successful regional initiatives and has been accelerated through the pandemic.

Vikas Shah observed that it was often the case that less developed ecosystems were asked to become more like the most successful ones. Instead, he proposed, ecosystems should play to their strengths and collaborate in order to learn from each other and avoid replications. This would lead to richer regions overall.

In this spirit, Andrew Wilkinson offered a successful example of collaboration in introducing Northern Gritstone, a recently launched investment company raising £500m that was founded by the universities of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield to invest in the wealth of excellent very early-stage technologies produced by these universities and attract further funding into the region.

Nichole Mercier added another example of collaboration in which WashU is involved, the Midwest Regional University Network, that aggregates midwestern universities and their networks to attract funding from outside the region. Mercier also highlighted the role of the pandemic in accelerating conversations with regions that were previously perceived as remote: “the pandemic has shown us that much can be done effectively with a virtual format”.

2. Building capacity is as much about building and strengthening networks as it is about acquiring skills.

Liz Roper, through Epidarex, works closely as a partner to the academic inventors of very early-stage technologies, helping them to demonstrate proof of concept, to shape the business plan, to put a team together and take their start-ups to a point where they can attract major investors. Whilst building capacity is key, Roper noted, introductions made all the difference. As Kirsten Leute pointed out, much of the process of attracting investment depends on who you know, and so a warm introduction from another investor can be really useful to ensure growth. It was thus not uncommon for Osage to make over 200 introductions per year.

As Roper explained, larger investors, often from outside the region, want a local investor that they know has looked at the market potential in detail, has done the due diligence and can provide the confidence to invest. And so Epidarex specialises in providing the first investment and then getting the companies to a stage where they can introduce the entrepreneurs to top investors. As nodes within a network, Epidarex and Osage provide value to both regional entrepreneurs and investors by matching their interests, expertise and specialty areas with those from outside of the immediate ecosystem

3. Creating place is part and parcel of building and retaining an entrepreneurial community.

On the audience’s question of how to retain talent within regions, George Baxter remembered from previous work in Manchester that he looked at arguably unrelated factors such as the school provision of International Baccalaureate exams to attract and retain potential entrepreneurs with families coming from Europe or elsewhere in the UK. Efforts to make cities more attractive, Leute observed, became increasingly important as the larger ecosystems became too expensive for budding entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses. Indeed, encouraging collaboration between regions was key to Shah, who highlighted that one of the things that made Manchester attractive to him was that he could jump on a train and be in London in two hours..

Mercier added that it was equally important to support key individuals with the potential to build deep connections in a region and to attract students and postdocs to involve them in projects around a specific technology or skill. Shah agreed with this, arguing that often cities tried hard to cater for a number of disparate populations, when in fact they could focus on supporting those few flourishing businesses and on looking after their needs. In this way, these businesses were motivated to stay and, in turn, create jobs and attract further people and investment.

Wilkinson pointed out that both efforts needed to be made in conjunction and ideally at scale in order to reach critical mass: “you need to have lots of businesses to create supply chains and to have people moving between organisations, so that suddenly it becomes really hard to move”.

All agreed that these efforts needed to be supported by joint local and national investments.

4. There is no one-size-fits-all in technology transfer, but there is one goal: taking the best science to the next stage to create societal impact.

The university technology transfer sector is held together by the common desire to commercialise innovative research to create societal impact. Yet, within that, the discussion suggested that the university tech transfer sector is a rich and varied one. It teased out differences between private and public universities, between those based in large ecosystem and those in more remote areas, between smaller specialist institutions and larger generalist ones, and many more, that ultimately influence the wide range of university policies and the particularities of the process leading from invention to commercialisation.

The process, in turn, is further shaped by the type and stage of the technology, the maturity and investment culture of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the academic inventors’ experience and preferences, and the requirements of funders, to name a few of the key variables. Yet despite these differences, the panel of university tech transfer office representatives and investors agreed that they all pursued a common goal when negotiating terms: taking the best science to the next stage.

For TenU’s quick start guide on some of the many complexities that universities tech transfer offices have to negotiate on a daily basis, follow this link.

The TenU Hosts event series offers opportunities for US and UK policymakers, thought leaders and leading practitioners in research commercialisation to hold conversations on topical issues. The next TenU Hosts event will be held in the autumn; if you wish to be informed of the date, contact us to join our mailing list.

TenU is a transatlantic collaboration formed to capture effective practices in research commercialisation and share these with UK and US governments and higher education communities, in order to increase the societal impact of research. TenU’s members are the technology transfer offices of the University of Cambridge, Columbia University, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, KU Leuven, University of Manchester, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Oxford, Stanford University and University College London.

– This article first appeared on TenU’s website, where a full recording of the event can also be viewed. It has been edited for style and republished with permission.