January 2020 issue editorial by Thierry Heles, editor, Global University Venturing

There is something about living in 2020 that has a certain air of the future about it in a way that even 2000 did not. We live in a world now in which flying cars are inching ever closer to reality – Lilium, the airborne taxi developer spun out of Technical University of Munich, is one prominent example – and lab-grown meat is on the verge of solving a whole range of fundamental issues such as sustainability and animal welfare – see our feature for more on this.

The future is here, and changes aplenty are afoot.

Some of them are regrettable. Israel Ruiz, executive vice-president and treasurer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), announced last month that he was stepping down after almost two decades, including nine in his two most recent positions. Ruiz was a guiding force behind the creation of the tough tech incubator The Engine – an embrace of the future that is awe-inspiring in ambition ­­– and its $205m venture fund, so it will be interesting to see what he does next.

The majority of them are a cause for celebration. Oxford Sciences Innovation, the venture fund of University of Oxford, has seen its fair share of changes both in terms of shareholders – Woodford Investment Management collapsed and telecoms equipment manufacturer Huawei bought in – and in terms of management – with both co-founders, including the inimitable David Norwood, departing and a new CEO coming in, only for that chief executive, Charles Conn, to not even last 10 months.

Conn’s swift departure makes you wonder whether he was the right choice to begin with, when there has always been a very capable man effectively running the fund in Jim Wilkinson. The fund’s chief financial officer, Wilkinson came out on top in the GUV Powerlist 2018 and has now been appointed interim chief executive. We can only hope that the powers that be see sense and make the appointment permanent – Wilkinson revealed to GUV that he had thrown his hat in the ring, so the odds really should be in his favour.

Oxford remains one of the world’s most exciting ecosystems – and its recently launched cluster communications initiative is certainly helping to get that message out – and there are countless reasons to be cheering on OSI.

Make Wilkinson the permanent CEO, let him pursue a vision of linking up more with corporates and driving follow-on investments, and see the ecosystem thrive beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It might be a rallying call too long to fit on a banner, but it’s the truth.

Speaking of the UK, there is also a question around how the new Conservative government will support university venturing – there are rumours that pension fund rules could be changed to allow them to commit to venture capital funds. It would be a welcome change and follow the example of Australia, where superannuation funds such as Hostplus have supported ambitious projects such as Main Sequence Ventures, manager of university venture fund CSIRO Innovation Fund 1.

Making sure the conversation around funding is had in amongst all the other discussions that will come to dominate Westminster during 2020 as it scrambles to ink a comprehensive trade deal in a time that the EU has already called “impossible” will be Tony Raven, chief executive of University of Cambridge’s tech transfer arm, Cambridge Enterprise.

Raven has invited Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, and Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia University’s commercialisation office, Columbia Technology Ventures, to the UK in June to make a case for the sector and sing the praises of MIT’s successful use of its corporate liaison activities that underpinned Italy-based energy utility Eni’s investment in the nuclear fusion spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ $115m series A round last year.

Millar-Nicholson, Herskowitz and Raven will all be on stage at our GUV: Fusion conference in London on June 3 and 4, alongside others such as Uniseed’s chief executive Peter Devine to offer an insight into Australia’s successes and challenges – tickets are available now at a discounted rate until February 14.

We may have taken the long way around to the future (it is a source of continuing disappointment for this editor that time travel remains fictional), but it was the more scenic route. And could there be any doubt that we are entering the most exciting decade yet?