Gregg Bayes-Brown, former editor of Global University Venturing, became communications manager of OUI in 2016 – here he discusses what the past two years have taught him.
It was antibiotic resistance awareness week when I started at Oxford two years ago.
For those of you who have been living on the run from medical news for the past decade, bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics. Partly because we guzzle them down at the first sign of a sniffle. But mostly, it is because we feed them to pigs and cows as part of their daily diet and, for some bizarre reason, we as a society place a higher worth on the balance sheets of livestock farmers than we do the continuation of the human race.
There has been no first-in-class antibiotic since 2004, and the bugs are getting increasingly wise to our tricks. People are already dying as a result, and the number is predicted to rapidly increase to over 10 million a year by 2050. The World Health Organisation describes antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest global threats, and it is something that can kill anyone of any age anywhere in the world.
So, imagine my delight – both as a communications manager and as a regular human being who does not want to get torn apart by mutant superbugs – when a first-in-class antibiotic landed on my desk on my first day on the job.
This is how it has been for two years now.
The fact I have been meaning to write this from that first week should help you understand just how full on it has been. I figure I have to write this now before I am officially part of the furniture, and in order to actually get it done, I have had to run away from my desk and hide in the Oxford University Innovation (OUI) Incubator.
So how did I end up here anyway? Much like anyone, it was an industrial sized barrel of luck left precariously on a volatile base of winging it like a champ, with the inevitable mess later dressed up like intent and success.
I graduated in the wake of the financial crisis and, having seen my hopes, dreams and aspirations of bumming around as a science fiction writer go up in smoke, I promptly failed into financial journalism. I had vague aspirations of catching some of the goons behind the crash and becoming a hero to the downtrodden millennial generation. Instead, all I got was an inescapable black hole of despondency and a citalopram prescription.
I bounced around a few jouranlism jobs before landing in a public relations role at Open University (OU). Given the nature of the institution, innovation is in its very DNA, and I quickly saw numerous examples of university innovation in action. One project sought to digitise the entirety of the OU’s learning materials and make them available anywhere. Another, FutureLearn, looked to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) from British universities – the first UK attempt to take on rapidly growing MOOC startups in the US at their own game.
While there, one of the former editors from financial news publisher DowJones got in touch. He had left to launch a title looking at corporate venture capital, Global Corporate Venturing. The corporates had told him that they wanted to know what was going on in universities but had no idea how to get the information. He asked if I wanted to help him get this new second title, Global University Venturing, off the ground. Leave my nice university job to go work for a startup in a field which no one had a clue about and has a high chance of complete failure? Of course, I said yes.
And so, I became the first journalist to look at university innovation on a global level. And I am not ashamed to say, I totally fell in love with the sector.
Most people see some research published about some disease fighting superbugs breakthrough or similar. Then, 15 years later, they are lying in a hospital bed receiving the treatment. To the layman, the whole process is as if it just magically appeared there. My job was basically understanding how the magic happens.
I scoured the globe, looking at how universities were interacting with their ecosystems into the outside world. I was enthralled with what I found. A polar opposite to the rampant greed and destructive uber-capitalism I found in previous roles, this was using money to make ideas which, for the most part, can genuinely save lives and change society for the better. It is not the most popular opinion in academic circles, but I believe that research should be turned into reality whenever there is the opportunity, that ideas should not just stay in published papers but should be explored thoroughly for the potential to create impact, and that there is a moral imperative to do so. After all, we are talking about generally taxpayer funded concepts with the potential to make everyone’s lives better here. Why would we not do everything in our power to get them out there?
I looked all over, from Silicon Valley to Tsinghua University, searching for spinouts, how they are created, and how they are stimulated. I found immunotherapies and wireless energy transfer. University venture funds and incubators. Clusters and region spanning partnerships. Everywhere I looked, people were trying all manner of things to get these ideas out there. But it was Oxford which really caught my eye.
I am by no means an “Oxford guy”. I have a mickey mouse degree from a university which no longer exists. My parents were not wealthy or high flyers in society. I was too busy having a rough time of things to do that well in school. I spent most of my pre-journalism years doing stuff like working in music venues or being a roadie, and still keep a side gig at Boomtown festival. My main hobbies include wrestling and playing online games. If you were to hear me read this piece out loud, it would probably be peppered by enough swearwords to make a construction crew blush.
And yet, I knew I had to be here. While working at GUV, I saw not only the massive potential of Oxford, but a growing momentum. There was the success of NaturalMotion, the animation engine behind computer games Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto based on Oxford’s zoology research. There was the existence of OUI, one of the best university innovation units in the world – I should know, I gave it an award in 2014. And then there was the creation of Oxford Sciences Innovation – at the time, the largest university venture fund in the world, and still only second to the $1.5bn beast in Tsinghua.
The pieces were beginning to fall into place around Oxford for something truly exciting to happen. All they needed was someone who knew the sector and knew storytelling to make some noise. I figured maybe the world’s first global university innovation journalist would be ideal for the job? As luck would have it, OUI agreed.
Ever since that fateful day two years ago where I stepped through the door and was immediately accosted by a first-in-class antibiotic, I have had the pleasure of having my mind blown by something or another on near enough a daily basis. Oxford is a madhouse of the most outrageous and brilliant kind. Underneath the cool exterior, it is essentially state-funded anarchy for fantastic mad mavericks, and that is what gives the university its unique spark.
The breadth of stuff going on here is staggering. There are autonomous cars and dragonfly robots. There are universal flu vaccines and regenerative medicine which can regrow a heart or an eye. There is a multi-dimensional poverty fighting index which can inform governments on how to relieve poverty and cashless donations for the homeless. There is artificial intelligence which can rewrite old and redundant code, quantum computing startups and virtual reality programs teaching people in Africa how to save a dying baby. There are handheld DNA sequencers and disease diagnostics which are effectively prototypes for tricorders from Star Trek and a nuclear fusion startup which could potentially power something like the Enterprise.
There are also jaw-dropping levels of growth. In the first year I was here, I saw the spinout rate double and the amount of seed investment go up by five. Since OUI opened its doors some thirty years ago, it has created 166 spinouts. Over a third of those have been created in the past three. We are around £2bn in external investment into those companies, and near enough half a billion of that will have been invested in 2018 alone. It is the sort of hockey curve growth the financiers behind the 2008 crash would have killed their own mother for – and probably anyone else’s just for good measure – and it is all going into ideas that could profoundly and positively benefit society.
That is not to say it is all milk and honey here. Oxford, as a city and as a region, has some very real issues. To borrow a Dickens, it’s a tale of two cities. While there is wealth and affluence abound, homeless people in desperate need fill the streets. Rents are cripplingly expensive even for the relatively well-imbursed; I have no idea how my barista is even alive. The city is bursting at the seams, not just with people but all the companies we and others are creating. And yet, land holders in the city drag their feet and build retail space as if completely oblivious to the internet age while the sea of Nimbys beyond the ring road fight like rabid animals, lashing out at anything that smells like progress. Millennials like me who are considering putting down roots here at told to go live in Bicester or Swindon instead, as if that is an acceptable answer.
“I want cake!” we say.
“We have eaten all the cake,” we are told. “Have some gravel instead.”
And let’s not even mention the commute. You could be a Catholic who is a serial killer or a heroin dealer or be the sort of person who leaves teabags in the sink. You could go to see a priest for confession, and while there, casually mention your pivotal role in the 2008 crash and how you kick puppies for fun. Even then, your penance still would be nowhere near as severe as the Oxford commute. Not even for a sinkbagger.
And yet, despite all that, I do not regret coming here. Not for a second. The people I get to work with are passionate and brilliant. The opportunity to do stuff that actually makes a difference comes along daily. I have also had my fair share of entertainment. I have become a poster boy for mental health in the university – yes, even at University of Oxford, I am known for being mad. I also had my proudest moment, pictured above, where I received a certificate from the world’s number one university recognising my lack of competence.
But more than anything, being a part of this transformation from a medieval university town to a thriving innovation ecosystem which could one day be on par with any other on the planet makes it all worthwhile. It may not be all smooth sailing, but it is definitely fun and games. That change is now inevitable and it is a pleasure to see.
That first-in-class antibiotic went on to get knocked about by investors, but eventually became a company which is now developing its drugs. With any luck, those drugs will one day hit the market and save countless lives, and prevent us from going back to the medical stone age. And while I have seen countless other incredible things pass my desk since, that is not a bad story, especially for your first day.
– Disclaimer: This piece represents the views of the author, and not of University of Oxford or Oxford University Innovation. The comment was first published on LinkedIn and has been republished with permission from the author.