Spotlight on Cambridge Enterprise


How do you get your research ideas to market? The answer is tucked away down Trumpington Street, a few steps from Peterhouse and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

This is the HQ of Cambridge Enterprise (CE) which exists to help University of Cambridge inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs make their ideas and concepts more commercially successful, writes Mike Levy, editor of Cambridge Network Connection.

Dr Richard Jennings,Head of Consultancy, Cambridge EnterpriseBut it's not just about money, 'We are genuinely seeking to help put something back for the benefit of society, the taxpayer and the UK economy,' says Dr Richard Jennings, Head of Consultancy.

Since 2003, CE has brought together the University's commercialisation activities previously performed by the Technology Transfer Office, the University Challenge Fund and the Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre. Now all that is under one roof - as CE currently occupies a handsome building with a canopied entrance just opposite the entrance to the University's Engineering Department.

Cambridge Enterprise is a department of the University but is set to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the University next year. This will give it a clearer role and a higher degree of autonomy.

But it is not just the immediately obvious commercial ideas that get support: 'We need to give good service to every member of the university, not just those who have ideas that might make a lot of money straight away', says Interim Director Dr Anne Dobre.

'We don't just look at short-term financial returns; the work being done in Cambridge often has a very long gestation period.'

'Much of the research being done here is so fundamental, that it may take decades to bring any exploitable results to market,' she says.

Dobre and Jennings both agree that commercialising the work of academics and researchers is not without potential conflict: 'Some have the view that like open source software, some technology should be given away and in some cases that's the right thing to do. This is not to say that every idea gets support either. We turn down 50-60 per cent of all applications,' says Jennings.

There may be problems in protecting intellectual property or CE's experts may feel that the project simply has very few commercial opportunities.

The organisation works closely with the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CefL) at the Judge Institute which teaches the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship. CE complements this by providing models of best practice.

'Sometimes people come to us at too early a stage - and then we ask them to come back when they've done more work or in some cases are able to provide proof of concept funds to help reduce bright ideas to practice,' says Dobre.

Once an inventor has found his or her way to the Trumpington Street office, what happens next? 'We get one of our expert Technology Managers to talk to them about the science involved and what protection of rights might be necessary,' says Dobre.

There are six Technology Managers divided into physical and life science teams. Each has real business experience as well as a thorough grounding in academic research. The team, backed by well-qualified associates, (usually with PhDs in their field) explore the patent route - a stage that can take a few days or weeks if the position is complicated.

A member of the team becomes the case manager for the client and lots of discussion ensues about potential avenues for commercial application. 'Our first question is often: what do you want to happen with this idea?' says Dobre.

The experts' advice may be that licensing is a better option - especially where the academic really wants to stay in the lab. If licensing is seen as the way forward, CE will assist in negotiating and drafting contracts.

'We get tremendous support from the University's legal office,' says Jennings. For some, the full-blown spin-out route is suggested but that means setting up a new company, and talking to investors, and encouraging the inventors to think more like businessmen.

If this route makes sense, the clients are supported in forming a 'spin out' company. CE has a Business Creation Team which offers advice, consultancy, and contacts with investors and service providers and mentoring by experienced local business people for novice entrepreneurs.

2005 sees Cambridge Enterprise evolving rapidly under Richard Jennings. They have launched the specialist Consultancy Team which will reach out to the global market looking to access the world-class expertise at Cambridge University. 'Knowledge Transfer is a big buzz word but the challenge is how to get knowledge out of the university and into industry and society,' says Jennings.

Again Jennings sees a symbiotic relationship growing: 'Consultancy can be a wonderful way of getting the University's work known throughout industry. It can lead to all kinds of collaborative agreements, and academics involved in consultancy. It raises everybody's game. Our role at CE is to act as a clearing house between researchers and industry.'

Dobre concurs: 'There is a great deal of goodwill out there between the industry and the University. They often need each other in all kinds of ways and our job is to marry them together. If an industry client has a particular need for advice then we often know a man or woman who can help.'

It is amazing what 21st century business developments are happening just down the road from the University's oldest college and its famous collection of antiquities.

Cambridge Enterprise in 2004 - 2005

  • 2.7 million in royalty income

  • 1.58 million in consultancy fees

  • 40 new licensing deals

  • 30 start ups given advice

  • 127 invention disclosures

  • 3 new spinouts: Enecsys; Enval; Camfridge

    Cambridge Enterprise exists to help University of Cambridge inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs make their ideas and concepts more commercially successful for the benefit of society, the UK economy, the inventors and the University.

    Cambridge Enterprise, University of Cambridge