British boffins are boosted by bankers

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The Independent Online

Banks, investment houses and venture capitalists are in a headlong scramble to get their hands on the emerging results of university research.

As universities across the UK respond to growing pressure to commercialise the technologies arising from their laboratories, they are finding a ready supply of keen investors from the City.

An increasing number of these emerging technologies – from the fields of biochemistry, computer science and engineering – end up being "spun-out" as small companies, and the pinstripes are keen to get in at the earliest possible stage.

Last week, the Prime Minister publicly asserted his support for science in Britain, and it is a stance that Mr Blair has adopted before. Early in its first term, the Labour Government directly encouraged universities to commercialise more of their scientific research, and the result has been a steady stream of hi-tech spin-outs.

Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and Southampton University have been at the forefront of the drive to commercialise their research. Each institution has created a specific department whose role is to nurture scientists and encourage them to think about their work from a more entrepreneurial position.

The pace of commercialisation has now reached the point where, between them, Britain's universities are spinning out companies at the rate of about one every week.

The City is desperate to get in on this act, and the "spin-out" culture is spawning a new wave of deals between financiers and universities.

One of the earliest groups to recognise the huge commercial potential locked into the universities was the boutique investment bank Beeson Gregory. In a deal struck with Oxford's chemistry faculty, the bank provided £20m of investment in return for a 50-per-cent cut of anything the department managed to convert into profits.

Beeson later created a separate division, known as ip2ipo. Last week ip2ipo gained a 19-per-cent stake in its third Oxford spin-out, a biotech company with a revolutionary approach to disease research.

Other investment houses are hot on Beeson's heels. Two weeks ago, the investment fund of the Fleming merchant-banking family structured a deal in which it gained a 21-per-cent stake in any companies that are spun out of Imperial College.