Small Talk: Imperial spreads its wings across top research universities


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The Independent Online

Imperial Innovations has been busy. Very busy. In the year to July, the technology investor tapped the market for £140m and, at just over £35m, more than doubled its backing for companies linked to the country's most research-intensive universities. Since July, it has pumped another £6.3m into nine businesses, bulking up its portfolio to 78 companies.

The AIM-listed company can trace its origins to 1986; back then, it was Imperial College London's technology transfer office, taking ideas from its labs and turning them into commercial ventures. Eleven years later, it was spun out and became a wholly owned subsidiary of the college and, five years ago, it began life as a public company, raising £26m with its debut on London's junior market.

It still has strong links to the institution, which now owns about 30 per cent of the business. Under an agreement that runs to the end of this decade, it continues to act as its technology transfer office. But it has also branched out to cover companies linked to Oxford, Cambridge and UCL by collaborating with Oxford Spin Out Equity Management, Cambridge Enterprise and UCL Business. The wider remit, which covers the top four research-intensive universities in Europe, has already resulted in investments.

In August, Mission Therapeutics, a Cambridge-linked drug discovery company focused on oncology, received £1.3m from Innovations as part of a £6m financing round. It has also backed two UCL-linked companies: Autifony, another drug discovery business targeting hearing disorders, and Stanmore Implants, an orthopedic implant maker.

The results for the year to July, published last week, also revealed progress in the Imperial College portfolio. Among the highlights was Circassia, which is focused on treatments for allergies and therapies for autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis. Innovation led a funding exercise alongside Invesco Perpetual and other existing investors, which, at £60m, represented the third largest financing of a private European biotech in the past 15 years.

Another highlight was the financing for Nexeon, which makes batteries. The business, which is developing silicon anodes for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries, came about as a result of work done by Professor Mino Green, an emeritus professor at Imperial's electrical engineering department.

Innovations has been involved in Nexeon for some time now, and the investment could prove very lucrative; the global market for lithium-ion batteries is worth some $10bn and could balloon to between $40bn and $60bn over the next decade, according to the company.

Recent years have also seen some notable successes as Innovations cashed in on some of its investments. Last year, for instance, it realised £9.5m from a £2m investment when the drug discovery company Respivert was sold to the healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson.

Link up and give back with OneLeap

Getting the right backing for your small business has never been easy. The prevailing funding drought, with banks keeping a tight leash on lending, has only made things harder.

OneLeap, a new online start-up, offers a way to get your idea off the ground by connecting small businesses to established deal makers. The idea is simple: if you have a small business but do not possess the right contacts to secure funding or industry advice, you can sign up and OneLeap will ask you to put down a deposit to connect with the deal makers listed on its site.

And here's the twist. You can pick a charity, which gets half the money if the bigwig of your choice responds to your message. The other half goes to the deal maker's favourite charity. The site takes a 20 per cent cut – but only if the deal maker responds.

So, if you put down a deposit £10, and you receive a response, OneLeap takes £2, and £8 is split between the charities selected by you and the contact in question.

The deposit is determined using a market mechanism. The contacts on the OneLeap website set the initial price and the maximum number of messages that they're willing to entertain; the deposit climbs as the messages add up, adjusting to the demand for a particular contact.

The rationale behind the model is that OneLeap will put you in touch with the right people, who will lend an ear, but only if you're willing to demonstrate your seriousness by putting your money where your mouth is; the deposit acts as a filter for the deal makers.

And, in another twist, the contact in question has the option to return the deposit after reading your message. In other words, there is a chance that you might make the right connection – find a willing angel investor, for instance – for nothing.

The site's co-founder, Hamish Forsyth, said: "By creating an open market for contacts, OneLeap enables small businesses to get through to deal makers, levelling the playing field."

Putting charities in the picture brings the whole business of forging profitable connections together with the funding of good causes, something which is also facing pressures amid the economic crunch. Another co-founder, Robyn Scott, said: "It's a tool that powers valuable business connections, while enabling businesses to given back to charities they care about without putting more money for charity or CSR [corporate social responsibility] budgets."

The website – – is currently in private view but small businesses and entrepreneurs can request early access ahead of the public launch.

Ms Scott added: "By enabling ideas from the outside to leap directly – not percolate or stumble – to boardrooms, OneLeap champions innovation from dorm rooms, garages and can-doers."

Slowdown in AIM deal activity

Much has been said about the recent recovery in the fortunes of the AIM growth market. The credit crunch brought delistings as companies sought to save money or, in some cases, faced financial stress. But that tide appears to have turned. Figures from PwC, for example, show that in the third quarter, AIM outperformed the main market of the London Stock Exchange in terms of the number of IPOs.

The junior market saw 22 listings, against six for the main market. And although the deal value was lower, AIM improved its share, taking 18 per cent of the total raised in London in the third quarter, up from 1.5 per cent in the three months to August.

But what about mergers and acquisitions? It turns out that deal activity has slowed, with a total of 19 takeovers of AIM-listed targets in the third quarter of the year, according to figures from the data provider Dealogic. Although a small improvement on the second quarter, when the figure stood at 18, it is significantly behind the 28 seen in July to September last year.

Overall, 61 takeovers of AIM-listed targets have been announced so far this year, including four in the current quarter. In contrast, there were 90 between January and September last year. For the whole of 2010 there were 112 deals, which itself was lower than the 169 seen in the previous year.