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Oxford University set to launch up to 20 sustainability startups in two years

Oxford University is getting into the startup building game to tackle pressing issues around conservation and climate change.

By Sarah Drumm

Credit: Credit: Ugur Akdemir

Not content with creating one of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines, Oxford University also wants to tackle another huge global problem: climate change. 

A new initiative announced today, the Conservation Venture Studio (OXGAV), aims to launch between 13 and 20 new startups that are addressing climate issues over the next two years.  

OXGAV, which is a partnership between Oxford and Global Accelerated Ventures (GAV), is the world’s first conservation-focused venture studio programme. It will look into topics such as food security, cleantech and greentech, as well as technologies combatting climate change phenomena and biodiversity loss.

“The technologies that we are capturing and supporting are just as broad as the environmental problems that we are experiencing,” says Dr Robert Montgomery, a research fellow at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall and a professor of wildlife conservation, who has worked to bring the OXGAV partnership to life.

How it works

Having put together a public policy platform which outlines the issues relating to conservation and climate change that need solving, OXGAV says the next step is to conduct innovation workshops with corporate partners (to be announced in the coming weeks). These will help the new spinout firms identify the current holes in the value chain that prevent game-changing sustainability technologies from gaining traction.

Armed with this knowledge, OXGAV can then take on the role of an ‘entrepreneur in residence’, working with researchers from Oxford as well as its corporate partners to create these new companies. As well as bringing on university researchers as cofounders, GAV will also play a hands-on role in the creation of these new companies, with its partners taking on interim CEO roles as needed. 

GAV’s partners have also stumped up “close to seven figures” of initial seed financing, which has gone into a special purpose investment vehicle that is expected to end up at “mid-eight figures”, says GAV managing partner Thomas Buchar. 

Each of the 13-20 companies expected to launch out of the programme will receive at least £250k in seed investment, with equity equally split between Oxford University, OXGAV stakeholders and the researcher cofounders, Buchar says. GAV anticipates that it will later lead follow-on financing rounds of £1m and up for between five and seven of these businesses.

Why universities struggle to scale their tech

Universities creating businesses is nothing new: telecoms company Ericsson was incubated in the Ideon Science Park at Sweden’s Lund University, while business school HEC Paris and the IESE Business School in Spain each have their own venture lab programmes. 

Oxford University is also known as something of a spinout factory: it created 28 new companies in 2020. However, Montgomery and Buchar say the OXGAV partnership is unique as it is the world’s first such programme to focus on conservation specifically.

But while successful companies have launched out of university environments, this method of building a business is not without its challenges. 

According to a 2018 report from the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, some of the key challenges universities face during the spin-out process include getting the right external experts involved and making sure that skilled, experienced operators are secured as part of the new company’s management team. Partnerships such as OXGAV’s hope to bridge some of these gaps.

“Academics, particularly at institutions like Oxford, are unbelievably productive when it comes to publications, external grants and the training of PhD students,” says Montgomery. “Where [we] require venture partners is when it comes to the commercialisation of intellectual property. Academics have a tremendous interest in [launching businesses using their IP], but it’s a matter of creating the collaborative partnerships so they can be successful in doing so.”

For GAV, on the other hand, this will be the first time it has partnered with a university on a project of this nature, having run similar programmes with corporate partners. In 2019, the company launched an innovation programme with data tech firm InterSystems, focusing on fintech, healthcare and data analytics.

Buchar does, however, have experience working with non-profits in the conservation sector — and he says this is what led him to approach Oxford University and Montgomery about a partnership. “When you look at conservation as a whole, through NGOs and non-profits, the largest ones have dropped the ball because there’s no return on investment and there’s no accountability,” he says.

Oxford’s expertise will provide the credibility OXGAV needs to get corporate partners on board. “It gives us access to a broad range of technologies that we’ll be able to commercialise,” Buchar says. 

“We have a real strong opportunity to commercialise novel technologies that can address the world’s more pressing environmental problems.”

“We have a real strong opportunity to commercialise novel technologies that can address the world’s more pressing environmental problems,” Montgomery adds.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum’s annual risks report ranked environmental issues as all of the top five concerns for the global economy, from biodiversity loss and extreme weather events to human-made disasters such as oil spills and radioactive contamination.

Sarah Drumm covers sustainability at Sifted, and she’ll soon be launching our new sustainability-focused newsletter — you can sign up to the waitlist here. She tweets from @sarah_drumm

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Richard Mubiru
Richard Mubiru

I found this article informative for Africa to learn to utilize partnership between universities and business innovation firms to create new businesses and investment opportunities across Africa. https://sifted.eu/articles/oxford-university-oxgav/