Innovation Cities: Oxford

It appears the city of Oxford is always competing with Cambridge and when it comes to innovation, it’s no different. Although currently rated behind Cambridge on lists of the most innovative areas in the UK, this could all be changing with the local government putting in place plans to facilitate ever growing R&D industries.

There’s nowhere better for start-ups

Oxford might not currently be as innovative as Cambridge but in terms of starting new businesses there’s no better location in the UK. A recent national survey of local services by website registry company UK Domain, found Oxford had 63,000 national business listings on Google across ten different industries. It performed better than Cambridge in second place and Inverness is a close third. This isn’t a new award for the area either. In the last decade Oxford University has produced more founders of £1billion start-ups than any other university throughout Europe. Since 1984 eight of the world’s largest unicorns (successful business ventures thought to be rare in their industry) like LinkedIn, Eventbrite and Funding Circle were founded by Oxford University Alumni.

An investment in infrastructure for new businesses, such as easy travel to experienced professionals in central London has been vital. But to understand why Oxford has become popular for new businesses, look to the technology transfer between businesses and industries. The University of Oxford, for example, looks outside the traditional research areas, launching start-ups from their humanities and social science departments.

A project that stands out from this strategy is LIFE (Life- Saving Instruction for Emergencies), a mobile and VR simulation training app for healthcare workers, which equips them to save lives all over the world. It stemmed from a group of Oxford University academics and doctors working together to produce high quality, low cost healthcare training. The project has now become world renowned, winning the Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge in 2016 and HTC’s VR for Impact competition in 2017.

Specialist Industries

Automotive 

The automotive industry in Oxford is home to one of the most recognisable race teams in world motor racing, Williams Racing. With seven Drivers’ Championships in Formula 1 from legendary drivers like Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Alain Prost, not to mention nine Constructors’ Championships under the watchful eye of Sir Frank Williams and now his daughter, a pioneer for women in the sport, Claire Williams.

The Williams Group has now expanded significantly from simply a race team however, and now includes Williams Advanced Engineering as well as Williams Hybrid Power. The Hybrid Power business has been instrumental across the world in developing electromechanical flywheels for mobile applications. One of their developments was featured in the 2012 Le Mans 24-hour race winner.

Oxford is also home to BMW Mini and has been settled by Harley Davidson, to be their headquarters for European operations. The area has the industry history and being located just 30 miles south of Silverstone, the home of British motorsport, has given Oxford businesses access to world leading technology clusters in automotive development.

Tech

According to InsiderLondon.com, in Oxford a massive 16% of jobs are digital. This is more than 26,000 jobs if we take the stats of the latest ONS Annual Population Survey. Oxford Tech business has flourished in the past 20 years and is estimated to be worth over £500million, producing notable companies like digital security firm Sophos, game developer Rebellion and drone-based reforestation start-up Biocarbon Engineering.

Funding to push forward the sector development in Oxford has, as you might imagine, come from the UK government. But investors can also be traced back to the world digital powerhouse Silicon Valley, California, in the United States. Since 2011 millions of pounds of investment has come from large tech corporation venture capitalists. For example, Google’s venture capital arm, GV invested £20million to Vaccitech, which is researching a universal flu vaccine.

Supporting the technological growth in Oxford is Digital Oxford. A large organisation which has 21,000 members, as well as links to both Oxford and Oxford Brookes.  The organisation helps to promote the sharing of information through its regular monthly meet ups, of which there are nearly 30 every month focusing on different topics and holds 3 large tech conferences every year.

Innovation support

Oxford Innovation Company 

Since 1987, Oxford Innovation Company has been supporting ambitious, forward thinking entrepreneurs through their innovation centre, coaching services and investment networks. In 31 years they have delivered training sessions to over 7,000 businesses, the duration of which is longer than 21,000 days of learning. They go further than just training, playing an important role in launching products and services from over 500 SMEs out of the Oxford area.

The organisation doesn’t just focus on supporting businesses and developments in Oxford however, as they also play a part in managing 24 innovation centres across the UK in various sectors. One of these is Future Space in Bristol which connects entrepreneurs and tech innovators with scientists and researchers to spark collaboration.

Oxford Sciences Innovation 

Oxford Sciences Innovation is a relatively new organisation, having made its first investment in November 2015. But the impact has already proved to be substantial, helping found 40 new Oxford based companies, investing over £50million and backing more than 120 scientists and entrepreneurs to start their R&D. To ensure a steady stream to power Oxford innovation well into the future, the group has partnered with Oxford University to create an outgoing ecosystem where the spinouts can succeed.

Sophos Group

Sophos can easily be described as one of Oxford biggest success stories. Certainly, in the technology industry anyway. Founded by Jan Hruska and Peter Lammer in the mid-80s, the company started its life in a small semi-detached house in Kidlington, Oxford. Focusing on computer security before anyone even realised they would need it, this gave the company a head start in the now very competitive market.

Today, the company is based in Abingdon, Oxford, and has offices around the world in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They currently produce antivirus and encryption products to secure networks used by over 100 million people and 100,000 businesses like Under Armour, Pixar, Ford and Toshiba, to name just a few.

Oxford’s future

The future looks promising. Especially in South Oxfordshire as the area’s District Council business team, alongside Councillor Rob Simister, announced at the end of 2017 a new three-year plan to help support SMEs. Since this started in January 2018, the council has already invested over £1million in improving broadband for Oxfordshire to give tech and computer companies the opportunity to work faster and more efficiently.

The biggest barrier to innovative businesses and start-ups in Oxford comes from accommodating businesses. Relative to earnings Purchasing and renting land in Oxford is expensive, even more so than London. The city beat London in terms of land and house prices quite considerably due to the lack of space available and competition between businesses. To counteract this, the council are considering providing support in their three-year plan to find suitable and reasonable space for start-ups to focus on their research without the added pressure of location.

Another side effect of the high Oxford house prices is it deters young, fresh thinking graduates and entrepreneurs to work there. This causes problems for tech and computer software companies as the younger generation, because of increased tech focus in schools, are more proficient in applicable tech industry skills. The South Oxford Business councils team is now however working with local businesses, schools and job seekers to put together programs that will enable young people to live and work in the area.

In terms of the future of innovation in Oxford, the Oxfordshire Transformative Technology Alliance performed a science and innovation audit in September 2017. This identifies quantum computers, autonomous vehicles, digital health and space & satellites as key strengths of the business ecosystem. It predicts that Oxford will therefore play a large role in driving the UK economy as these four transformative technologies unravel and grow. They go on to predict the areas to be worth up to £180 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

MPA in Oxford

As well as regularly attending life science and technology events held in the area, it is also home to some of MPA’s clients. One of these clients being Brainomix Limited.

Launched as a spin-out from the University of Oxford in 2010, they are a software company looking to become a world leader in clinical decision imaging software. Their e-ASPECTS imaging software allows doctors to diagnose strokes by automatically implementing the validated clinical scoring methodology.  This software received hundreds of hours and manpower to develop it to the stage it is at today, but the team were unsure whether they could claim for R&D tax credits due to the grant funding they receive.

I’d been told we couldn’t claim due to grant award funding that we’d received, but thanks to MPA’s knowledge of both the HMRC R&D relief scheme and rules surrounding grant funding we were able to receive a cash benefit. This was particularly useful as all R&D funding is reinvested into the business to further enhance, optimise and develop our products.

Eric Grievson, CTO, Brainomix Limited

If you’re a business in the Oxford area, or a business who invests in R&D, find out if you can receive a benefit like Brainomix by  gettting in contact with MPA.