Spotlight on Spinouts and the Importance of Seed Funding

About The FSE Group

At The FSE Group (FSE), we have a 20 year history of supporting high growth UK SMEs, especially in underrepresented areas of the UK. In that time, we have been proud to back multiple university spinouts from across the country.

Emerging trends in investment into spinouts

A recent Beauhurst report found that even though investment into spinouts increased in 2020, it was to a smaller number of spinout companies (269 in 2020 compared to 360 in 2019) implying an increase in the average investment size and suggesting that investment efforts were focussed on existing portfolio businesses rather than new deals.

However, the amount of capital invested in university spinouts in 2020 is still lower than the record number in 2018 (£1.11 billion compared to £1.3 billion). What are the reasons for this? A paper by Research England found that compared to conventional startups, university spinouts tend to have a longer time horizon to exit, which increases the variability of returns and requires several rounds of funding, some of which can be explained by the inherent DeepTech focus of university spinouts. This latter point is further corroborated by Beauhurst’s finding that the biggest sectors for university spinouts are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Health, both of which are research and capital-intensive.

Spinouts clearly need long-term patient capital to fully grow and realise their potential, and this is reflected in the fact that spinouts tend to exit more than non-spinouts (10% compared to 7% in the wider SME population). However, investment into spinouts is heavily focussed on the Golden Triangle (Oxford, Cambridge and London), with over a third of investments made there, driven by funds local to each region, which has helped build a local ecosystem. To grow more spinouts from universities outside this area, they need investment from funds local to them, who have networks within their region to help create value for an SME.

In recent years, many universities have built vibrant ecosystems boosted by programmes to support graduate enterprise and science parks geared towards SMEs, which encourage collaboration with the university.  Research intensive universities tend to have their own linked funds, but this leaves a large number of other institutions without easy access to funding for their SME community.  In 2019, the government announced the launch of 20 University Enterprise Zones (UEZs) in universities across England, to provide support and funding to university connected startups.

Our experience with spinouts

FSE’s first fund, the South East Seed Fund, was developed in conjunction with 11 universities across the South East with public and corporate funding. Since the launch of that fund the FSE Group has continued to invest in university linked businesses with its other regional SME funds and through its angel network. 

On average, 20% of spinouts have at least one female founder, and only 6% of spinouts have an all-female founding team. FSE is proud of its success in supporting female led SMEs, and across our funds, 24% of our portfolio companies have at least one female director.

Some examples of FSE’s investments in university spinouts are:

UltraSoC – FSE first began funding support to this project in 2004 when the concept behind UltraSoC Technologies was initially conceived at the University of Kent. At that time, FSE provided funding from the South East Proof of Concept Fund for research into an optoelectronic debug support interface for embedded System-on-Chip’s (SoC’s). The South East Proof of Concept Fund (SEPoC) was managed by FSE on behalf of six South East based universities and was financed by the Higher Education Innovation Fund to increase the levels of commercial innovation within the academic knowledge base.

During the SEPoC grant, the University of Kent spun out the ‘project’ into a company that became known as UltraSoC Technologies Ltd. FSE continued to advise on business planning and funding strategy development. In 2006, FSE provided UltraSoC with a PoCKeT loan, which was designed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from universities into industry, Funds were used to develop a prototype software tool for the electronics industry in collaboration with the University of Essex as well as market research and maintenance of the IP portfolio. UltraSoc subsequently took its first institutional equity investment from FSE managed South East Seed Fund alongside a specialist fund connected with the University of Essex in 2008.  From there followed further IP development, a leading customer base and international private equity investment.

UltraSoc was acquired by Siemans in 2020 to provide a comprehensive solution for their semiconductor industry customers including manufacturing defects, device failure, functional safety, and malicious attacks. 

Codices Interactive Limited (Codices)  – was founded in 2018 by Tim Edwards and Fern Pombeiro at the Falmouth Launchpad Entrepreneurship programme. Through the FSE managed Cornwall and Isle of Scilly Investment Fund (CIOSIF) the company secured equity investment in 2020.

Codices works with brands and influencers to create live interactive shows on Twitch, a video live streaming service which is a subsidiary of Amazon. By using Codices’ tools, broadcasters can build, engage and monetise their audiences through player-driven entertainment. The Twitch platform has proved a great success with over 3 million unique active streamers and over 15 million daily active users.

The business continues to go from strength to strength, most recently having won awards and connected people across the UK during these difficult circumstances with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Glas Data – Rob Sanders and Colin Phillipson, founders of Glas Data, recognised that data fragmentation issues within the agricultural sector existed and saw how it restricted farmers, processors and retailers.

Referred from Falmouth University’s Launchpad (with MA Entrepreneurship) course, they approached FSE who were delighted to be able to invest in the agri-tech company as part of a larger funding round.

Their technology is developing rapidly, allowing farmers to collect real time data on everything from weather and animal health to load cells and a vast array of sensor devices. With so much data & technology now available, the challenge is how to make it accessible and easy to understand. The clear visualisation of data analysis makes real-time decision making easy from any device. Glas Data now employs seven people, with more recruitment to follow.

In Summary

Some university spinouts in the UK have been successful and raised considerable sums of capital, when compared to international counterparts. Between 2013-17, spinouts from Cambridge raised over $2.2 billion, compared to $1.84 billion for spinouts from Stanford, or $906m for spinouts from MIT. However, there is still a long way to go, and UK spinouts that can compete on a global scale are few and far between. As a comparison, MIT has supported 26,000 businesses who generate a turnover of $2 trillion, far beyond UK universities.

FSE believes there is a funding gap to provide investment for developing commercial scale across a wider number of Universities. This requires specialist fund management skills to understand the particularities of spin outs, how to make the best use of the innovation available, the funding landscape and the objectives of the universities themselves. We believe that more UK universities should come together to share expertise and build a sustainable funding model to support spinouts across the country.

We are committed to supporting eligible, ambitious, innovative, high growth and scalable SMEs to help fuel their growth ambitions, as an essential part of helping the UK’s economic bounce back.

For more information on FSE’s funds under management visit: www.thefsegroup.com/overview-of-funds/

Words by Julie Silvester, Head of Commercial at The FSE Group.