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20 years of spin-out companies

20 years of spin-out companies - 3 February 2014. iStock
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

BBSRC has supported world-leading bioscience for over two decades. In a series of articles during its 20th anniversary, we will be exploring a variety of ways that BBSRC helps to deliver impact from research. In this article we look at spin-out companies.

Why is this area important?

BBSRC has a responsibility to ensure that the excellent research and capabilities in which it invests deliver the widest possible benefit to the UK economy and society. Impact from BBSRC investments in bioscience can take many different forms and can be achieved through a variety of different routes including the creation of new businesses, typically referred to as spin-out companies.

Companies that 'spin-out' to exploit the commercial potential of research create new jobs, careers and opportunities. Spin out companies are an important part of helping to deliver some of the huge economic contributions that science makes to the UK economy.

How has BBSRC contributed over the last 20 years?

From its very early days, BBSRC recognised that the investments it made in excellent bioscience research and capabilities had great potential for benefiting the UK economy and wider society. In specific cases both commercial and social benefits can be realised through the formation of spin-out companies. To ensure the best possible outcomes and increase the chances of success, BBSRC developed of a number of different mechanisms for supporting the successful creation of new businesses. These mechanisms aimed to support both the development of the idea as well as the entrepreneurial expertise of the individuals involved. Some of the support helping bringing to the fore the excellent research funded through responsive mode over the past 20 years includes: Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES), Follow-on Funding, Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowships, a Business Plan Competition, Small Business Research Initiative and the Rainbow Seed Fund.

Drawing on these specific tools and with further support from other funders and investors, BBSRC science has contributed to the establishment and support of 298 UK bioscience companies over 20 years, with 227 of these still active.

In addition, many of the BBSRC's strategically-funded research institutes are associated with research and innovation campuses, which not only provide new businesses with space to grow but also provide access to unique research and capabilities within the institutes. The institutes and the campuses in which they are embedded underpin key industrial sectors of the UK economy, such as agriculture, food and drink, bioenergy, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

What has changed and how has BBSRC influenced this?

BBSRC acknowledges that a wide range of knowledge exchange and commercial activities are required to deliver the widest possible benefit and impact. These will include engaging with users of research outcomes in business, public and third sectors.

During the last 20 years BBSRC, working with other Research Councils and partner organisations, has continuously refined its understanding of how its investments in research and capability can generate impact and benefits to the UK society and economy. This emphasis culminated with the publication of the RCUK Excellence with Impact and more recently the BBSRC knowledge exchange and commercialisation policy which together are helping embedding a culture of open innovation. However, where the most appropriate route for benefit to UK society and economy is through the creation of a new business, BBSRC has continually refined the support available to help ensure the best chance of success. In recent years, BBSRC recognised that some technologies and idea might need to be incubated for longer in order to stand up to market scrutiny. This resulted in the extension of BBSRC's Follow-on Funding scheme to accommodate in depth Proof of Concept projects.


  • 2000: Statistical software developed at the BBSRC-funded institute Rothamsted Research is used by thousands of scientists working on genetic analysis. Spin-out company VSN International (VSNi) was established at Rothamsted Research in 2000 in partnership with Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG)
  • 2002: BBSRC-funded research at Durham University is used to develop technology from spin-out company Reinnervate to grow cells in 3D, rather than traditional 2D methods. In 2009 this technology's market was valued at $35-40M per year, and in 2014 experiments using the 3D cell scaffold are planned on the International Space Station
  • 2007: BBSRC-funded research at the University of Glasgow into animal blood proteins was developed to form spin-out company ReactivLab, to provide animal health diagnostic kits. In 2010 ReactivLab was bought by Avacta Group for £5M
  • 2007: Spin-out company Absynth Biologics was formed to work on vaccines against the 'superbug' MRSA, using BBSRC-funded research and Follow-on Funding
  • 2011: The University of Manchester researchers formed Curapel to develop treatments for common skin conditions including atopic eczema and psoriasis. Three products are expected to be ready within five years. BBSRC funded the initial research, provided Follow-on Funding and facilitated industry interactions through the Industry Interchange scheme as well as developing the entrepreneurial skills of the academic involved through a BBSRC-sponsored Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship
  • 2012: Spin-out company Conformetrix, now known as C4X Discovery Limited, helps speed up drug discovery. Technology developed by former BBSRC David Phillips Fellow Dr Andrew Almond and Dr Charles Blundell, the research assistant on Almond's fellowship grant, makes the drug discovery process faster, cheaper and more accurate. The research was funded by a David Phillips fellowship, two Follow-on Funding grants and a BBSRC-sponsored Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship

What next?

By establishing a better understanding of bioscience spin-outs, BBSRC can work with other funders and key stakeholders to develop more effective business engagement strategies to help support the UK innovation system, ensuring appropriate approaches and interventions that address any gaps in support. Furthermore, this understanding will help provide evidence that the formation of new companies, although important, is only one of the many routes to delivering impact from Research Council investments and activities.


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