Universities, spinouts and innovation

Unlocking Insights for UK Policy: Investigating the emergence and development of university spinouts and key factors shaping success



The ability of our national innovation system to generate innovative start-ups and grow them into successful companies that unlock new opportunities for wealth creation is highlighted in the 2020 R&D Roadmap and is a significant part of the 2021 Innovation Strategy. Within this context, the ability and success of universities to transfer technologies through the formation of university spinout companies (USOs) to drive socio-economic impact, and the ability of the innovation system to successfully nurture and scale these types of companies, has once again become the topic of significant debate in UK policy.


Within this policy debate, much attention is currently focused on the approaches universities take to setting up spinouts, in particular around the distribution of equity at the foundation. Other choices and factors that influence how USOs emerge and develop have received much less attention in this debate, yet may be particularly important for shaping success.


What the debate also reveals is that, despite a number of efforts over the past decade, this remains an area where UK policymakers and others lack sufficiently practical conceptual frameworks and evidence to guide their understanding of emergence and development pathways of USOs, what success looks like, and what factors shape these pathways. It is an area where robust evidence is still lacking on many issues.


Taken together, it becomes hard for UK policymakers to develop strategies that are evidence-led and are suitably targeted to enable ideas and technologies to be transferred as effectively as possible through USOs to unlock new opportunities for wealth creation.





Project Aims

The overall aim of this project is to improve the evidence and insights available to policymakers on the emergence, development and outcomes of USOs, and the types of ‘initial conditions’ at USO foundation that have greatest impact in shaping their subsequent development and success.


At the heart of this project will be the development of a practical conceptual framework capturing the emergence and development journey of USOs, bringing together the latest academic and practice-based thinking. The framework will seek to:

  • Capture key milestones in the development journey of USOs
  • Identify key structural characteristics of USOs that shape their development journeys
  • Identify key capabilities and conditions at key stages of USO development, including pre-foundation and foundation, that are likely to shape emergence and development
  • Identify different potential successful “outcomes” for USOs


The conceptual framework will then guide a series of empirical studies aimed at unlocking new insights on the emergence and development of USOs to inform public policy and university practice development.

Potential empirical studies include:

  • Understanding how the type of technology, sector of application, and strength of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem shape the emergence, development, and outcomes of USOs
  • Exploring methods and ‘proof of concept’ metrics for capturing universities’ performance in transferring ideas and technologies through spinouts to create value for the economy and society, considering implications for both the Knowledge Exchange Framework and UKRI’s emerging framework for capturing the impact of research commercialisation
  • Investigating how the nature, experiences and capabilities of different types of private and public investors affect the emergence and development of USOs
  • Investigating how the UK compares internationally in the emergence, development, and outcomes of USOs
  • Examining how the ‘initial conditions’ and choices made during the foundation phase of USOs affect their subsequent emergence and development

For further information please contact:

Tomas Ulrichsen

T: 01223339741

E: tc267@cam.ac.uk

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