Dr David McBeth: How Dundee outshines the rest of the UK

Dr David McBeth, Vice-Principal (Enterprise & Economic Transformation), discusses how the University of Dundee has come out on top of other UK institution for producing successful spinout companies, particularly in life and biomedical sciences, and outlines the factors contributing to this success as well as the university’s future plans to strengthen Dundee’s and Scotland’s position in the health and life sciences sector.

The UK’s top university for producing successful spinout companies isn’t Oxford, Cambridge or any other “golden triangle” heavyweight, but the University of Dundee.

A new report by one of Europe’s largest venture capital teams examined factors such as numbers of patents, new companies created and recent portfolio success and concluded that Dundee was the leading centre for UK spinouts.

These successes include the £2.2 billion launch of Exscientia Ltd on the US NASDAQ exchange, one of the largest-ever UK spinout exits, and demonstrate how research investment is one of the most effective ways of generating returns on taxpayers’ money. Furthermore, the research that academics conduct is a clear public good, delivering social and health benefits in addition to economic impact. Exscientia, for example, are world leaders in AI-driven drug discovery and design, helping to ensure that new treatments reach patients much quicker than previously. Professor Andrew Hopkins, the founder of Exscientia is adamant that they could not have built the company anywhere other than Dundee, so what is it that makes us uniquely well placed to translate lab work into commercial success?

The foundations lie in our world-leading life and biomedical sciences research. Dundee has been ranked as the UK’s top university for biological sciences in the last two Research Excellence Frameworks, but that does not automatically equate to spinout formation. The second factor driving our success is the large number of innovative and entrepreneurial researchers at Dundee who want to see their work have real-world impact.

Thirdly, the university has developed a support system to enable this activity. At a corporate level, we see this as a crucial way of contributing to the economic regeneration of this city. Our commitment to creating high-growth spinout and start-up companies is reflected in several infrastructure investments including a new Life Sciences Innovation Hub, partly funded by the Tay Cities Deal, due to open in late 2024.

Fourthly, we are very well connected with investors and take a pragmatic and flexible approach to working with them in recognition of each venture’s individual circumstances. Typically, we will help academic founders source managers and investors and work with all parties to launch and grow the business.

Helping companies to spin out is only part of the challenge we face, however. Some of our biggest spinout successes are now based wholly or partly outside Scotland. Our aspiration is to develop an Innovation District to anchor our companies in Dundee, with an ultimate vision to help this city become a magnet for high value jobs in the health and life sciences sector.

This is critical not just for Dundee, but for Scotland as a whole. The Scottish Government’s Innovation Strategy (launched in May) cites Health and Life Sciences as one of four proposed innovation clusters. We strongly support this, and believe that Scotland could have a biomedical cluster every bit as vibrant and prosperous as that of South East England - so long as, collectively, we do the right things.

To prevent England’s golden triangle continuing to vacuum up our talent and investment, universities must work in partnership with Government and its agencies to create the infrastructure to keep spinout companies, and the jobs they create, closer to their origins.

Dr David McBeth is Vice-Principal (Enterprise & Economic Transformation) at the University of Dundee

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