Tech start-ups thrive at UK universities

According to BERR, there are currently around 4.7 million SMEs in the UK today, but where are the new technology start-ups coming from? Steve Gold looks at the University of Manchester's commercial incubators and some of their business offspring.

According to BERR, there are currently around 4.7 million SMEs in the UK today, but where are the new technology start-ups coming from? Steve Gold looks at the University of Manchester's commercial incubators and some of their business offspring.


So you're a post-grad student - or even a humble student - studying for an IT qualification and you have a 'Eureka' moment, coming up with a revolutionary idea that breaks new ground in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Perhaps because of the academic nature of universities, these Eureka moments occur a lot more frequently than you might think and a growing number of universities now have the resources to assist staff, students and others, in maximising the benefits of their ground-breaking ideas.

The University of Manchester is at the forefront of business incubation process and, according to Allan Pritts, the university's marketing manager, it has a proven track record of growing companies from scratch and helping them at key points in their development and commercialisation stages.

The university was formed in 2004 following the merger of the Victoria University of Manchester (established 1880) and the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST - established 1824) and is now the largest single campus university in the UK.

The origins of Manchester University's business incubation facilities started in the 1980s and spun out of the uni's technology training operations. All of the staff in the university's technology departments, says Pritts, are aware of the incubation process and how it works. "As a result, they are always looking out for ideas from fellow staff and students that can be incubated. Once they spot a possibility, they can refer the ideas creator to the relevant incubation specialist and the process begins," he says.

That's not to say that the road leading up to business incubation isn't a complex one. "The process of evaluation is complex. You have issues such as patents - we have in-house patent specialists - and whether there's a real market for a given product or service. All these factors need to be discussed by specialists before a project can get rolling," he says.

Eureka concepts

On average, the University of Manchester has around 250 invention records - as it calls Eureka concepts - that go through the initial stages of the business evaluation process every year. Most do not see the commercial light of day, but they all get a fair crack at the incubation process.

Once university staff involved in the start of the incubation process have decided an idea is viable, a decision on whether to licence the technology for use within the University's operations, or to spin the technology out to a third-party firm, is taken. It's at this stage that the university's two commercial arms - UMIP (University of Manchester Intellectual Property) and UMIC (University of Manchester Incubator Company) - enter the frame.

Generally speaking, UMIP fosters ideas and develops them for licensing to third-party companies, while UMIC helps finance - from an ongoing fund of £32m pounds - and incubate new companies to develop the Eureka ideas plus concepts.

Wholly owned by the university, UMIP is a limited company with around 40 staff - faculty oriented business management teams, backed up by a central office that provides company secretarial, marketing, legal and financial expertise. UMIP's role is to manage intellectual property created at the university, with the company holding the university's patent budget, managing its awards programme and providing access to spin-out investment funds via The UMIP Premier Fund. UMIP even has its own annual target of reaching 20 licences with commercial companies for its intellectual property, as well as selling shares and collecting royalties on a regular basis.

UMIC, meanwhile, provides facilities office and other, as well as the management skills to get a new company rolling and help develop the Eureka idea right through to the commercialisation stage. The university-owned company's services including business mentoring and incubation services, offering experienced business support for start-ups, as well as introducing the ideas-makers to contacts in the wider world via a series of planned events and conferences.

According to Pritts, UMIC has been also been able to attract a number of high value third-party new companies to its incubation operation, ever since it was formed in late 1999.

Spotlight on the firms

One of its latest successes in the new IT company stakes is Greenlight Computers, a firm which managing director Gary Dodson describes as "dolphins in a sea of sharks," and which provides out-sourced IT support services to 150-plus clients in north-west England. The fledgeling company's support services include networking, infrastructure design & supply, data management, IT security, email management, web mastery and other specialist technology facilities.

The two-year-old firm is currently developing shared IT service for central Manchester under the `M1' brand, which signifies the centre of the city's post code. With M1, Greenlight says it wants to create a marketplace where central Manchester businesses can make themselves visible to others in the area.

In the UMIC incubator itself, meanwhile, the university has several high-tech firms in various stages, including: IPix, an LED design company; MobySoft, a mobile solutions firm; NWT, an internet content filtering enterprise; and Sparta Technologies, an IT services company;

LED design company iPIX is developing a new generation of entertainment industry LED technologies and has just unveiled a high-powered LED system called the Satellite.

Mobysoft, meanwhile, is a child of the late 2000s, providing mobile-enabled services to a range of companies that includes Accumus Insurance and the BBC. The fledgeling company's technology includes custom text message-based software for use out in the field, as well as an Oracle software add-in that allows text messages to be generated automatically.

NWT is working on a technology called Inteliguard, which its describes as one of the first of a new generation of profiles-based intelligent internet content filters for the educational, business and internet service provider sectors.

On the intellectual side of things, Sparta Technologies is a team of programmers who offer a range of coding services to the public and private sector in the NorthWest, claiming to offer a highly cost-effective set of services.

Newcastle gets a look in

Over the Pennines, Newcastle University is supporting business incubation through NETpark (North East Technology Park) and, courtesy of an investment of £7.2m from the government, a state-of-the-art scientific centre.

NETPark  is said to be one of the fastest-growing science parks in the UK, with a focus on the physical sciences, particularly plastic electronics, micro-electronics, photonics, nanotechnology, and their application in the fields of energy, defence, and medical-related technologies. It was was founded by Durham County Council along with several other partners and is managed by the County Durham Development Company. The vice-chancellors of all five North East universities (including Newcastle) are on the board.

The park, which has an astonishing 118 companies on its books, has even gone virtual this year, with the creation of NETPark.Net, a virtual science park and technology park with virtual office facilities. These facilities allow new science and technology companies throughout County Durham and the North East - as well as companies fostered within the university incubation programme - to open up on the internet with personalised content and pro-active information via an online platform. Start-up costs come in at just £99.

The £7.2m University Innovation Centre for Nanotechnology, meanwhile, and which forms part of the university's INEX incubation operation, was opened earlier this year by the Chancellor of Exchequer, Alistair Darling. The Newcastle investment forms part of a programme of investment in the North East that includes a £10m fund to invest in green technologies such as solar photo-voltaics projects seen in the ground-breaking solar panel facade on the Northumberland Building at the University of Northumbria.

The commercial arm of Newcastle University - INEX - describes itself a contract development, manufacturing and& commercialisation centre for specialist electronic devices, microsystems and nanotechnology (MNT). According to the university, ever since its formation in late 2002, INEX's main aim has been to work with technology innovators and systems integration firms to develop and commercialise new technologies and products.

Interestingly - and largely thanks to its public sector funding origins - INEX is now the largest microsystems and nanotechnology facility in the UK, with microfabrication clean rooms, packaging and test facilities, analytical and bioscience laboratories, and an associated IT business incubator.

INEX's latest claim to fame is a project to help sufferers of age-related brain damage recover lost functions through the use of microchip implants. Under the Renachip project, which is being funded by the European Commission's FP7 programme, INEX is managing a Europe-wide study of technology which may have the potential to rehabilitate damaged parts of the brain, using specially-developed prosthetic chips. The project is still at an early stage, but project manager Angela Silon says that INEX's partners are testing the biomimetic technology on a model of the brain's neural network that controls the eyeblink learning response.

Inter-university relations are high on the agenda at INEX, as the operation's compound semiconductors division starting working with the microelectronics and nanostructures group at the University of Manchester late last year, to develop a new generation of InP high-speed devices. InP devices, in case you were wondering, support high-speed links on point-to-point microwave links and communications and vehicle-based radar in the private sector, as well as in defence applications such as electronic warfare, missile seekers and radar.

The objective of the link-up between INEX and Manchester University is to develop a route for the commercial exploitation of the technology, which both university operations are developing. According to Mo Missous, Professor of Semiconductor Materials and Devices at the University of Manchester, the collaboration is a natural progression for the university.

Professor Ken Snowdon, INEX's managing director, meanwhile, says the link-up, which is being supported by a commercial partner Integrated Compound Semiconductors, will help the formation of a supply chain for InP high speed devices. This, he says, represents a further important milestone in the delivery of INEX's mission as a national facility to support the growth of the UK's micro- and nano-technology enabled high technology industry.

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