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An interview with Emma Nolan, Head of IP Commercialisation at the University of Liverpool

As the University of Liverpool’s research commercialisation activity goes from strength to strength with eight new spin-out companies formed and a further four in the pipeline, we talk to Emma Nolan, about the process, the new companies, and their importance to the local economy:

Emma joined the University in 2016 and she has headed up the Intellectual Property (IP) Commercialisation Team since 2018 having worked in university technology transfer for most of her career including roles at Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

What attracted you to the role at Liverpool?

I was attracted firstly by the strength of the academics, with a number being world-leaders in their field.

Secondly there is phenomenal expertise in so many areas of research – for example, the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences is outstanding in infectious diseases.

When I joined, the University had not really been punching its weight in technology transfer and so I was also attracted by the opportunity to help build a pipeline of activity and a portfolio of high growth companies.

What was your strategy and what steps have you put in place to achieve this?

My strategy had three core elements. The first was to get some quick wins by building on Liverpool’s existing core strengths. The University’s Enterprise Investment Fund (EIF) was absolutely key, it’s a powerful demonstration of the University leadership’s commitment to commercialisation. Led by Professor Anthony Hollander, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research & Impact, the EIF is a ring-fenced fund of ~£800,000 per annum for nurturing early-stage tech opportunities and spinouts. We increasingly use the EIF as a seed capital provider and our aim is to have the credibility to attract matched investment for our new spin-out companies. We’ve increased our external funding for commercialisation projects significantly: since 2018, our direct investment of £1.7m has been matched by ~£5.6m investment from industry and grant funding. This means a total secured investment in Liverpool’s technologies of £7.3 m, just under a fourfold leverage of the EIF. And with a further £4.3m funding applications in the pipeline, we are now targeting a leverage of 6-fold for the EIF.

Secondly, we needed to be more engaged with external entrepreneurial bodies and other Universities. Joining the NxNW consortium of universities was a game-changer for Liverpool as it gives our academics access to top external accelerator programmes. These include Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe), and the Lean Launchpad Programme (LLP), which are supported by Innovate UK, a major provider of grant funding. We aim to have secured over £1m funding from ICURe by the end of this year. This level of funding, matched with the EIF, is hugely significant for our spin-outs and plays into the levelling up agenda by giving northern university spin-outs access to early-stage capital.

The third element of my strategy was to follow a consistent commercialisation operating model, the model has been in place for 6 years now, and we’re pleased with our achievements so far, but we’re still young for a technology transfer office and we need to scale our activity over the next 5 years. Critically, the University leaders are very supportive to see Liverpool raise its profile, and we have fantastic leadership in the Enterprise Board. The Board provides access to a wealth of expertise with lay members of council, investors and industry experts sitting alongside Faculty and other internal representatives.

How many new spin-out companies have been created, and what sort of sectors do they represent?

The new commercialisation model has started to deliver a bit sooner than I’d hoped – we’ve founded eight spin-out companies in the last three years alone, with four more in the pipeline for this calendar year. As a result, we’ve jumped 34 places in the Entrepreneurial Impact Rankings which measures universities’ success at turning their academic achievements into thriving companies. As a generality, I think it’s critical to measure success through external benchmarks whenever possible.

The company sectors so far are reflective of some of the University’s research strengths: Porous Liquid Technologies, CageCapture and Polymer Mimetics are all from Chemistry, and are commercialising entirely new classes of materials, or platforms for making new materials. Tandem Nano is especially interesting – based on cross-Faculty collaboration from Chemistry and Pharmacology.

Meta Additive which is a really exciting technology in Advanced Manufacturing, with a brilliant founder Dr Kate Black, won a £1.2m Innovate UK grant in 2020 and was acquired by Desktop Metal, Inc., a leader in mass production and turnkey additive manufacturing solutions in 2021. The scale of this acquisition, and the benefit to the University is a fantastic endorsement of our Commercialisation strategy and continued investment in our spin-outs.”

Robotiz3D Limited, also from Engineering will develop automated vehicles for monitoring and mending pot-holes as its first product. In the diagnostics space, we have two spinouts. PhenUTest is developing a new point of care diagnostic for diagnosing UTIs and recommending the correct antibiotic treatment. Nidor Diagnostics is set to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with IBS in the first instance, but will also develop diagnostic capability around other conditions, such as colorectal cancer.

Why is it important for a University like Liverpool to commercialise its research and exploit commercial opportunities?

Because it boosts the local economy! Cities and regions which have got this consistently right have benefited from a significant economic impact. But this takes time to mature into an ecosystem – a decade at least. Our vision is that a cluster of high-tech companies in the Liverpool City Region (LCR) will attract investors, inward investment, and engage a skilled workforce with the consequent ripple effect on the local economy.

Silicon Valley is often cited as the model to follow, but, personally, I think that’s too simplistic – you can’t replicate in Liverpool something that developed in San Francisco. Studies of start-up communities show that entrepreneurial ecosystems work in networks, not hierarchies – with successful entrepreneurs supporting new entrepreneurs in a ground-up, self-organised way. This makes sense for Liverpool which is why we have put entrepreneurial accelerator programmes such as ICURe and Lean Launchpad at the heart of our process. I think any academic who is looking to commercialise their research should consider one (or both) of these programmes – or really any quality accelerator programme, there are plenty more. There’s lots of evidence to say that companies which have been through an accelerator are more successful.

These are early-stage spin-out companies, but as they grow what sort of support will they need and how can local stakeholders or partners help?

Early-stage companies will grow and thrive in an entrepreneurial ecosystem involving specialist agencies and ring-fenced funding. This is what has happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scottish Enterprise is the most active investor in the UK, according to Beauhurst, and Northern Ireland have done very well through Invest NI.

A number of our spin-outs have won funding from the Liverpool City Region  Mayor’s Future Innovation Fund, and this has been a huge boost for them, especially in these difficult times.

We’re also very excited about LCR Ventures who provide funds and advice to help Health and Life Sciences innovators turn great ideas into businesses. We are collaborating with the Ventures team to evaluate pipeline opportunities. Alongside this we’re talking to Growth Platform – Liverpool City Region Growth Company to understand how we can work together.

Our spin-out, Polymer Mimetics, is a joint venture with Scott Bader, a multi-national speciality chemicals company. Mimetics, which is located in the Liverpool Science Park has already created a number of highly skilled jobs for Liverpool. The Science Park has significant resources and start-up packages available, and has been really helpful to some of our spinouts.

I do think that an on-campus University incubator/accelerator is one of the next key challenge for us to tackle, which will nurture spinouts to feed into the Science Park and other high-tech facilities which are being developed in the Knowledge Quarter.

It is 2022 now, what do you think the IP and spin out company landscape will look like by 2025?

This is a timely question as we’re currently developing our five-year plan. First and foremost, we will continue to found several spinouts each year, commensurate with our peer Universities and research capacity. So as our portfolio matures, we will have companies at all stages of growth, seed, venture, scale-ups.

We will be a member of a University Venture Capital Trust (VCT) and/or Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) fund, to co-invest alongside our Enterprise Investment Fund, and we will have our own Future Founders Programme for Liverpool inventors. This programme is to being developed in conjunction with the new Brett Centre for Entrepreneurship, at the Management School. Plans are underway for this programme, and we aim to deliver the first cohort this year.

We will work even more closely with local, sector-specific accelerators, such as Alderley Park and will have a thriving community of academic entrepreneur-founders. Ideally, we’ll have a least one company which has raised investment via the Intellectual Property Office (IPO

Last but not least, we will be working closely alongside structures such as Growth Platform – Liverpool City Region Growth Company to support our spin-outs as part of a wider and thriving start-up and entrepreneurial community in Liverpool.

That’s the vision!

The University’s IP commercialisation team has extensive experience of partnering with companies to take technologies developed at the University of Liverpool to market.

It works closely with teams who are responsible for consultancy, KTPs, partnerships and industry engagement. Discover how collaborating with the University of Liverpool can help you to deliver novel solutions for your organisation, contact us today.