Fri. Mar 31st, 2023
British science and startups can survive Brexit – if we keep freedom of movement

Wikimedia Commons/chensiyuan

All is not lost for Britain’s science and engineering communities after the country’s shocking vote to leave the EU and its generous buffer of science funding, at least according to three senior members of Oxford University’s startup ecosystem.

If the principle of freedom of movement is maintained, so that British science and technology companies can still attract the top talent from Europe, the sector should be able to weather the storm, they say. However, according to Alex Caccia, the co-founder of microdrone company Animal Dynamics, “It will be a very significant drag” on his company’s ability to scale if we can’t source talent from Europe, and “questioning whether we should stay in the UK or go elsewhere.”

Speaking to Ars last week at British Science Week, Caccia, whose startup successfully ran out of work from the university’s zoology department, said access to top engineers will be a deciding factor for science in the UK .

There is not the depth of skill in this country to [go it alone]. It would be a terrible shame, both for British business and for the talent who want to come and work here, if we abolished freedom of movement. I hope common sense will prevail. It is a very, very serious issue as far as the UK economy is concerned.

That is not to say that future financing is not a problem. According to Caccia, sources like the European Investment Fund have been critical in helping startups retain the best engineers in the face of predatory hiring by incumbents. His colleague Adrian Thomas, professor of biomechanics at Oxford, agrees: “It would be useful to have access to EU research funding, both for academics and start-ups, but the world will not end if we leave the EU.”

However, he added that without any funding, the science scene is bound to be hurt.

“We don’t know how disastrous Brexit is for science because we don’t know what will happen with EU funding,” he said. “My group currently has £3 million in EU funding over the next five years – that’s a colossal sum and critical for the zoology department. The government has pledged to keep research funding going until 2020. Beyond that, things look however, it looks like there will be a huge source of funding that will no longer be available to us.

That said, the industry still needs a cultural shift. The distance and shared infrastructure of Oxford, Cambridge and London should be more favorable for business than the sprawl of Silicon Valley, Caccia believes, but he still doesn’t see the next huge property coming from anywhere but California. Why? The talent is here in Europe, he said, but the “scale of ambition” is not. American companies are agile and better at building and scaling, and bringing in the best people to manage, market, and even run HR and legal roles.

It is essential that UK tech companies embrace the other factors that make a business a success. We have one of the largest and most diverse capital markets in the world at our doorstep. Why couldn’t the expertise of Oxford, Imperial College and London in finance and marketing be combined with Silicon Valley and New York? There’s no reason why it couldn’t, apart from culture and scale of ambition.

One thing the UK is finally getting right, according to Evert Geurtsen, who helps run Oxford University Innovation, which supports commercial spin-outs at the university, is the private investment structure. “When it comes to investors,” he told Ars, “we now have almost as much money in the UK as anywhere else in the world. All the UK’s major research universities are now associated with very large funds in the hundreds of millions of pounds, with follow-up money from investors. We’re starting to fix that part of the investment environment.”

The success stories aren’t quite as numerous as those of American universities like MIT, which run hundreds of firms (“most of which go out of business very quickly,” Adrian said), but Oxford has had its fair share of hits. The most recent of these is Animal Dynamics, whose Skeeter Dragonfly drones are making their way onto global military wish lists, but Oxitec was sold to Intrexon for £120 million in 2015 and is now on the frontline in the fight against Zika in the US. Games company NaturalMotion, meanwhile, was bought by Zynga in 2014 for $527 million (£397 million).

Nevertheless, Oxford is now breeding at a higher rate. Five years ago, Evert said, the university might be privatizing four companies a year. However, in the last 12 months “we have launched 15 science-based spin-outs and also a number of idea-based entrepreneurial ventures”, with £315m in funding.

“Those 15 companies span all aspects of science: cancer, therapies, immunology, software,” he added. “We have a company well advanced in bringing a pocket-sized DNA analysis tool to market.”

The key to all of this, however, is making sure the talent can enter the country and be persuaded to take the risk of working with startups, rather than taking what Evert described as the “criminal amounts of rewards” that are offered by large companies. , who naturally also want the best engineers. But if we can get the environment right – and the government doesn’t commit suicide over Brexit – the future for UK science and technology could still be bright.

List image by Wikimedia Commons/chensiyuan

By akfire1

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