As Portico Ventures is well under way at UCL, we catch up with Programme Manager Denisa Naidin on how UCLB’s work is helping to speed up the route to commercialisation for Computer Science innovations at UCL.
Denisa, the Portico Ventures Programme launched in June last year. Can you give us an insight into what the Programme does and how it can help Computer Science academics at the university?
Portico is a pilot programme that incentivises commercially minded researchers to invest their time and effort into building successful spinouts around software, algorithms or methods that they have developed in UCL. It does this by offering them a larger shareholding in the newly formed entity and a clean intellectual property (IP) licence for non-patentable technologies. The programme has developed guidance and templates that our entrepreneurial academics can use to build their business (the toolkit can be found here: https://pvp.uclb.com/founders-toolkit/). We also take advantage of UCL and London’s rich support ecosystem by channelling teams towards appropriate funding sources, available training programmes, legal support or operational specialists as needed to help their spinout off the ground.
The programme was set up by UCLB, in collaboration with UCL Computer Science and UCL Innovation & Enterprise, as we recognised that opportunities in the digital space could particularly benefit from new commercialisation models.
Why trial the programme in Computer Science in particular?
Computer Science is the ideal place to test out Portico Ventures, as innovations arising from the department’s research typically revolve around non-patentable and fast-to-deploy technologies. Many of them are platform technologies that can serve multiple markets at the same time and for which the commercial take-up can be rapid. In the past, we have seen advanced machine vision research, cutting-edge optimisation algorithms and complex software translated into creative new solutions to real-world challenges.
Academics in Computer Science often already have external connections that can support them in building their entrepreneurial venture, so we felt that this was the appropriate environment to test a low-support high-reward programme. It makes it easier for the start up company to get a licence to the technology that was been developed at UCL and progress it through a spinout.
What role does Portico Ventures take in the commercialisation process?
We undertake due diligence on the IP (contributors, funder obligations, etc.) and manage the legal aspects of licensing the technology across, but we also provide a lot of information and support on the business side. Our researchers are naturally strong on the technological side, but often need assistance with the entrepreneurship aspects of growing a company, so we talk them through the process, help them troubleshoot and make connections. Portico Ventures also signposts them to where they can find further support at each development step, taking advantage of the resources offered by UCL and its partners across London. For example, within UCL we are closely networked with teams in UCL Innovation & Enterprise, the UCL Technology Fund, the teams at Base KX and Idea London.
So far, we’ve introduced our researchers to training opportunities available through Innovation & Enterprise; to specialised courses run by VCs that we’re on friendly terms with; we’ve explored funding sources targeted to their development stage and also introduced teams to potential funders or collaborators that could add value. We encourage them to make those vital connections that ultimately lead to a successful business plan, funding, or access to partner networks.
What have the challenges been throughout the programme?
No two businesses are alike and it is a challenge to ensure that the support we offer adapts to the needs of each team. Every project comes to us at a different stage: some have a beta version of their product ready and interested customers lined up, others come with just an idea and an algorithm, without any sense of the market they could be applied to. Some might have a diverse team behind them, while others are exploring things on their own. We try to make the case that there is no bad time to come see us, as we can provide advice on how to progress at each step. However, this also means Portico Ventures needs to offer very different support mechanisms, adapted to the stage of the idea, the team or the industry. By connecting into the wider UCL and London ecosystem, we can actually do that without having to duplicate things that are already available. We prefer to capitalise on what we already have at our disposal.
What kind of progress are we seeing from the projects that are receiving support from the programme?
So far, we have seen a few spinouts being incorporated and many more teams progressing from exploration through to business planning and prototyping. Take Odin for example, a UCL Computer Science spinout that has been supported through the Programme. Odin is using advanced computer vision and machine learning to help physicians improve the detection and treatment of colorectal cancer during endoscopic procedures. While the idea had been mulled over for some time, Portico Ventures enabled the team to quickly translate the background research into a commercial opportunity and secure funding from AI Seed, London Co-Investment Fund, Innovate UK, as well as the UCL Technology Fund (UCLTF).
You mentioned that Odin has raised significant investment in its first year. Do you think the commercialisation support that Portico Ventures offers has helped in this?
We nurture projects until they reach a stage where they are ready to take on investment. We also try to introduce them to friendly funders and recommend collaboration alternatives. Something that contributes to this is the fact that we also work very closely with the UCLTF – a £53million fund co-managed by UCLB and Albion Capital. I think this helps because we can get VC insight into an opportunity quite early on in the process, ensuring that Portico Ventures projects understand exactly what investors look for even before they are ready to take on investment. I believe it is very useful for a would-be-spinoff to have someone with start up financing experience sit down and take the time to run through the expectations and the questions a funder is likely to have, in a safe space.
If you are interested in finding out more, visit the Portico Ventures Programme website: https://pvp.uclb.com/
Innovate UK story about the awards: https://bit.ly/2TYCXWi