5. Enterprising academics
New route for startups
The launch of Founders Choice in August 2017 offered Imperial academics a new route for startups that would secure them up to 95% founding equity in a company based on their research. Imperial Innovations would continue to provide a more basic level of support, including the provision of training, template legal documents and access to professional advisers.
Offering a choice on how to set up a business reflects how far our entrepreneurial ecosystem has evolved."
Professor Nick Jennings
The scheme recognises the knowledge, expertise and strong industry networks of Imperial’s entrepreneurial academics (Tables 2 and 3). Company founders must demonstrate that they have a credible business plan, and have found investors and partners willing to support the venture. Founders Choice represents a significant policy change from the previous route, which continues to provide academics with an option for fuller support and a more even split of equity between founders and Imperial Innovations (which holds founding equity on behalf of the College).
One year into the 18-month pilot phase of Founders Choice, and most new companies formed through Imperial Innovations are now taking the founder-driven route. It is still early days to quantify the full impact of Founders Choice, given the unpredictable timelines involved in forming new companies, but indications are that the approach is encouraging more startup opportunities, with a boost in startup formation anticipated by the time the pilot comes to an end in January 2019.
“It is gratifying to see that Founders Choice is already proving popular with our academics,” says Professor Nick Jennings, Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise) at Imperial. “Being able to offer a choice on how to set up a business reflects how far our entrepreneurial ecosystem has evolved.”
Enterprising academics blocks - row 1
Dr Stefanos Zafeiriou (Department of Computing) used Founders Choice to set up FaceSoft with plastic surgeon Mr Allan Ponniah from the Royal Free Hospital. FaceSoft uses proprietary machine learning models and databases to improve computer-generated 3D face reconstruction and facial recognition The technology could be used for treating medical conditions that affect the face, improving biometric security, and as well as refining facial expressions in computer games. The company won the Programm/able competition in 2017, and has since raised investment funding. The Natural History Museum has featured FaceSoft technology as part of its research programme to determine what modern humans would look like as Neanderthals.
Testing graphics drivers
GraphicsFuzz was set up by Dr Alastair Donaldson (Computing) and colleagues using the Founders Choice route in April 2018 to make graphics drivers more secure and reliable. The company developed innovative automated testing technology that has reduced testing times and improved compliance and security by identifying bugs in flagship devices that cause data theft across browser tabs or device reboots. GraphicsFuzz was acquired by Google in August 2018 and is now open source (GraphicsFuzz on GitHub). Dr Donaldson said: “The acquisition by Google is a fantastic opportunity to maximise the worldwide impact of our graphics driver testing technology.”
Companies have interesting problems and smart people. Collaborating with them has helped me focus my research on challenges that are worth solving."
Professor Andrew Livingston
Professor Andrew Livingston (Chemical Engineering) is an established founder of startups, establishing his first Imperial startup in the early ‘90s, before the College had any formal policy or support for academics in this field. And he was one of the first academics to use Founders Choice for incorporating his latest business venture Exactmer Ltd in December 2017.
“Founders Choice is a great development for academics who know what’s needed and just want to get on and set up a company”, says Professor Livingston. “It works especially well for those of us who are either confident enough or cheeky enough to think we can handle our own risk.”
Professor Livingston enjoys his collaborations with business more generally. He specialises in making membranes that separate molecules, and using those membranes to solve challenges in the oil and gas industry. He says: “Companies have interesting problems and smart people. Collaborating with them has helped me focus my research on challenges that are worth solving.”
Exactmer was set up to manufacture and purify high molecular weight polymers. “Establishing a robust process to make it easier for academics to start companies fills an essential niche in any entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Livingston observes. “We carry out fundamental research. Then we talk to companies about how it can help solve a problem. And then we set up a company to build the device and deliver the solution.”