The top 25: Jim Wilkinson, CFO, Oxford Sciences Innovation

Superlatives are a rarity in the university venturing world. For all the fascinating, potentially world-changing research making its way to the marketplace, the firing power of universities when it comes to offering capital is often limited, relatively speaking, compared with the corporate or venture capital worlds.

The importance of Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI) in this context cannot be overstated. The fund was impressive from launch, when it emerged with $331m in May 2015, but since then it has grown steadily to an astonishing $800m – by far the largest in the western world.

Jim Wilkinson has been the fund’s chief financial officer since the day OSI became operational, leading an office that on paper and in actual physical size resembles that of some of the best-known VC operations on Sand Hill Road.

Wilkinson was previously a founding director of media company Informa, where he also served as chief financial officer from 1994 to 2004, before holding the same position at textile rental and services provider Johnson Services from 2004 to 2007, online betting platform Sportingbet from 2008 to 2013 and Africa-focused conglomerate Lonrho from 2013 to 2015.

Fund size alone is only part – if an important part – of the venturing equation, of course, but OSI’s roster of limited partners is just as impressive. Apart from University of Oxford and its endowment, they also include GV, the early-stage investment arm of diversified conglomerate Alphabet, conglomerate Fosun, internet company Tencent, Legal and General Capital, the investment arm of financial services group Legal and General, commercialisation firm IP Group, charity investor Wellcome Trust, Singaporean government-owned investment firm Temasek, sovereign wealth fund Oman Investment Fund, hedge fund Redmile Group and investment management companies Woodford Investment Management, Invesco and Lansdowne Partners as well as Charles Dunstone, executive chairman of telecoms firm TalkTalk.

OSI has built a portfolio of 60 companies in just three years but more impressive still is the fact that it has quadrupled the number of spinouts emerging out of Oxford to some 20 companies a year – meaning more than a third of Oxford’s 160 spinouts over the past three decades have been founded since 2015.

The fund splits its 50% equity in life sciences and physics spinouts with tech transfer office Oxford University Innovation (OUI) – meaning each gets 25% and the founders get the other 50%. As a result, such spinouts start out with an investor with the resources to follow its investments through to the growth stage, rather than committing only to a seed or series A round.

There may have been questions at the time of the fund’s launch about whether that much capital would find enough spinouts to invest in at a single institution, but such fears have turned out to be unsubstantiated as OSI has helped create its own dealflow.

And OSI is in the business of unicorn hunting so the idea it may have too much money for one university was always a bit laughable. It takes a significant level of equity to drive a company’s valuation to $1bn or more.

But OSI is not being wasteful – of the $655m that was collectively raised by Oxford’s spinouts over the past year, a mere 6% came from the fund. The hypothesis that a university doubling down on its spinouts will attract more external backers looks to have been proven true.

OSI’s portfolio covers a wide range of areas, too – from infectious diseases, vaccines and therapeutics, to artificial intelligence, sensors and diagnostic devices, to sustainable energy.

Far from resting on his laurels, Wilkinson has been quick to point out that until these portfolio companies have become full commercial successes OSI will not be satisfied. The work done so far is promising. The first half a dozen companies have gone on to raise large follow-on funding.

A recent example of this is Evox Therapeutics, an exosome therapeutics spinout, that closed a $45.4m series B round in early September led by Redmile and backed by OSI, University of Oxford, GV, Panacea Healthcare Ventures, Borealis Ventures, Cowen Healthcare Investments and angel investors. OSI previously injected $14.5m in series A funding in 2016.

In August, Genomics, a genetic data science spinout, closed a $32.5m series B round led by pharmaceutical firm Vertex Pharmaceuticals, with the support of OSI, IP Group, Woodford, Invesco, Lansdowne Partners and Tanarra.

And in June 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs’ Principal Strategic Investments unit led a $22m series A round in Diffblue, a spinout that has developed artificial intelligence technology to produce an exact mathematical model of a software’s code base from just a few examples in order to enable a semantic understanding of what an application is doing. OSI and the Oxford Technology and Innovations Fund also contributed to that transaction.

Oxford’s pipeline is about to increase dramatically with the recent launch of OUI’s initiative to support social enterprises. OUI expects that program to lead to 10 new spinouts a year that will be supported by a dedicated group headed by Mark Mann, innovation lead for humanities and social sciences, and a £550,000 ($730,000) impact fund, SE2020.

It will be interesting to see whether OSI will widen its net to social enterprise companies, or whether it will stick to its focus on physical and life sciences.

Social enterprise may not have been quite what anyone had in mind when OSI was launched, but they would fit well with Wilkinson’s world view. He said: “Universities have a unique position in society benefiting from public and charitable income to fund academic research. This needs to be combined with commercial expertise and significant patient capital in order to make sure the science makes a real-world impact.

“The academic sector needs to ensure that the tech transfer process is sufficiently easy to attract startup and spinout funding and that close ties exist with large commercial organisations.”

Wilkinson certainly has his work cut out for him, but he is clearly the right man for the job. There is no more deserving person to top the first GUV Powerlist.