cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring George Baxter

We talk to George Baxter, chief executive of Edinburgh Innovations about the strengths of the Scottish ecosystem, leading a tech transfer office that also handles student startups and the importance of public funding (and giving the taxpayer their money’s worth).



Thierry Heles: George, thank you so much for joining us today.

George Baxter: Thank you very much, Thierry, it is a pleasure to be here.

Heles: To start with, can you give us an overview of what Edinburgh Innovations does, some of its history and key figures?

Baxter: Of course. We are University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation company. We are a wholly-owned subsidiary of the university, so they are our only shareholder. We have been operating for just over 50 years, we have around 120 staff and we cover much of the commercial activity at the university, including what a tech transfer office would normally do in terms of disclosures, patents, licences, royalties, spinouts and startups. But also wider than that, we also cover industrial awards, translational awards and student enterprise as well. So, we are a little bit broader than what many standard tech transfer offices are in other universities.

Heles: That is quite interesting. I do not know if there are a lot that do students startups as well. I guess that increases your numbers quite a lot.

Baxter: Yes, it does. We are very active in student startups. In fact, last year we were, I think, seventh in the UK on the total number of students startups with about 85. We expect to be in the top two or three this year on that. And we will be on top for research-intensive universities. We put a lot of time and effort into that. We are really keen on supporting our students becoming enterprising and we seem to get a great reaction.

We have about 2,000 students signed up to our enterprise courses at any one time from our student population of just over 40,000. So it is a fairly good ratio. We would like it to be a lot more, but it is fairly good. And just to give you some other numbers: last year, we did about £58m of industrial and translational awards that we negotiated for the university, around £7m of consultancy with academics as well and we brought in £32m in new startup investment and that covers academic staff and students as well.

Heles: Wow. Those are big numbers. Let’s get it out of the way so that it is out of the way: are there any ways that the pandemic has changed how you work and, and is there anything that you hope will stick?

Baxter: Yes, we switched completely to homeworking in March and we are still in fact 100% homeworking more than nine months later. So that changed radically as it has for many of our colleagues.

Incredibly, we are busier than ever. I think that the time that the academic staff have had to spend without labs during the hard lockdown, enabled them to write up their disclosures, look at their inventions and we have been doing a lot to work on that. So we have had business as usual. And on top of that, we have had about a hundred covid-related projects as well that we are helping to run around the university. And staff will be working from home.

The technology has been fantastic. And I think what we will adapt from that is that sort of hybrid model of homeworking, office working and then working out with our clients and customers, the academics and their industrial partners. So I think we will have a much more hybrid model in the future with those three components more, than we have done in the past and I think that will be really beneficial for people.

Heles: That is so interesting. I have spoken to a few people and they seem to say the same thing that researchers have suddenly had time to write up their disclosures.

Baxter: Yes they have been working very hard from home as well, and probably all those notebooks and notes that they have had sitting around that they always promised themselves to write up they have got to. It has been fantastic for us. We have got some tremendous stuff coming out of it. We have got the biggest portfolio of spinouts that we have had.

We have got about 25 projects we are working on as potential spinouts. We will probably do about eight spinouts this year as well, which is a bit more than our average, which maybe somewhere between four and six spinout a year. So it has been, in many ways, busier than a normal year. But I am still glad that there is alight at the end of the tunnel now with the vaccines. I think that is great for everyone for all sorts of reasons. And you know, the staff at EI in the university have been fantastic at adapting to this, but nine, 10 months a year is really stretching it for people working from home. I think we are all looking forward to going back to a more normal life as everyone is.

Heles: Yeah, certainly. I know I am definitely reaching the final stages of being okay with how things are.

Baxter: Yes.

Heles: How would you say Edinburgh is performing compared to its Scottish peers when it comes to entrepreneurship? Obviously, you have some impressive numbers there.

Baxter: Yes, we are, on most measures of entrepreneurship, top of the table: investment into new spinouts, students engaged, numbers of spinout companies. And also, as much as sometimes award ceremonies are not a great measure at how well you are doing, but we have won a lot of awards this year. For instance, the Converge Challenge awards, which are regarded as one of the prime Scottish enterprise and commercialisation awards. We won two or three main categories for that.

And something, which I am really proud of is that if you look at our support from the Scottish government, which we get funding for and we compare our outputs per pound of support from the Scottish government, we are by far the most efficient university. We are by far the largest output per pound of their support for the innovation of any Scottish university. And in fact, we are up there in the top handful in the UK as well for the same type of funding, whether it is HEIF funding or the Scottish version of university innovation funding.

So in terms of taxpayers’ money, the Scottish taxpayer gets a very good return from what we do, which is another really important measure for us that we are seen to be contributing to the Scottish economy in a very efficient way.

Heles: That is interesting. Speaking of funding, you have got Old College Capital as well, led by Andrea Young of course. How important is that as a funding source and supporting the ecosystem?

Baxter: It has been fantastically important, Thierry, I think for two main reasons. One is that it demonstrates a faith in entrepreneurship by the university. The university took its on funding and invested in that. The fund is running at £12m just now. We are hoping to expand that over the next couple of years as well. That demonstrates to the academics that we really value entrepreneurship and that this is something which is a key part of academic life and potentially is a way forward in terms of career path as well.

The second part is that, of course what we want to do is generally additional funding for the university, that has got to feed back into our core mission of research and teaching.

So we are very close to a few sales at the moment, we are hoping. And we are hoping that very soon we will have a self-sustaining fund for OCC, which means that the initial investment that the university made around 10 years ago will start to be paid back and more. And that excess money we get back, hopefully it will go back partly into starting more companies as well. So all in all, it has been tremendously interesting. It also gives us a seat at the table with external funders that we can come in – and actually the credibility that we have put our own money where our ideas are helps when you are trying to attract external funders into spinout as well.

Heles: Yeah. That is amazing. I kind of like the idea that it is going to be self-sustaining fund as well. I will definitely have to keep an eye out for that.

Baxter: Yes. I think within the next couple of years, as I said we have got two or three really good prospects on the go at the moment. And I think we will do fine over the next two or three years.

Heles: Amazing. Taking a slightly wider view, how do you think Scotland compares to the rest of the UK?

Baxter: It has got some strengths actually and I would say that the university sector is one of Scotland strengths. But it is in terms of the amount of research funding that we get from the UK government sources. We outperform most other the parts of the UK. Our universities are very strong in that area for a relatively small country of 5.5 million people. We have three universities in the QS 100 top universities, which is a really fantastic performance, including Edinburgh at number 20. I have to get that in, I am contractually obliged to mention that we are a world top 20 university.

It is also a great location. If you look at Edinburgh itself it is a great place to live. Scotland is a fantastic country to live in. I spent 30 years living and working in England. I came back for the job in Edinburgh, but it is a great benefit here to have such an amazing combination of cities and scenery and mountains and lochs and the sea and rivers. That definitely actually helps attract and retain good people, so that is really important.

Then the third thing we have got is actually in the venture community. We have got a very strong angel network and a very strong investor community in Scotland, which is really helpful when you are trying to do a spinout or a startup.

And the very final thing is that we are actually incredibly international, particularly Edinburgh. Almost half of our students, almost half of our staff are non-UK. We are very international university that just sort of happens to be in Edinburgh with all the benefits that being in Edinburgh and Scotland brings as well, but it is a fabulous place to be interviewed.

If you look at our investments from external industrial partners, we are about a third UK, third Europe, third rest of the world – so a very, very international university.

Heles: Wow, that is amazing. You have mentioned funding a few times there and you have angel investors. Obviously Scottish Enterprise plays a big role as well. Is the grant funding that Scottish Enterprise puts up important or is that too much? Because some people I have spoken to in Scotland seem to think that traditional VC money would help grow the ecosystem more than relying on government funding.

Baxter: It has been very important and I think will continue to be very important. What they have been able to do is kickstart quite a lot of activities and the ability to be flexible, to invest in Scottish issues from a Scottish perspective – the place-based agenda – has been really important. So I would say that has been excellent. I mean, the rest of the UK has other sources of funds as well. We have SE on top of that. So, for instance, Scottish Enterprise invested into our Bayes institute, which is our data-driven research institute in the college of science and engineering and the innovation programme for that has been really important.

So yes, we fully support that investment. Long may it continue. We would like to have even more investment than that. But what we found recently is a lot of the investment from SE now… people are looking at much more commercially-based investments rather than grants. So for example, this year, and over the next couple years, we will see the development of the Scottish National Investment Bank, which the Scottish government is investing in.

And that will start off with a £150m Built in Scotland fund to invest in commercial ventures. So it is a little bit like the British Business Bank, which we have already had significant investment from in Scotland, including a £50m investment in Epidarex Capital, which is a life sciences fund based in Edinburgh, which we as Edinburgh University actually invested £10m in as well of university money.

So we are getting… well, not finally, I mean, over the last five or six years, we are getting a good range of external pure venture investors into Scotland though. And in our numbers you can see that – if you went back five years, we were doing a fraction of what we are doing in terms of investments into startups. And as I said, last year, we did £32m into new spinouts. And that is about six times what we did five, six years ago.

Heles: That is a pretty phenomenal growth.

Baxter: Yeah. I think other universities in Scotland will tell you the same story.

Heles: I do not really want to get into the politics of it, but obviously Scottish independence is on everyone’s radar again at the moment. If we imagine for a second that Scotland does become independent, what challenges or opportunities would that present for tech transfer?

Baxter: Well, we are obviously completely agnostic about the, I mean, we do not have an opinion about that. In fact, we do not have an opinion about the independence.

The key thing is if the Scottish economy continues… that people tend to be confident in the Scottish economy. There are lots of small countries which have done well in the world, which are good homes for venture capital investment and startups and spinouts. The fundamental thing is that Scotland remains in a good place to do business to make those investments, to recruit staff and retain staff.

Those are the important things. And that is all anybody in this industry will be looking for from any future political changes: are we going to stay the good place that we are to meet those investments? There is no reason why we should not.

In terms of opportunities. Well, one of the strengths of the Scottish ecosystem is – and this would be wherever we are politically home whether part of the UK or independent – the university sector is a really strong part of the Scottish ecosystem. People traditionally think of Scotland and they think of tourism, oil, wind, financial services, whisky, food, but actually the university sector is up there as one of the most substantial contributors to particularly I think the export market, the export industries in Scotland, because of all the students we bring in. We have 20,000 overseas students at University of Edinburgh alone, who contribute massively to the economy. So as long as we have got all that still in place we are already 500 years old, we have gone through a lot of political changes, I am sure we will manage through whatever political changes or lack of changes come up in the next few years.

Heles: Obviously the big political change that is in front of us now is Brexit. Are you worried about that considering that you have so many international students, is that going to be a challenge for Edinburgh?

Baxter: That is a more direct issue for universities and I am not just… well, I do not claim to speak on behalf of the whole university, but if you look at the universities in the UK, think of it: the key thing for universities is can we do a deal on the Horizon Europe programme for instance, which is very important.

We do very well on the Horizon 2020 and the new Horizon Europe programme will be very important, and the European Research Council. Those are really high-quality research grants and programmes. And we do very well at Edinburgh in those. So if we can keep in those, if the UK government can come to an agreement with the EU about those, that would be a huge relief and reduce risk for British universities.

But I do not think that would be any surprise it is what every British university would be saying. And things like the Erasmus programme for student exchange is really important. You know, as long as we have something, which at the very least gets us in on those programmes that is something which all British universities would be looking for.

Heles: Fingers crossed. We are recording this a couple of weeks before the Brexit deadline. So by the time people hear this, we might know more. We might not.

Baxter: Yeah. I mean, yeah, fingers crossed. I think I am a member of a number of European organisations as well, the League of European Research Universities, for example, and it is very clear that our European colleagues desperately want the British universities to remain part of that as well. We are a really strong part of the European higher education network and together as a European network, we do some fantastic work and I think we would all like it to continue, but the politicians will all negotiate that and we will throw our arguments for it, but let’s see how the politicians go.

Heles: You have mentioned a few times as well that Scotland is a relatively small country. I think there are 18 institutions, I want to say. Do you think a centralised system, like France’s Satt Network for tech transfer would work in a place like Scotland? Or why would it not?

Baxter: It is interesting you ask that, Thierry, because we have been looking at internally in my team that was brought up recently at one of our staff meetings. We have looked at this in the past. In fact, a couple of my team who have been here longer than me – I am just over four years here now – a couple of my team who were here 10, 15 years ago, actually pulled out a paper they had written, suggesting such a thing.

I think the world has moved on since then. If you look at the critical mass that universities that have at Edinburgh we have 120 staff. We can do the full range of patents, disclosures. Everything we have all the expertise and we have a fantastic legal team as well supporting us.

So we feel we have probably got the critical mass to handle our own business. And I guess my colleagues at other large Scottish universities, Strathclyde, Glasgow who are very strong in this area as well would probably, maybe, they take a similar view. I do not dare speak on behalf of any other Scottish university, but I think that if I were sitting in another chair, the Scottish government or funding council, then yeah, maybe it is worthwhile looking at it every couple of years, just to see.

How could the expertise, which particularly Edinburgh have got, be used more widely for Scotland? Could you actually set up a central Scottish tech transfer office, which would offer services across a large number of smaller Scottish universities or universities which have not been able to have such a commitment to the tech transfer world.

And that may be a very efficient way. It has some disadvantages as well. And you know, you have to get everybody to sign up for that, but I think it is always worthwhile looking at. And as I said we literally last week at the meeting, a few of my team said ‘could be a look at that’. And we talk fairly regularly to people at the Scottish funding council, the Scottish government and this is something which comes up and I do not see anything on other horizon at the moment, but as I say, I think it is something which just needs to be checked back on to make sure we are not missing an opportunity there.

Heles: That is very interesting. I seem to have had good timing there for once.

Baxter: Yeah, very good timing. There are real pros and cons in this you can imagine some universities do not want to lose that independence, but if you have got access to the expertise, which you cannot afford – there is a minimum critical mass for a lot of this – we have patent attorneys, we have many tech transfer officers, people work in enterprise, business advisers. And if you are a smaller university, you may not be able to afford that range or to buy it from outside might be less efficient. So I would certainly be open to having that discussion with my other university colleagues. But of course you have to have everybody buying into that. It is not the sort of thing that can be imposed, it has to be done by everyone agreeing to do it, but I would certainly be open to have the conversation to see whether it is something that would make sense or not.

Heles: I am not actually sure, I think the French government just imposed it. They just  went ahead with it.

Baxter: Yeah, I think there are 13 in the French network and they have quite a different ecosystem with the technopoles and other organisations. Next time I talk to my French colleagues, I will ask them how it is going.

Heles: My next question is my favourite one and people tend not to like it so much. What is your favorite company that has come out of Edinburgh so far?

Baxter: Right. Okay. Let me cheat on this a little bit by suggesting two.

Heles: That is fine.

Baxter: There is a reason. One is a small company, so it is probably not one that people would think I would choose, it is a company called SpeakUnique. And this is a collaboration between some people in neuroscience, in the College of Medicine, and also our artificial intelligence and natural language processing people in our School of Informatics and in the Bayes institute. And this is for people who are losing their voice due to neurological challenges, like motor neuron disease or so on, and then eventually have to switch to a computerised voice, which has a lot of impact on people – you know, when they lose their voice it is a terrible thing for most people.

And what SpeakUnique has been set up to do in this collaboration is by recording a limited number of words from a person before the complete loss of voice, that company can synthesise that voice to then allow the person when they have lost their natural voice completely to have a voice through the computer which sounds like them.

It is quite recent, only the last year or two, and it is quite a small niche opportunity. But actually, it is one of those ones, this collaboration between neuroscience and artificial intelligence and also the ability to really help people who are very ill. When you have lost your voice, that is a massive drop-off of a link between you and the outside world.

So that one really made a big impression on me, as you can probably tell. That is a fantastic little, relatively small company.

The other one I will pick up on is a company called Invizius. And that is, again, a collaboration between chemistry and the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine again. And this is a larger opportunity and it gives you maybe the other end of the scale for Edinburgh.

Most people do not realise that people who have kidney dialysis, actually the biggest risk to you is heart problems because of clotting. As your blood goes through the dialysis machine there are interactions with materials and your blood can start to clot. And a lot of people who are on kidney dialysis, the biggest risk of death is actually from heart problems, not from your kidneys packing up.

So, what we have got is a technology which can coat materials within the kidney dialysis machine. And if you think how many millions of people are on dialysis across the world. So that has been launched in the last couple of years with some external funding from Mercia and also some internal funding from the university.

What that has enabled them to do is actually get put forward into the sort of clinical trials side over the next couple of years, just to check that technology does work, there are no avoidable risks there and that it could actually transform kidney dialysis for millions of people and add years onto people’s lives for something which, while the list for transplants are relatively long, could actually allow people to live a normal life because it allows you to stay alive longer to then be available for a transplant. So that is on the other end of the scale from SpeakUnique, it could be really transformational for something that most of us know, we know someone who has been affected by kidney dialysis.

Heles: That is fascinating. I certainly did not realise that stroke, blood clot is the bigger risk when you have a failure.

Baxter: Yes, I had not either. And that is the other thing I love about working here is I used to be an academic. I was a professor in a business school for a while and people ask me do I miss being an academic. Well, I was not an academic for very long before I went into this type of role, but I do not miss it because I am actually working with some of the world’s best academics. And I get to work with thousands of people across the university – everything from neuroscience, artificial intelligence, chemistry, cell biology, politics, history, archaeology. I mean, it is a great job for that. You really get a chance to talk to some of the most interesting people on the planet and that is what makes it fantastically interesting.

Heles: What brought you to Edinburgh or back to Scotland? You said you were in England for a few decades.

Baxter: Yeah. I worked most of my career in the private sector, working for companies like AstraZeneca on technology licensing and also in specialty chemicals businesses heading up those internationally, particularly in Japan.

And then I worked for the government for eight years on economic development, which was tremendous. But was at University of Nottingham doing a very similar role to this. And very happy there, it is a great university, really enjoying it. Then I got approached about potentially being interested in the job at Edinburgh and the fascinating thing about Edinburgh at that point, this is five years ago, was that I saw it very much, to use the cliché, as the sleeping giant in the commercialisation area. I looked at the numbers and I saw that Edinburgh was fourth in research power – in the UK that is the number of academics times the quality of the research – so fourth is pretty good. In fact, very good. World top 20, particularly Edinburgh’s research strengths as well.

But in commercialisation, if you look at some of the metrics it was down in 15th, 16th, 17th, and I dug a bit more into that. And what it made me realise was there was a huge opportunity at Edinburgh to make a radical change, and that as much as I was very happy at Nottingham, I came to Edinburgh for that opportunity and that challenge.

It was not about necessarily coming back to Scotland, although that is very nice because I like Scotland, but I had been 30 years in England. So I was very happy there as well. I think that opportunity, the breadth of the job here as well, covering industrial relationships and consultancy and the student stuff as well is great. It really appeals to me.

It is the international quality of the university that I have mentioned before. You get to work with so many people from all over the world. It is tremendous, really. Sometimes at the end of the day your head is really hurting because particularly this technology being on screens all the time, you could have seven, eight, nine meetings a day and you are flipping from a meeting with someone at Stanford about something, and then you are flipping to someone in France and someone in Japan, and of all different subjects. And it really can be quite disorientating at times. But the ability to work across that breadth here at Edinburgh was fantastic.

We have done pretty well since then. I have been able to recruit a really fantastic team and the university has been amazing at investing in Edinburgh Innovations. We have gone from about 60 people to 120 people in the last four or five years, which has been fantastic.

We are now pretty steady at those numbers. We are a net contributor to the university finances, which is one of my ambitions when I came for the interview and the interview panel, people I work with now keep reminding me of that, of what I promised at the interview. They said, we remember you wrote that down, George, here are the six things you said you could do.

To be fair, we actually have achieved all of those in the first four years. So, and look, most of the credit is down to the team at Edinburgh Innovations, the academic team we have got here and the support we have had from the senior management at the university as well, which has been great, but also internationally.

It has been great to work with people like TenU, which is an organisation of the world’s top 10 entrepreneurship and enterprise universities – Stanford, MIT, Columbia, ourselves, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL. And if I have missed anybody out they will probably tell me when I meet them.

But we get together fairly regularly in this TenU organisation, we have very regular catch-ups and benchmarking and really see how we can improve globally, how we can improve tech transfer and enterprise, which is fantastic to do. And if I was not at Edinburgh, obviously very few other universities have those sort of links.

So breadth of the job, still a lot to do, still a huge amount to do. I think we can do even better, but I am still very happy here and I am looking forward to the next five years hopefully as well.

Heles: I mean, it sounds like Edinburgh is very lucky to have you as well.

Baxter: I hope so. I keep telling the chairman of my company that’s the case. ‘John, you are very lucky to have me.’ He always thinks I am joking, but usually I am not.

No. I think it is also – I hope it comes across as well – it is actually a very fun place. And I do not mean fun in like everybody tells jokes and stuff. To me fun is being interesting and being challenging, that is what makes it fun.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning for a job? It is not signing another licensing agreement, but the impact that that licensing agreement could have, and working with people to whom this is really important stuff. So I have been able to recruit and retain a really excellent team at Edinburgh Innovations.

I cannot speak highly enough of them there and that keeps me going. It makes it much easier to be a chief executive if you have got a fantastic team. I have worked places in the past, not in the university sector, where it has been a lot more challenging in terms of politics and so on.

And actually, there is fairly little of that sort of internal politics here. Mostly everybody just wants to get on and do a good job and to do the right thing. It makes it so much easier. You can spend your effort on that and your energy on that as well. And that makes it a real pleasure to work here.

Heles: That is wonderful. It is not really so much a question as it is whether there is anything else that we have not talked about that you want people to know about?

Baxter: I think that is fine. It has been a pleasure talking to you. You have asked a really challenging set of questions there, which I am sure when we stop the interview I will think I am sure I should have mentioned something else. Another number I could have thrown in, apologies if I have thrown in a lot of numbers. That is how I think.

Heles: I quite like numbers.

Baxter: I think in numbers and graphs, and it frustrates some of my colleagues in the College of Arts and Humanities. I tend to think in numbers in graphs, but it is a good complementary thing, I have lots of people on my team who think in words so that helps. So no, I really appreciate the chance to talk to you, Thierry. It has been a real pleasure and good luck with the rest of your series of podcasts.

Heles: It has been wonderful to have you, thanks very much for joining us George.

Baxter: Thank you.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).