cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Tony Raven

We talk to Tony Raven, chief executive of University of Cambridge’s commercialisation arm Cambridge Enterprise, about abandoning long-held beliefs in the workplace, his help in launching both IP Group and Cambridge Innovation Capital and the importance of running a tech transfer operation worthy of the Cambridge brand.


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Thierry Heles: “Tony, thank you for joining us on the podcast today.”

Tony Raven: “Hi Thierry. It is a great pleasure. I have been looking back through the illustrious line of people you have had on this podcast. So, it is quite an honour to be here.”

Heles: “We have been very lucky so far with people that have been able to join us, yes. To start with, maybe you can give us a brief overview of Cambridge Enterprise’s work. Maybe give us some key figures.”

Raven: “Where to start and how to describe us? I think let us start from the outside and work in because we sit in a very unique ecosystem, which is a tremendous contribution to what we do. When you think Cambridge is a city of 130,000 people, that we have over 5,000 high-tech companies here turning over £18bn a year and employing 60,000 people. If you just look at that in context, the university’s research budget is a touch under £600m and the tax take for government on that cluster is around £6bn, so 10 times. It really shows what this can do if we do it correctly.

“If I start from the university in, we start always from the university mission. As one of the top universities in the world at research and teaching, most people would expect that would be its mission. But in fact, if you read our mission statement, it is to contribute to society using (the tools of) research and teaching at the highest levels of international excellence. The whole of it is driven by this. Probably the biggest contribution of the university is sending educated graduates out into the world, into the workplace to take the knowledge out with them.

“Cambridge Enterprise is responsible for a very specific portion of that benefit to society, and that is where we use commercial tools to create the benefit. What does that mean? Well, our academics do a lot of consultancy for external organisations and we take care of all the back office administration for them – the contracts, the billings, et cetera – so they can concentrate on doing the bit they want to do, which is transferring their knowledge and not get bogged down in the rest of it.

“That for us is actually a very important part of our activity because we interact with more academics that way than in any other channel, and it creates a great community of people who have a very good experience who then are very positive and start to use all the other activities we do.

“So, what are those other activities? Well, one part of it is the traditional technology transfer. That is where we work with the academics, work out which of their ideas is worth protecting and taking forward, putting in place patents, and then going out to industry to see if anyone is interested in taking them up.

“Our problem as with many other leading universities is industry is not too interested most of the time because it is too early, it is too high risk, it is too disruptive. Rather than let those ideas die, the university has put in place for us seed funds so that we can take those out through the vehicle of a new company, founded by the academics to get it out there. And fortunately, our judgment has shown over time that actually our judgment of the future is a bit better than the industry of the day, because a number of those have gone on to be very successful companies.

“That is the essence of what we do. You asked for some numbers and some key figures. I am not a great fan of figures and metrics and KPIs and all the rest of it because I do not think they apply very well to this business.

“It is the same thing that these very early ideas are not open to detailed investigation and analysis. So, our key figures are how our academic community perceives us. We do a survey of the academic community as a measure of how we are performing. We surveyed all 5,000 researchers. 27% of them responded – which if you have done a survey you will know is a phenomenal response rate – 68% said they know what we do. So, our awareness out there is good. 27% have worked with us. The most important one for us is 92% of that 27% said they would recommend us to a peer or a colleague.

“That is the thing, because for us no matter how many websites, brochures, all the rest that we do, social media, actually word of mouth, is our most effective marketing tool. Having a large community of people out there who have worked with us, who are very positive about it and talk positively to their friends and colleagues is really, I think, the measure of the success of the team I work with.”

Heles: “That is very impressive. I did find some figures on your website. It said, I think it coincided with you taking over as CEO in 2011, venture funding capacity has grown by 730%, the number of spinouts has gone up by 250% and your consultancy support services increased by 90%. Do you have a secret that you would like to share with people how you did that, how you managed to increase that success rate?”

Raven: “I do not think there is a secret. The first thing I have to acknowledge is the creativity of our academic community, what they come up with is phenomenal. I was very lucky because Cambridge Enterprise was formed in its current incarnation in 2006, and Teri Willey, my predecessor, put a lot of work into getting a really good team together. I think the success really is down to that team, because I have not done a single one of those deals. They are the people who have done the deals, who have made it all happen and the support we have had from the university. Again, I have to recognise that we are very fortunate in Cambridge. We have a university that is well endowed and is very positive about this activity and supports it strongly.

“Which bits have I done? I would say what I have done is helped to create an environment where that team can be as good as they can be. I think the key things I set when I came in were first of all, a focus on what we do, do what we do very well. The second is, if we are a university like Cambridge, we should have an ambition worthy of a university like Cambridge. That second part meant that we actually had to have the resources to compete with the Stanfords and MITs and others of this world. That is where now our ability to fund our seed fund, our companies, to the same level as they would get from other leading universities in places like Silicon Valley really has made the difference.

“Of course, there is always a bit of luck. We have had some good luck along the way.”

Heles: “That never hurts. We will get to the seed funds in a second. But how has the pandemic effected your work? Has it changed your work? Has it changed the innovations you have seen come out of research labs?”

Raven: “It has affected us massively and not at all. That is a paradox. Obviously, it is massive in that at a day’s notice we had to switch completely to working from home, which is a completely new environment for a lot of people. I think it is also very difficult for some, because for those of us who have a room where we can do this, we are not sharing a kitchen table in a shared flat and things like that. I think the way that everyone in the business has responded to this massive change has been phenomenal, really humbling.

“But in terms of the business, it is business as usual, there or thereabouts. That for me is fascinating because both PraxisAuril and AUTM have done surveys of the community and something like 90% of us are finding it is business as normal or more business. There is only 10% finding less. There is something about the characteristics of the sector, which was a complete surprise to me. I was looking for the early signs that things were going to turn down, but we had the same with Oxford. We had a slight pause in consultancy – new things coming in in April, May – and then in June and July, it came back on track. That has been really surprising for us. I think for me, it has been fantastic across the sector to see how we often talk about how we work better with business particularly, but to see the way that the universities, business and government have come together in that fabled triple helix around the pandemic, I think is really phenomenal.

“I keep on saying, how can we unleash that sort of purpose at a time when we do not have a pandemic to drive it. Being part of it as well. There is a lot going on directly with the university and the outside world. So, the things we are involved with: the genome sequencing, which Cambridge Enterprise was a seed funder of, now the technology dominates all the genomics which is going into this. We have had a diagnostics company repurpose itself very quickly, then sponsored by a philanthropic, high-net-worth individual to put its systems into frontline, very rapid point of care diagnostics for the covid wards.

“Oxford has had a big program in vaccines. One of our new spinout companies has just got funded for its novel synthetic approach to vaccine development. To be part of that and be part of that community and keeping very active is fantastic.

“You asked about how that might change us long term. I think we are definitely seeing changes. Geography is evaporated for us. Nine to five has evaporated for us. Long-term beliefs that there are things that could only be done in the office have all evaporated because we have had to do them in other ways. I think it will be very interesting. We are still grappling with how we deal with this new style of working, and particularly the social interactions, the serendipitous events, the watercooler conversations. How do we do that in this new world? I am sure we will not go back to the way we were working and it will be different, but in ways we have not yet unravelled.”

Heles: “I am very glad to hear that you are among the 90% that has not seen a downturn in business. I was not expecting anything else from Cambridge, of course, but it is always good to hear that people are still very busy. I can count the number of people who have fundamentally changed the funding landscape for spinouts in the UK on one hand. In fact, only Dave Norwood comes to mind from IP Group and Oxford Sciences Innovation. I believe you worked with Beeson Gregory on their model for financing spinouts through IP Group as well. Then of course you mentioned Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds led by Anne Dobrée and Cambridge Innovation Capital led by Andrew Williamson. What is your view of the funding landscape in the UK today? Is there anything that is missing or needs changing still?”

Raven: “I have to say it was great fun in those days with Dave Norwood and Chris Wright and John Davis and Spike Wilcox, actually working out how we did this and their first venture into investment funds. It has been good to see how that has developed. Going back to, where are we fortunate in Cambridge? It is that we have the resources to put into these funds. That is important for me for two reasons. The first is it puts us in control of our own destiny. Remember that Silicon Valley turned down Google, the whole of the industry and venture capital turned down Greg Winter and monoclonal antibody ideas for drugs. Those ideas went forward because of luck, more than anything, they bumped into people who cut them their first cheques. I do not think we can allow ideas to actually falter on the lack of getting lucky. So, a big part of it is to make sure that if we believe in something, we can take it forward without permission from anybody else.

“There are lots of places around the country which have equal opportunity, but they do not have access to capital. I think that is our big problem in the UK. If you look at early-stage investment capital, it is very very limited. If you look at its geographic distribution, we have great universities up in the north and northeast particularly, but you look at the data on the amount of early-stage venture capital which goes into those parts of the country, it is minimal, as is the amount of industry around them.

“Cambridge and Silicon Valley all started from nothing. Silicon Valley was Stanford as a middle-ranked regional university in a region of fruit orchards. Cambridge was a small market town in the middle of a big agricultural area. We did not have anything there, like many of these places today, but they were built up from nothing.

“I think we can do that, but the one thing which will unleash it all is actually giving everyone the same access to capital as we have had the fortune to have in Cambridge.”

Heles: “Do you think universities banding together and launching a fund between them would help those universities that are a bit further afield?”

Raven: “I think it can help. Even for big universities like us, actually the deal flow from the university is marginal. We are lucky that when we set up Cambridge Innovation Capital as a bigger fund, we could actually say it can support the whole tech cluster in Cambridge, not just the university, because we did not have enough deal flow to make a viable fund model. You do have this deal flow problem.

“But if you do come together, it can create conflicts and pressures, which I think are unhelpful. That was the great thing about the IP Group model. They did not bring the universities together, but they actually consolidated their deal flow back to investors and then were able to put up relatively small pots of money.

“When I was in Southampton doing it, it was a £5m fund. That would not be viable, but having people like that acting as consolidators between the universities and the investors I think is very helpful. Tech transfer is a contact sport. It is no good having a tech transfer office, which is 20, 50 or 100 miles away.”

Heles: “This is my favourite question. It usually makes interviewees squirm, they usually hate it. What are some of your favourite spinouts that have launched out of Cambridge? I know all of your children are your favourite children, but are there any cool technologies that come to mind, perhaps covid-related, or something from a few years ago?”

Raven: “No, I would not say a core technology. It is not a question I hate either. For me, there is an unashamed winner in that, and it is not what you might expect. It is a company we helped our academics set up called IC Thinking. You have probably never heard of IC thinking.”

Heles: “No, I do not think I have.”

Raven: “It is a spinout from Divinity. It is one of those moments which makes people stop and say, ‘did I hear that right?’ This is not only a fantastic company in what they are doing, but it is a demonstration, which is important to me, that this is a game that anybody can play in across the campus. It is not just a STEM and life sciences game. Anyone can do it. What does IC Thinking do? It is Sara Savage and David Good. It started with how to resolve arguments amongst the bishops in the Church of England. From that they developed approaches to how do you resolve religious conflicts, which bedevil the world at the moment.

“A lot of it is around black and white thinking – my view conflicts with your view. What they developed were ways of showing that was shades of grey. There is actually much more similarity in comparative religions than there are differences. So, taking people through that journey and to shades-of-grey thinking actually tends to defuse all the frictions.

“They started this off as a consultancy, which we supported. The problem was it was so well respected and demand grew so much that it went outside the ability of the academics to deliver and continue with their academic career. We sat down with them and said, ‘well, why do we not do a franchise model? You actually control the quality, but the delivery is done by franchisees to very high standards that you set’. That was the origin of a company to do that model.

“I like it because it has got so many unusual aspects to it, and it really is fantastic that you can take something like that out of the most unexpected place. If you can do it from Divinity, you can do it from anywhere and you can make a real impact on the world.”

Heles: “I do not think I have ever come across anything like that. There are hundreds of cancer research companies and they all have a unique little thing that they do. But this is very unique, that is amazing.”

Raven: “It all starts with that fabulous part in this job where someone drops in your office or picks up a phone and says, ‘can I come and talk to you? I think we might have something here which is interesting’, and then they lay it all out on the table for you.”

Heles: “I could imagine that is quite a good day in the office when you have someone like that come around.

“When we profiled you for the GUV Lifetime Achievement award in 2017 – I did a count, you were one of five people who ever received one, so in a very illustrious little group. You made much of the serendipity in your life. For those of our listeners who have not read the profile, I recommend they go and do that. Can you tell us a bit how that serendipity has guided you from a DPhil in engineering science at Oxford – of all places, Tony – to heading Cambridge’s TTO?”

Raven: “Well, I have the advantage that my team wins the boat race every year, with Oxford and Cambridge both in there. But it would be too long a story to tell unless you have got several more podcasts, which I am sure would have your listeners turning off in droves.

“I think the one thing I learned in life – we are very fortunate that one door closes and another one opens. I never plotted my career to here. I never expected to be here. I have always had this mantra of have fun and make a difference. None of these steps you take are irreversible if they do not work out. I have tried to retire twice in my life and the first attempt the headhunters got me into the tech transfer community. I certainly did not expect to be here 20 years later. Then 10 years later, when I first started to think it is time to think about moving on, doing something else, I left and phoned up Teri Willey, who I mentioned was my predecessor at Cambridge, and said, ‘can I come and talk to you about connecting back into the Cambridge network’? And her answer was ‘you could, but I am leaving on Friday, can I get you to talk to our chairman’? My life has been peppered with things like that.

“If you have not watched it, watch the Steve Jobs speech to the graduates of Stanford University. It is a fantastic speech, well worth listening to, but he says the same thing: you cannot join the dots up looking forward, only looking backwards. It was interesting when I saw that because it came out that we both had the same philosophy and experience.”

Heles: “That is a beautiful philosophy to have. You have been in tech transfer for about 20 years now, first Southampton and then Cambridge. What key lessons have you learned in those two decades? Are there any areas that you think still need to be improved? I know that is a big question.”

Raven: “There are some simple ones. There is a lot of potential in there. I think what I said earlier: have fun and make a difference. I think it is important to realise that you do not have anything other than the power of persuasion in the university. No one has to do what you want. It is all about building those relationships and trust relationships across.

“Another one is be patient and remember what we are here for. We are not here to file a patent. We are not here to do the best contract in the world. We are here to make sure that the research that our academics do creates that benefit in society to the best effect possible. Those other things are just tools on the way and must not get in the way of what we do.

“The last one, which I think is important because I get asked to review a lot of offices for governments and organisations around the world, is the thing which is most often missing for me and which we are very fortunate to have in Cambridge. It is actually clarity from the top of the organisation. What do they want the office to do and what is the expectation? For so many of them there is not that clarity. The expectations are they do all things for everyone and tha, especially in smaller offices, is something that can never be met. It is important to be clear, to be focused on what you do, what you do not do, and hopefully to derive that from the top of the organisation, rather than make it up yourself.”

Heles: “I do not know if you have read Tom Hockaday’s book on tech transfer. I think that was one of the big lessons in that book as well: you need to know what your actual mission is and what the university wants from you, because otherwise you are not going to get anywhere.”

Raven: “What you are there for is important. Many years ago, I was doing an acquisition of a company and one of the things it had was loads and loads of lawsuits. They had a big office of lawyers. My chairman said to the other side, ‘do you have lots of lawyers because you have lots of lawsuits or lots of lawsuits because you have lots of lawyers?’ If the tool you have is a lawyer, everything looks like a contract. It is important to remember what we are here for. The contract is just a waypoint on the way to where we are trying to get to.”

Heles: “My last question is an open ended one. Is there anything that we have not covered yet that you want people to know about?”

Raven: “There are lots of things. We could go on talking and all of your previous guests could have done the same. We could have gone talking for hours because we all love this subject. There are so many nuances. It is probably one of the most complicated businesses I have ever come across with so many nuances in it.

“I would just say to everyone out there, keep on going. What we do is very important to the world.”

Heles: “I think they are good closing words, and we will keep engaging with you and everyone else, of course. This is not the only time we will talk to Cambridge Enterprise. So, even if it is not a five hour long podcast, we’ll get your views and news out there.”

Raven: “Thank you for the opportunity today, and it has been a great pleasure.”

Heles: “Thank you very much for joining us, Tony.”

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).