From carpenter John Harrison’s groundbreaking work on a clock to solve the problem of establishing longitude to computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin helping people provide classified advertising on the internet, history is full of relative outsiders disrupting industries.

Within university venturing, therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that academia has also looked beyond its ivory towers of established faculty and administration for leaders able to set a remit of change and growth. Researching the backgrounds of this year’s inaugural Global University Venturing Awards winners has thrown up a list of relative outsiders prepared, as one winner put it, “never to believe they have to accept things as they stand”.

Equally, however, from Richard Sykes leaving school at 16 before rising to the top of what is now GlaxoSmithKline, a UK-listed drugs company, and becoming rector of Imperial College London, to his protégé Susan Searle, former chief executive of Imperial Innovations after an earlier career working in business development for industry and an investment bank, to Stanford University undergraduate Cameron Teitelman struggling to find the resources when he was looking to set up a company and so founding StartX to help solve the problem for others, these relative outsiders hardly need to be iconoclasts trying to tear down everything to make their mark.

Teri Willey, the US former chief executive of Cambridge Enterprise, the UK university’s wholly-owned commercialisation affiliate, summed up the best people as needing to have an “affinity with the academic institution”. They need, in effect, to appreciate their work often has to support basic science from first-class scientists in order to make the discoveries that affect the generations to come.

Often the most long-lasting and impactful changes come when these relative outsiders ask the insiders what they would change, and in what order of priority? As Willey said: “I was prepared to act on any answer from the 80 people I talked to during my first 90 days at Cambridge apart from ‘go home Yankee’.”

And this latter comment points to another tendency shared by many of this year’s winners – toughness. Michael Lynch, founder and former chief executive of software provider Autonomy and now head of venture capital firm Invoke Capital, which has $1bn to invest in university spin-outs, paraphrases the film Untouchables when talking about “bringing a gun” to the venture capital “knife fight”. (See Lynch’s video interview with Tim Lafferty, managing director of Global University Venturing, here.)

The two deal awards, US-based cancer treatment company Kite and Germany-based organic light-emitting diode maker Novaled, have required remarkable persistence and allied deep scientific pedigree with commercial and regulatory acumen.

Leaders and visionaries cannot work in isolation, just as Harrison depended on financial and technical support from clockmaker George Graham. Lynch has pulled together many of his former Autonomy colleagues to staff Invoke and developed his insights while on the board of Cambridge Enterprise, while Willey opened the university up to peer Imperial Innovations’ investment.

The venture ecosystem is remarkably dependent on these displays of support. The genesis of Silicon Valley’s unique model of collaboration and competition was in large part laid by the willingness of original star entrepreneurs, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, co-founders of the eponymous computer maker, to support other nascent start-ups and competitors if they ran into trouble.

The ecosystem is fragile too. Hewlett-Packard was set up after encouragement from the co-founders’ professor, Fred Terman, and benefited from an era of increased federal defence spending in the run-up to and following the Second World War. Such moments of serendipity and fortuitous timing seem to dictate whether a project or leader’s ideas are doomed to failure or can breathe for another day.

That these entrepreneurial leaders survived and created an impact on the world gives hope and succour to others.

All this year’s winners have such stories to tell and they are important ones to listen to. Perhaps in no other industry than university venturing can they have an impact on so many people wanting to create the world of the future. They, therefore, are all to be celebrated, outsiders or not.

The award winners

l Investment of the Year– Kite Pharma

l Exit of the Year – Novaled

l University Venturing Unit of the Year – Cambridge Enterprise

l University Venturing Fund of the Year – Stanford-StartX Fund

l Personality of the Year – Michael Lynch, Invoke Capital

l Lifetime Achievement Award – Susan Searle