Today is Simon Bond’s first day as director of Bristol Innovations, an initiative launched by University of Bristol earlier this year to accelerate entrepreneurship among its researchers, students and staff. Bond joins from SETsquared, the global number-one incubator backed by the universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, which he had led since 2014.
Bond tells us what attracted him to the new job and why it’s less of a goodbye and more of a deep dive with colleagues he’d already been collaborating with for years. He ponders what makes Bristol so successful at spinouts (a report earlier this year found its spinouts generate far above the average UK return per pound invested) and what lessons learned around diversity, equity and inclusion he learned at SETsquared that he hopes to apply in the new job.
He also talks about the importance of inspirational founders who are giving back to the ecosystem, like Science Creates founder Harry Destecroix, and why quantum, immersive media and telecoms are some of the sectors that Bristol Innovations will focus on.
Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.
Simon, welcome to the podcast.
Morning, Thierry. Thank you very much. It is a great way to start day one of my new job with Bristol Innovations. Thanks for having me.
I look forward to learning more about your new job and learning a little bit more about what you did at SETsquared as well. To start with, can you give me an overview of Bristol Innovations?
I will do my best. I have worked with colleagues at the University of Bristol and with the Bristol ecosystem for most of the 20 years I have been in tech transform university commercialisation. So, I have watched the development of the university and the ecosystem and been part of it in many ways. Bristol Innovations is a natural development of what has been going on for some time. University of Bristol has a great reputation.
It is a thriving powerhouse for research, and its innovation, its excellence framework, its ref results are absolutely outstanding. I saw in the job pack, 94% of its research is world class, ranked Times Higher Education, putting it fifth place in the UK for research. At the same time, other things have been going on besides the strength of research at Bristol. Over the last five years or so, the development of the National Composite Centre, a University of Bristol company that was created as a catapult to really push the latter TRL levels, the innovation development side of research in composites has been a great success, national success and that has been noted by the people who run the University of Bristol. Similarly in immersive digital media, the creative sector, Bristol has some great successes.
There is MyWorld organisation that is a business interface with just research and businesses and the Bristol Digital Futures Institute, once again, appetite for getting further up the development to innovation scale and getting research out into the world, making a difference. There are many more.
The Quantum Technology Innovation Centre, there is another. SETsquared, who I, until yesterday, was working for, was a part of this movement really that has been gaining momentum over the last half a dozen years or so and then I understand a couple of years ago characters in the form of Vice Chancellor, Rich Oldfield, the CEO of National Composite Centre, Martin Sadler, formerly of Hewlett Packard, an advisor to the university, John Hunt, the Research and Enterprise Division, its executive director, really have been putting their foot on the gas and saying, come on, let us create an organisation, let us get a team together to accelerate this. And that is the rocket I am going to sit on from today.
Amazing. You have mentioned a few places there, Quantum Centre, MyWorld. How is Bristol Innovations different and how does it fit in with the university’s Research and Enterprise Division?
It is an interesting thought, and I guess a sort of glib answer is, well, it is not. Naturally, it is very much part of the Research and Enterprise Department. My Bristol Innovations team, of which I am a director, sits alongside other directors and we are working hand in glove together with research commercialisation, the civic agenda, partnerships, and so on. I am probably missing out a few very valued colleagues, but we are shoulder to shoulder in this and my job, my team’s job, at Bristol Innovations is to really up the evolutionary pace of this part of operation. One way I would like to look at this is that the research commercialisation team? Andrew Wray, he does an amazing job. Incredible volume and quality of spinouts. That TTO creates outstanding companies from our research and a lot of licensing opportunities as well. Bristol Innovations creates companies, organisations that create the companies that Andrew and his team spin out. So, we will be creating the infrastructure, the new institutes, new centres that bring in university research and partner with industry. The Economist call it the industry poor. Co-develop that, and we hope that will create so many more commercialisation opportunities, a lot more spin outs, a lot more collaborations with business, a lot more opportunities really for our research to make a difference in the UK and the Southwest and Bristol, but around the world.
How do you fit in with the digital hub for entrepreneurial activity then? I think it is called Bristol Grid. Do you work with them? Is that part of your group as well?
Yes, it is. I am very excited for this. You can tell, I am no native but have been in digital all my life, and so every part of my Bristol Innovations organisation is really exciting, really important, but I am so excited to be working with the Grid. It is an online platform, and we see these around the world that you and I work in, but the people who have developed it have come from that ecosystem approach that we have been working on together for many years now. Sometimes you could describe it like a marketplace for innovators and entrepreneurs and researchers. Somebody else described it as a LinkedIn or a Facebook for those kinds of organisations.
What excites me most of all is that if Bristol Innovations is about any one thing, it is about partnerships. It is about bringing together the people inside the wire, if you like, from the university; students, staff, faculty, academics, and those outside the wire; SMEs, entrepreneurs, investors, corporates, and so forth. The linear approach, in my opinion, is a bit bust now. Those sorts of linear stage gates have a really important role in the back office and in this serendipitous world where the speed of change, everything is moving so quickly, you need an environment where people can respond, where they can take risks, pitch opportunities and so forth. The University of Bristol is a world-class public institution.
We need to allow that, but within our structures, and the Grid is the answer to that. So, I just cannot wait to get into the Grid, dive into the water there and start working with the many super people that are already using that platform.
This is a big question, and I realise it is very early days for you, but what is the big vision for entrepreneurship at Bristol? What does this look like in a few years?
Thank you for that. My move to Bristol, I am very excited about it, but I have worked in around the University of Bath, SETsquared for the best part of 20 years. This is a new environment. They have been so welcoming to me. But I am not going to comment on the vision for the University of Bristol yet. I need to get on board with that. But I do know a bit about the world of entrepreneurship in universities, and it is something that has been on the rise and rise since I joined this world. I stumbled into university employment in the early noughties, coming from telecommunications innovation and all of that.
This, I subsequently realised, was nothing to do with me. People in universities, people in government had made a conscious decision way back then, a long time ago to add this new facet to our higher education system and introduce entrepreneurship. So, SETsquared, my career has been really riding on that tidal wave of enthusiasm, buy-in and funding from all of those organisations. So, there is a lot to be proud of, and in what we do we see touchpoints around the world. In the business of this, especially British universities, we always look covetously at the United States, but globally speaking, the UK does that very well. However, here is the rub. In British Universities, entrepreneurship is a minority sport. It is absolutely the minority of students, a minority of staff and academics nationally that participate in any entrepreneurship innovation activity, despite nearly 20 years of this activity.
I look at the University of Bristol. 27,000 students, five and a half thousand staff and faculty, and that is just inside the wire, inside the university, not looking at the ecosystem, not outside in the city of Bristol, and that should be the level of engagement with entrepreneurship at the University of Bristol. Why should entrepreneurship and innovation not touch every one of those 32, 35 thousand staff and students and be as natural part of their University Bristol experience as any other aspect of higher education? That is not just an ambition for Bristol, my ambition for Bristol, it is an ambition for higher education in the UK. We have done a lot, but it is still too exclusive, and we need to publicise it, but with serious prejudice. We have to get out there and make this thing part of everybody’s experience.
There are a few points that I want to get back to in your answer there.
Perhaps though Bristol is already doing quite well in terms of spinouts. GovGrant released a report earlier this year saying that spinouts generated £3.85 per one pound invested, above the UK average of £2.30. What is Bristol’s secret? What is Bristol doing so much better than others?
I am really looking forward to finding out, but they will not tell me until I sign the contract. Those numbers are really interesting, and this is such a government speak; £3.85 for every one pound invested. The numbers behind the numbers are, just to get taste of what is going on at Bristol. Universities work in like funny years, non-calendar years. So, 2019-2020, the University of Bristol spinouts raised £489 million, and the subsequent year, 2021, that was £619m.
Now, of course, this is seed, series A, B. There are some fantastic spin outs, like PsiQuantum et cetera, in that. That is a multiplier when you talk about for the generation of £3.85 for every pound invested. That is the kind of quantum that we are looking at. Bristol, as I still at midnight last night, was an outsider. Bristol does great numbers. You look at the spinout report, you look at the REF impact and so forth, and it is really impressive. When I was pursuing this job, I started to tune myself into this. My experience of Bristol is on the other side of the shop. I have worked closely with the team for a long, long time through SETsquared and at the University of Bath.
What struck me is the importance they place on the human factor. They have all the processes, they have the structures, but the Bristol team have a very strong founder centric attitude, and that is probably where the secret and the secret sauce lay, because lots of organisations have good processes and lots of organisations have good structures, but that founder centricity is the standout for me at Bristol. I wonder if that is what leads to success in the numbers. Of course, look at the number of spinouts and so forth, but the business success of that wealth generation, that is behind the £3.85 for every pound in, there is a human factor, there is a team factor, which is going to be very important going forward.
I have had the opportunity of visiting Bristol. I live in Cardiff, so it is literally just across the bridge. I am in Bristol fairly regularly, and I have met quite a lot of people around the Bristol ecosystem and there seems to be something in their spirit that just really, really works, the tide raises all the boats kind of thing.
That is really good point. Let us put names and places. So, in Bristol it is quite normal for the Ziylo founder, Harry Destecroix, to hang out and to be speaking to PhDs, recent graduates around Science Creates Ventures, that giving back, leaning in whatever the ecosystem. Nigel Toon, Graphcore are members of the University of Bristol’s Engine Shed with SETsquared. So, we are talking world-class entrepreneurs who represent as individuals everything that we think is great about our country, our scene. They are very accessible, very much a part of the human infrastructure of Bristol. I know you see that as well.
You mentioned Harry. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with him earlier this year and he was very generous with his time. I was expecting to maybe get 15, 20 minutes with him because he is obviously incredibly busy at the time running the incubator, running Science Creates Ventures and running the charity.
It is a powerhouse, it is a phenomenon, and Bristol is blessed with many of those. This thing is not without its challenges, let us be clear about that. But in terms of the material, I was going to say, the people we have to work with could not wish for a better start.
On that note, perhaps, what are some of the challenges in Bristol’s ecosystem?
Okay. Well, everything is fine. These are challenging times, and they are for Bristol, for everyone. It is going to be the growth companies that are coming out of Bristol now, that is the spinouts. Then, if you add the Bristol Innovations piece to this, which is creating new organisations, new structures in partnership with industry, that is going to create even more spinouts. We are going to need so much capital. As I said, the run rate of just our spinouts, half a billion pounds a year, and that is not all the University of Bristol’s problem or opportunity to deal with it. It is clearly as a partnership ecosystem play, Seed to Series B, plus most of that raise has happened outside of the UK. So, that is the scale of what we are looking at.
We talk about Harry. Really great news. Science Creates Ventures just closed this £15million round with the British Business Bank’s Regional Angel Programme, and this is good. The Bristol Private Equity Club, which is the Business Angel Network, really active, really scaling up their process. But it is just not going to be enough. We are going to need so much more money just to allow these companies to be as good as they can be. So that is what we have to step up to do. And the other side of it, the jeopardy here is, we have political crisis, economic crisis, we have international security crisis, a lot of stuff going on. In my opinion, we are going to see a lot of M&A coming up over the next year or so.
From our perspective, the UK science, applied R&D companies are very high quality. We have great universities, of which, of course I am going to say Bristol is absolutely the vanguard, but we are not alone. We are part of a really valuable UK asset. The pound is down in the tank, so our businesses are high quality, and they are cheap, and there is the situation. One of the concerns I have is the frothiness of upcoming M&A driven by those things, and the National Security Investment Act gives a bit of an edge to US, European acquirers, and it is going to feel really busy. It is going to feel like we are doing a good job.
But the challenge and the opportunity are, how does Bristol rise to the challenge to secure these companies’ growth around here? This is not Little Britain. We are open to quality, good provenance, international global capital, but we want that growth to lead to investments in skilled people, our sons and daughters, great research, collaborative research and development with our researchers, and building businesses, expanding businesses, creating the wealth around here in our neighbourhood. That spill over rather than trickle down is important. So, there is a responding to that environment that is very much on my mind.
On a more positive note, then perhaps, what are the opportunities in Bristol ecosystem? You have already mentioned quantum, and we talked a little bit about biotech with Harry. Are those the two areas of focus for Bristol?
Bristol Innovations is a new team and prioritisation is going to be a big part of it. So, quantum is very important. Bristol has a great track record in that. About a third of the UK’s spinouts in quantum are from Bristol, shop research from the Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre. That needs to be scaled and there are definitely new frontiers for quantum in terms of the marketplace are very attracted to the quantum communications piece of this and working with domestic partners and international partners.
So, we are going to have a big push on quantum frontiers for sure. I mentioned immersive media. You would have seen our spinout, Ultraleap, formerly Ultrahaptics. The haptics technology, the touch-free control for the metaverse, we see that company and many others that are in that space coming forward. We believe there is enough traction, there is enough pull for some kind of a national creative technologies centre that is anchored in Bristol, but able to provide access to our R&D to global companies that are leading in the space and vice versa for them inform our R&D. Telecoms is really important to us.
Bristol is a partner in the UK Telecommunications Innovation Network, led by the Digital Catapult, which is really responding to the challenge of renewing the UK’s telecoms innovation sector to address the new 5G, 6G telecoms infrastructure. Companies like Zeetta Telecoms that have come out of Bristol already, and there are so many more stepping up there. That is a big opportunity for Bristol Innovations. We have excellent academic leadership. We are very close to industry. Thierry, I come from telecoms, and I ran the Silicon Southwest network around here, so that sector does appeal. We are talking about the National Creative Technologies Centre, a new frontier for quantum telecoms innovation.
Adding to this, we talked about Harry and the Ziylo effect, which really helped the world revalue upwards the advanced therapies capabilities of Bristol, and we want to build on that. Harry’s Science Creates bought a lot of new infrastructure resources to this, and we just see this as a sunrise opportunity. The last two I will mention, cybersecurity is also a strong opportunity for Bristol Innovations. Spinouts like KETS, which has made some very strong raises. It has a key partnership collaboration with GCHQ. This is a destination for investment.
We saw the launch of the NATO Innovation Venture Fund at Global Corporate Venturing just a few months ago, so I would like to be addressing that. Then finally, the National Composite Centre. That structure that in many ways contributed to the early thinking of Bristol Innovations has shown us the opportunity for a net zero materials asset that we will look to create. We have more than a couple of spinouts in that area; Albotherm, Lineat, so to exploit that opportunity more. NCC has very, very strong corporate partners; Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN, et cetera. So, building on that.
In a nutshell, half a dozen there that we will be majoring on, and that is certainly not the end of it. There is a pipeline and an ecosystem of opportunities to support that. But I would hope if we speak in about a year’s time, that you will be holding me to account, and I will respond well to progress with most of those six mega projects that we have.
I look forward to that conversation, but I am very sure that you will pull it off. I have known you for quite a few years now and you seem to be someone who does not just sit back and let things happen. You very much get up and go, and very much a driver, so I can see you doing very great work at Bristol.
Thank you very much. I hope to live up to your high expectations, Thierry.
Is there generally enough support from the UK government then? Is there the right kind of framework, the right kinds of grant funding?
Obviously, yes. We invest a lot as a country in this area and we check ourselves constantly against other countries. Many of those countries are a different shape, different size, different levels of different structures to us, but we still compare ourselves to South Korea, United States, and so forth. We tear ourselves up over league tables, but the big picture is good. In the detail, I sometimes get a little irritated. There is a sort of slow tale to things. There is a bunch of policy, which is talking about, let us get things joined up if we want to compete internationally.
Take quantum for example. The sum of what our country invests in quantum is great, but one part of the government is talking nationally, another part is still stuck in looking at the world in LEP structures, there are 50, 60 of those.
Another part has still got half a foot in the 1990s regional development and looks at the world as the southeast, the southwest. These sorts of legacy structures that have a tendency to dilute the mission and the zeal of what is happening now. Mission and zeal, you think about the thinking of Mazzucato, Haskel, Stein and Westlake, their coalition, intellectual leadership around what needs to be done, that needs to be either sorted out or we just need to work better with each other.
The government thing, it is true in my life, universities have really accelerated from research and teaching into this knowledge exchange innovation activity. It is de facto, it is there. This is what universities do for our country and our neighbourhoods. So, we have to say, we have a responsibility to make sure that government policy keeps up with that reality and we do act as a cohesive United Kingdom to respond to the opportunities and the challenges that we have. The other thing I say is the government does what the government does, and it is okay.
We always want more, it could be better organised, but we are where we are. I think we need to work better with the private sector and, I do not want to see UK government money, my tax money, being used as some discount voucher for cheap Britain. I want to see it used as an incentive to bring high quality, ambitious, good provenance capital from the world because that is what our research innovators deserve. So, making government money co-invest with private money, I suppose is the change I would like to see.
I very much share that view and I have a feeling quite a lot of other people do as well. One of the things that you did at SETsquared that I think is very laudable, was the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. You had initiatives like Enterprising Women, for example. Is that something that you are planning to launch at University of Bristol as well? Maybe not that exact same programme, but similar initiatives?
Well, a short answer is yes. I was talking to a colleague of mine at Bristol Innovations yesterday and I said, we have this blank piece of paper, what are we going to do? He is a similar generation to me, and he reminded me of an eighties book by sci-fi writer William Gibson, Neuromancer. It shaped our heads when we were kids and a lovely line from that is; the future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed. That applies very much to the inclusivity, diversity, equality work at Bristol; Enterprising Women, the investors business angel.
There are great pockets of activity already in Bristol. Nothing needs to be reinvented, but the opportunity is to connect many of these initiatives that are there and then really, maybe with some help, people just work it out for themselves. The power of the sum of the whole is pretty powerful. I think we could leverage from our investment in the sector already a lot more resources into it. It is the same playbook as the access to entrepreneurship. Pocket behaviour is great. It is a good example. Good to raise aspirations, but we need to democratise and scale. It has to be a universal experience. So, it will not be new, but it is going to be scaled up.
Amazing. We should perhaps mention if we are talking about female leadership, people like Michele Barbour, who are obviously already doing fantastic work at Bristol. So, it is happening. As you say, it does not need to be invented or reinvented, it just needs to be boosted a bit. Today, as this goes out, will be your first official day with Bristol Innovations. You have wrapped up more than eight years with SETsquared. What prompted the job move? Why did you come to Bristol?
I must say, Thierry, I do not see it as a leaving one and joining the other because the University of Bristol is a founding member of the SETsquared partnership and always had a very important role in it. So, I am certainly not leaving colleagues at SETsquared, but there is a change. The flip side is true. I know the characters at Bristol. I know who I am going to be working with really well.
We have worked on this mission one way or another for the last decade and a half, so I want to really deep dive into this with them. They are really ambitious, and they have a great attitude that goes along with their ambition, and they are up for risk, they really embrace it. I am at a stage where I am up for that as well. It is a calculated risk, but our joke is, risk is not a four-letter word. They realise that we will make some mistakes, we will have some failures, but that is the course, that is the path to success.
I want to be part of that, and they were kind enough to want me to be part of their team. So, I am just going to have a deep dive with my friends at Bristol and we are going to make Bristol Innovations great.
You have already mentioned you were at Bath, before that from 2003 to 2014, the head of Enterprise and Innovation Centre, and before that you said you were in telecoms. How did you stumble into this profession?
It was an accident. Between working in telecoms and coming into the universities, I had a couple of businesses. One I founded from scratch, which was a TV networks business, which we sold quite quickly. The other was one that I bought, a digital media business, and both really different experiences, both with the attention, they did absolutely consume my entire life, each one of those experiences. I bought the second business with the proceeds of the first, sold the second business, and I replied to an ad for SETsquared, which in incubator. I thought, oh, maybe I will get to find another business to work in, invest in or whatever.
I was drawn in to working at scale, but it is not commoditising. The thing about what we do is that you work with the founders at the most exciting, perilous, emotional stage. It is really exciting, and you are working with lots of them. I found that to be quite heady, and in a nice way quite an addictive pursuit. To work with 30, 40 business founders in an incubator, the trials and tribulations of their life, their business life, their personal lives all bound up into this sort of fulcrum moment, it is a very difficult thing to leave, as has been self-evident.
What are some of the lessons that you have learned in your career to date that you are hoping to apply at Bristol or that you have probably previously applied already as well?
It is interesting leaving one job and then joining another. There are people at SETsquared, that extended team. Imagine working closely with the research innovation enterprise directors of six leading universities, the commercialisation teams from six universities, the thousand strong investors, there is just so much wealth of knowledge, insight.
All of that is important and exists in Bristol Innovations and I will bring some. But the thing I have realised is so great about SETsquared, and I really hope that we can do this in Bristol Innovations as well, is operationalising success, so winning bids, winning resources for these big infrastructures. It is pretty hard graft, but we can do that.
Operationalising them for a number of years to the point where they are self-sustaining, that business process is something that alludes a lot of this sector and the SETsquared team in the incubators and the central team and the programmes have really nailed that. If we are going to build these businesses, these organisations that create more and more spinouts, they need excellent operationalisation and so it is an odd thing, but I will be very focused on that and I want to bring that ambition to Bristol Innovations as well.
Is there something that, well, I suppose there is, but what is something that the UK could learn from Bristol or maybe SETsquared more broadly?
We learned from each other. I am so proud of SETsquared and the work, that team, we have done, global number one, the companies raising over a billion pounds last year. There is so much, but I look at Northern Gritstone, what they have done with their fund. I look over at our mates at Imec in Leuven in Belgium with their integration of universities around that research technology. There is lots of it. One thing that SETsquared explicitly share with other universities is the way that we worked to break down barriers or improve communications between staff and faculty.
Universities are well governed public organisations, and there is relatively formal organisation in many of them. To operate successfully in our ecosystem driven world where relationships, partnerships are the critical asset, staff, faculty, students, private sector need to work respectfully and easily with each other.
SETsquared seems to have created a special environment where job titles, structures, et cetera are left at the door and people get on with stuff and they do it well. They tolerate mistakes and they celebrate each other’s success. That is what I think we want to get stuck into, that kind of attitude.
We are very nearly out of time, unfortunately. Is there anything else that you want people to know about Bristol Innovations before we go?
That we are open for business, actually we are open for conversations. This is building on established great practice, excellence at the University of Bristol. But it is a new team, I am the new director, and we are open to work with like-minded partners as equals shoulder to get what we need to do as a country.
I really want to see people, I want to be out at your events and conferences, Thierry, and in the world, PraxisAuril, Russell Group organisations and really work well with others to achieve a common ambition. Bristol Innovations is about Bristol, but it is about getting Bristol out working easily with others around the country and around the world.
Simon, thank you so much. I look forward to staying in touch and seeing you at events around the country. Thank you so much for joining me and telling me more about Bristol Innovations.
Thanks, Thierry. Have a good day.