Students in Imperial

Students in Imperial's Enterprise Lab

Collaboration is key to creating a thriving start-up ecosystem and building back after the pandemic, said Imperial's President in a panel debate.

Collaboration is the name of the gameProfessor Alice GastPresident, Imperial College London

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(CSFI), and focused on UK Universities' role in start-ups, growth and innovation.

CSFI Director Dr Andrew Hilton moderated, with Professor Gast joined on the panel by Sam Gyimah, Non-executive Director at Goldman Sachs (and former Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and Veronika Kapustina, founder of Houghton St Ventures and co-founder of VentureESG.

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Funding, space and mentorship

Professor Gast opened by reiterating the importance of education and research at universities in inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and driving forward ideas and discoveries.

To realise the potential of their ideas, these entrepreneurs need three key elements, she said: ‘funding, space and mentorship’. Imperial has been endeavouring to provide these for several years, through programmes such as the Venture Catalyst Challenge and WeInnovate, as well as the creation of new incubators and accelerators, such as Scale Space, a collaboration with Blenheim Chalcot.

Pae Natwilai
Pae Natwilai, founder of Trik and former WE Innovate participant

Yet, to a build a thriving start-up ecosystem that brings tangible benefits to wider society, we must work together more – with other universities, business and government. “Collaboration is the name of the game,” Professor Gast said. “This really is a team sport and we have opportunities now as we build back from the pandemic to really accelerate networking and deliver best practice going forward. While it’s true that we compete vigorously in all that we do, we also find the very best partners to collaborate with I think that's a sign of a great institution.”

She pointed towards Apollo Therapeutics a new biopharmaceutical company developing transformative treatments – which was established by Imperial, UCL and the University of Cambridge alongside AstraZeneca, GSK, Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

Alice Gast with Olivia Ahn
Professor Alice Gast with WE Innovate Programme (formally the Althea Imperial Programme) winner Olivia Ahn

An international perspective

Professor Gast also highlighted TenU, a transatlantic partnership funded by Research England, that brings together ten leading university technology transfer offices to leverage their combined knowledge on how best to use cutting edge research to tackle global challenges.

Staying on the theme of internationalism, Professor Gast stressed the importance of a ‘rational immigration policy,’ in attracting and retaining entrepreneurial talent.

“The international community is over-represented among start-up companies and in patents filed. They're already risk-takers who have come to study abroad and come to work here and that serves us very well. We need to make international inventors and entrepreneurs feel welcome and the post study work visa was a huge part of that.”

A step-change in impact

Sam Gyimah who also serves on the board of Oxford University Innovation, echoed many of Professor Gast’s point on collaboration.

“I would like to see the ecosystems across universities working much better together. I think you need that kind of collaboration, because each tech transfer office is not really big enough on its own to engineer the step-change that is required and to capture the size of the opportunity that's available coming out of our universities.

Gyimah added: “There’s also a lot of language around being a ‘science superpower’ - but as Alice mentioned, science is about collaboration and it's also international.”

The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration

The third panellist Veronika Kapustina is the founder of Houghton St Ventures and co-founder of VentureESG, both of which are mainly focused on commercialising spin-outs involving students and alumni of London School of Economic (LSE).

She emphasised the potential benefits of collaboration between disciplines in the innovation space.

“There's a huge room for the social sciences to have a contribution in the ecosystem,” she said. “The study of ethics, the study of business model design and innovation brings tremendous benefits when taken hand-in-hand with deep tech research. So I couldn't agree more that collaboration is the way forward and actually the best companies and the ones we get most excited about are the ones where we have an LSE alumni together with an alumni from Oxford or Imperial. We've seen and supported some of these companies in the past 18 months and they really bring together cutting-edge research, but also quickness to market.”

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