The UK must do more to support high-tech innovations coming out of our universities to avoid becoming economically “doomed”.
Neil Woodford, known for being the UK's most successful investor, says backing our world-class science is crucial for the UK to hold its position as a centre of technological innovation. Having a thriving “knowledge economy” will allow the UK to compete with other global heavyweights.
“We are failing as an economy to capture [the opportunity in science] and if we fail to capture that the economy is doomed,” Woodford says.
“The critical part of the jigsaw is that early-stage science is what the UK economy does very well. And if the economy is going to succeed in the future we have to make the knowledge economy work,” he added.
There are global centres of excellence that have developed around universities. France has pharmaceuticals, Germany has engineering and we have life sciences centred around Oxbridge. The UK is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world, and 29 of the top 100, with Oxford University holding its place as the world's leading hub for medical science.
Much to the dismay of champions of UK tech, historically we've been so bad at providing capital for our universities' innovations that overseas backers have bought the rights instead.
The University of Hull did pioneering work on LCD screens, for example, but these were later manufactured abroad by Japan's Hitachi. A team at Nottingham University made great strides in developing MRI scans, but they were later produced by Germany's Siemens.
In contrast, the US is particularly good at commercialising the innovations from its universities. There are large research and development budgets, and the tech that's discovered at local universities is spun out and developed in the States.
It's a function of history that has left UK tech behind. “I think it was misunderstood,” says Moray Wright, director of technology investment specialist Parkwalk Advisors. Things are slowly changing in and the City – supported by government initiatives – is doing more to help universities, he says.
Over the last 25 years Cambridge University has spun out 15 companies which hit valuations of $1bn. One company, Cambridge Silicon Radio, developed Bluetooth technology and was bought by Qualcomm for $2.4bn in 2014.