Annual Review 2020

Highlighting the activities of Oxford University Innovation

Social Enterprise

Had COVID-19 not happened, the past year would still have been a deeply memorable one for Team Social Enterprise.

Yet COVID-19 – challenging as it was for everyone – provided Team Social Enterprise with the clearest rationale yet for the importance of companies committed to tackling the myriad challenges we face. Across the year, the team has seen its burgeoning pipeline grow, established a team for impact measurement and is looking to the future to build an ecosystem that covers everything from skills to funding to enable social enterprises to grow and scale.

The team sits across all the different parts of Oxford University Innovation. Every month, it meets to share ideas, work on projects and support social enterprises from the University. By its definition, a social enterprise is a company whose primary purpose is a social good, be that environmental, educational, health or any other sector, and for whom revenues will primarily be driven back into the company to further this goal.

The University has garnered much attention through its vaccine work, but Team Social Enterprise is also contributing to the fight by launching two further COVID-19 specific social enterprises that have gone from idea to spinout in record time.

Speaking on the spinouts, Jane Jin, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager, said: “OxSed provides a new rapid test to detect the presence of COVID-19 at low cost. This simple diagnostic solution can be used in the field without specialist equipment or training, in particular locations where access to laboratory services is limited or in economically deprived areas of the world. With the social venture incorporated we are looking forward to seeing the technology deployed globally at scale, supporting economic recovery by helping people to get safely back to work”.

Jane added that OxSed one of the best projects she’s ever led on at one of the worst times to do it.

“I’ve been working from home and looking after my son while simultaneously collaborating with the academics and CEO online,” said Jane, who has been working tirelessly from March through to June to get OxSed over the finishing line. “I’ve been driven by the fact that it’s COVID-19 and we need to do something now. It’s been challenging mentally to find creative ways to progress the project at speed in a difficult time, but people have been supportive because it’s the pandemic.”

The second company is OxVent – a spinout based on technology developed between Oxford University, King’s College London and medical device manufacturer Smith+Nephew. OxVent is committed to producing low cost ventilators in geographies where there is a shortage.

Diseases such as COVID-19, Zika and Ebola have demonstrated the crucial need for research and learnings to be shared equitably across healthcare practitioners and researchers worldwide especially in response to emerging disease outbreaks.

“The Global Health Network provides just such a platform, already widely used by the WHO, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it enables rapid dissemination of research so communities can adapt to diseases, especially those prevalent in Low and Middle Income Countries,” said Philippa Christoforou, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager. “Creating a sustainable model for the platform has been critical for enabling its future potential”.

Tragically childhood blood cancers are prevalent in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa because of their association with infections such as EBV, HIV and malaria, that are common in this region. While treatments exist, access to affordable and timely diagnostics does not, leaving the potentially curable, uncured. Another social enterprise project supported by OUI – SEREN recently won the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award, for its work in conjunction with the Muhimbili University for Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania to improve outcomes in children, using pioneering techniques in DNA-sequencing based diagnostics.

As with the University’s research, a broad range of social enterprises are emerging to tackle specific problems. Smart Handpumps is a venture which successfully crowdfunded in 2019 and aims to solve the problem that one third of handpumps are broken forcing (usually) women and children to take time away from education and work to find water. Smart Handpumps uses technology to detect pumps that are about to break and sends a team to fix it in advance.

Beyond the developing world, growing attention is being paid to the way technology and in particular the unintended consequence of algorithms and AI can affect our society. ORBIT, a joint social enterprise between De Montfort University and Oxford University is helping to train doctoral researchers and corporates in responsible research methods through a framework that considers the different stakeholders.

Measuring Impact

The innovative solutions developed by staff and students to the challenges faced by society have been a constant source of inspiration and the team has been working to develop its capacities to ensure it can continue to support them. These boil down to 3 questions:

1. How can we measure and report their impact in a manner that isn’t onerous?
2. How do we ensure we provide the opportunities, training and support to encourage more people to try social enterprises?
3. How can we secure funding to develop these brilliant ideas, and give them the opportunity to get out there and deliver impact?

To address impact measurement, the team set up a working group with members from OUI’s Finance, Investment and Licensing and Ventures teams.

“We are looking at how best to support our portfolio companies to maximise their impact potential right from the get-go,” explained Emilie Syed, Investment Associate. “First by aligning OUI’s impact management with theirs and secondly by giving them the structure necessary to manage impact effectively.”

The team is working increasingly in partnership with the Skoll Centre for Social Enterprise, whose incredible expertise and resources present a huge opportunity to bring together the brilliant ideas from staff and researchers with their insight, events and training.

Perhaps the biggest pipeline project though is Impact 12, a joint project among 12 UK universities across the Midlands to raise an investment and loan fund for a new wave of research-based social ventures emerging from universities and their ecosystems.

Mark Mann, Senior Licensing & Ventures Manager and the project lead, said: “With the majority of social impact capital concentrated in London, we feel that to properly support impact-led businesses we need to put down infrastructure locally to maximise their chances of success. This can only be done with universities working together with the communities they are embedded within. Raising a social venture fund is the beginning, not the end, of that process.”

Reflecting on the changes ahead, Licensing & Ventures Manager Sandra Ainsua Martinez notes: “It’s been a challenging  year; however, if the current crisis has taught us anything it’s the need and importance of promoting an ecosystem for social change to create resilient and inclusive social ventures that can bring a deep understanding of the root causes of the problems and implement creative solutions in line with their social mission.”

SEREN, recently won the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award, for its work to improve outcomes in children, using pioneering techniques in DNA-sequencing based diagnostics.

The Global Health Network provides just such a platform, already widely in use by the WHO, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it enables rapid dissemination of research so communities can adapt to diseases especially those prevalent in Low and Middle Income Countries.

Dr Philippa Christoforou, Licensing and Ventures Manager