These eggheads have big plans

Some of the UK’s most successful companies have their origins in British universities. Here, Tom Bulford looks at 11 fledgling businesses that could one day become the ‘next big thing’.

For me, investing is all about finding things that people will be spending their money on tomorrow. Innovation creates value out of nothing, and is the key to generating wealth in a tough economic market.

Some of the UK’s most successful businesses have their origins in British universities. In 2011 there were 3,118 new businesses that emerged from universities. The University of Oxford has spun out a new company on average every two months since 1997, it now holds five listed companies on AIM.

To get an idea of some of the innovations that might become the next ‘big thing’, I went to a   fascinating seminar organised by stockbroker Baden Hill at Oxford’s Balliol College.

A webcam that is watching you

First up was Daniel Perez, a fast-talking American student who has created Marblar.com.

Citing the famous example of the Post-It note as a product based upon a type of glue that was originally formulated for a completely different purpose, Perez explained that Marblar is a website where owners of patents can post their technology and invite ideas for its potential commercial use. This is an example of ‘crowd-sourcing’, a new activity made possible by the internet and one that could accelerate innovation worldwide.

Next up was Oxehealth, which has a new method for monitoring your ‘vital signs’ – heartbeat, breathing, temperature and blood pressure. Governments around the world are keen to encourage remote monitoring of health, but this normally involves some co-operation from patients which is not always forthcoming.

To overcome this hurdle Oxehealth has made it possible for examinations to happen through the webcam on your computer. So as you surf the net, the camera will be assessing your state of health by monitoring the colour of your complexion which is adjusted for background light. More impressively, in a clinical study at the Oxford Kidney Unit, the technology demonstrated that it could accurately measure respiratory rate, pulse rate and oxygen saturation.

A company that can save the NHS £40m a year

The next four companies were also in the medical field. Oxford BioDynamics’ EpiSwitch is a proprietary system that detects ‘aberrant gene expression’. That means it can pinpoint genes behaving unusually, potentially spotting cancer and other diseases early. It’s capable of ‘finding a needle in a haystack’, and offers the chance of early diagnosis for cancer, inflammatory, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative conditions.

Organox, presented by the brilliant young professor Constantin Coussios, has just launched a liver preservation device that preserves these donated organs using oxygenated blood. Patients are now more likely to die waiting for a new organ than to receive one, and there is a desperate need for any device that can make more available.

Eykona has developed a hand held camera that takes three dimensional images of wounds, and can  accurately determine whether they are responding to treatment. The NHS, which spends 3% of its budget dealing with chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers, is already using these devices.

 

Next up was Chronos Therapeutics. Its scientific director, Alexandre Akoulitchev, explained how all physical deterioration is caused by molecular ageing and the loss of cell function. The key to slowing the ageing process is to control how long cells survive and how quickly they divide. By affecting these processes, Chronos believes that it can delay the cellular ageing process and ameliorate age-related disease.

Intelligent Ultrasound uses software to stitch together images taken by an ultrasound probe in order to improve the quality and field of view of the scan. The company believes that it could save the NHS £40m per year by reducing the risk of incorrect or missed diagnoses.

A potential path for safe nuclear energy

Moving away from healthcare, Oxford Photovoltaics is turning what look like ordinary window panes into mini-power plants by printing metal oxides, dyes, plastics and polymers directly on to glass. According to its chief executive, Kevin Arthur, the company is close to levels of thermal efficiency that could see it ‘rule the world’.

Oxyntix uses shock waves to make gas bubbles collapse very suddenly in a process that creates extremes of temperature, pressure and density. The big prize here – and there is scarcely a bigger one – is safe nuclear energy, achieved by compressing rather than splitting the atom.

Then we heard from Oxford Risk, an expert at capturing customer risk profiles, which is a subject of great interest to the financial services industry.

Finally, professor of computational linguistics, Stephen Pulman, described how TheySay can capture and analyse the sentiments of the millions of words that are posted online each day. The use of double negatives – ‘Tesco is not bad’, for example – modern day illiteracy and the sheer volume of text makes this a real challenge. But big corporates and political parties are desperate to manage their reputation in the ‘chatosphere’.

None of these are yet quoted on the stock market, but one day they may be. A great idea is only one ingredient for success. Commercial nous is important as well.

But this was a day of great optimism. And it was hard not to be swept along with the enthusiasm of Oxford’s most ambitious kids. I cycled home feeling better about the future than I had that morning.

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