Professor Chas Bountra at the Old Road Campus, Oxford University

Philanthropy Report 2020/21

A powerhouse of innovation


From student entrepreneurs and dynamic spin-outs, to cutting-edge facilities and pioneering research, philanthropy is helping to break new ground across all disciplines at Oxford.

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation, Professor Chas Bountra is a passionate advocate of Oxford’s ability to change the world for the better. His positivity is infectious as he champions Oxford’s many achievements, capabilities and ambitions for the future. At the same time, he is keenly aware of what’s at stake. ‘Across the world, we’re facing some massive problems: climate change, pollution, energy, food, water,’ says Professor Bountra. ‘We are faced with unprecedented challenges. But if anywhere can rise to these challenges, Oxford can.’

Innovation is a cornerstone of Oxford’s strategic plan. The University has committed to increase collaborative research with business and industry, and has enhanced support for its own spin-outs and start-ups. So far, it’s going well. ‘A few years ago in Oxford, we were creating about five companies a year; now we’re creating 25 companies a year,’ says Professor Bountra. ‘And I think this year it’s going to be well over 30. Frankly, we could double that, but we’re not trying just to create companies; we want to create companies that are worth £1 billion and then £10 billion, and then £100 billion. That’s when they start to create thousands of jobs.’

This ambition is built on an impressive track record of success. ‘In my own space of medical sciences there is a phenomenal amount to celebrate,’ says Professor Bountra, who is also Professor of Translational Medicine in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine and Associate Member of the Department of Pharmacology. ‘For example, the impact of Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert’s vaccine; Professor Sir Martin Landray’s RECOVERY trial, and its finding that dexamethasone is beneficial to COVID-19 patients; and Professor Adrian Hill’s malaria vaccine research, which now boasts almost 80% efficacy. All saving many lives.’

It is precisely this renown for excellence that compels philanthropists to approach Oxford University for solutions to global problems. Professor Bountra continues: ‘Philanthropists give money to Oxford because the University has such an amazing reputation: great people, the ability to leverage other resources, the power to convene. And a reputation for actually delivering – creating the kind of impact that benefits patients or society. It’s a gift, and they’re saying: “You guys, go away and do whatever you feel is necessary to sort out this problem.”’

‘It’s up to us to come up with big ideas, bold ideas, transformative ideas. And it’s up to us to create networks of people to tackle those ideas’

Professor Chas Bountra

There are many examples of gifts enabling innovation at Oxford: INEOS recently donated £100 million for research into antimicrobial resistance. The Big Data Institute sits within the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery at Oxford’s Old Road Campus, and is now helping research into the causes, prevention and treatment of disease. A dozen companies have spun out of Oxford’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, including – in partnership with Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences – OrganOx, which was supported by Oxford Innovation and the University Challenge Seed Fund. OrganOx is now changing the way donor organs are preserved in the critical time between donation and transplantation. In addition, in the Department of Chemistry – which boasts a state-of-the-art Chemistry Research Laboratory that benefited from philanthropic funding – 400 patent applications have been granted and spin-out companies have received over £750 million in follow-on funding as of 2020. One of these is Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which has developed a new generation of DNA/RNA sequencing technology. At the time of writing, the company has an estimated value of more than £2 billion and is expected to be listed on the London stock market imminently.

Pro-Vice Chancellor for Development and External Affairs at Oxford and author of Philanthropy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship is Professor David Gann CBE. Professor Gann was previously Vice President (Innovation) at Imperial College London and boasts extensive international experience in innovation strategy and technology management. He says: ‘Philanthropy, innovation and entrepreneurship are increasingly intertwined. More entrepreneurs are making their fortunes from the commercialisation of innovative technologies, originally with deep roots in academic research. They understand the sense of purpose and desire to advance the creation of knowledge that will lead to future societal benefits. Oxford has the capability and ambition to join these dots, building a platform from which to help solve pressing challenges such as with climate change, environment, energy and health.’

Philanthropists play a pivotal role in the ecosystem of innovation at Oxford, but brilliant minds are at its heart. ‘People make Oxford what it is,’ Professor Bountra says. ‘We attract and invest in students and researchers who are among the best in the world. One individual can make such a difference: setting the direction, enthusing, inspiring.

‘Let’s take the example of Professor Sarah Gilbert,’ he continues. ‘In January 2020, when the sequence of the COVID-19 virus was published, Sarah had a lot of the know-how already. She had done clinical trials in another disease with this particular vaccine technology. So, she could move on it very quickly.

'Actually, the beauty of funding early research is that we can be opportunistic, as it can reap many benefits at a later stage or have utility in a number of areas that were not expected at the outset. We just need to be open-minded to that.’

Professor Chas Bountra uses a floating digital touchscreen
  Professor Chas Bountra has big ambitions for innovation at Oxford. Photo by John Cairns

Students and alumni at the University are positively encouraged to nurture their entrepreneurial spirit through the Oxford Foundry, which was established in 2017. Its mission is to give students and alumni the entrepreneurial and technology skills they need to succeed and to build sustainable ventures, whatever their specialism. Donors have supported a number of initiatives to allow them to flourish, from Santander, which is kick-starting the Foundry’s Diversity in Entrepreneurship fellowship scheme, to FMDQ Private Markets Ltd, who recently donated £150,000 to create the Foundry’s first global partnership. The latter will facilitate the growth of Nigeria’s venture ecosystem through the OXFO–FMDQ Young Entrepreneurial Leaders programme.

Professor Bountra sees the incredible potential in philanthropic support of all shapes and sizes, but make no mistake: Oxford’s ultimate ambition is to be genuinely transformative. ‘On the west coast of the USA, they have trillion-dollar companies. We don’t have that – yet. I believe the government is looking to Oxford to innovate in the same way that has happened in the USA. We have all the ingredients and we just need to harness them. I’m very excited about what’s happening at the moment.’


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