Against the backdrop of the 2023 Boat Race taking place, our thoughts turn to the traditional competition between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. While the most high-profile field of contention may be in sports, as patent attorneys we prefer to look to other measures of success, and here we consider which is the most entrepreneurial university – Oxford or Cambridge?
There has always been rivalry, ever since Cambridge was founded in 1209, by students departing Oxford in the wake of town and gown violence. According to Wikipedia™ Cambridge alumni and faculty have won 121 Nobel Prizes “the most of any university in the world”, and Cambridge has won both the men’s and women’s Boat Race more times than Oxford. The Cambridge region also claims to be Europe’s largest technology cluster. On the other hand, Oxford claim a bigger library, more prime ministers, and according to the THE rankings, has been the best university in the world for the past seven years.
Despite this there is also cooperation. It’s an apocryphal saying that it is possible to walk from St John’s (or is it Trinity?) Oxford to St John’s Cambridge without leaving St John’s land, but many colleges have sisters in the Other Place. More interestingly in the present context, a comparison of figures on entrepreneurship (vide infra) begs the question of what is the purpose of a university.
Cardinal, now Saint, Newman, a leader of the Oxford Movement (contrasting with the Puritans of Cambridge), had some interesting things to say about this in “The Idea of a University”. These have been referred to by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, former Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge – is a university about pure knowledge (as Newman said), or economic productivity? Is it all about the return on our investment?
The mission statement of Cambridge University (Hinc lucem et pocula sacra) is “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence”. That of Cambridge Enterprise, their commercial arm, is not primarily to make money but to give back to society: “to help the University of Cambridge’s innovators, experts and entrepreneurs make their ideas more commercially successful for the benefit of society, the economy, the individual and the University”. The mission statement of Oxford (Dominus illuminatio mea), is “to produce world-leading research and offer outstanding pedagogy … in order to develop a more just and fair society”, though its tech transfer arm is not quite so explicitly altruistic, “As architects of creative solutions, we enable the University community to maximise the global impact of Oxford’s research and expertise”.
Where have these led?
Both Oxford and Cambridge are consistently in the top ten universities in the world so it is natural that there should be talk of an Oxford-Cambridge arc, but this is a concept more honoured in the breach than the observance. In practice it’s not especially easy to travel between the universities and the cultures seem subtly different – both aim to attract the very best people, but whereas Cambridge seems to be content to let them get on with doing what they want, Oxford seems to want more control over its academics, at least so far as entrepreneurs are concerned.
The number of unicorns founded by Oxford alumni is 18 on one count, versus 21 for Cambridge (but the numbers seem to vary depending on who is counting); by comparison some counts put INSEAD ahead, some behind, and MIT counts 50. Apparently three quarters of all the UK’s unicorns are based in London, including all the fintech unicorns. Looking for a different measure, the HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) provides open data that can be cut many different ways, for example to count the number and value of spin-offs, or total intellectual property income, and on these measures Oxford was doing sometimes twice as well as Cambridge when I last looked. The figures on total deal values tell a similar story. However, the figures could be skewed by a few individual companies, such as Oxford Nanopore.
Interestingly, according to a report sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering last year, Cambridge University takes, on average, around half the equity stake in spinouts that Oxford does (12.5% vs 25%), much closer to the typical US model insofar as there is one. The figures don’t suggest that this particularly affects Oxford’s ability to grow large companies. However, it would be interesting to know whether it affects the propensity for founders of very successful companies to give back to their alma mater, albeit there is less of tradition of philanthropy in the UK than in the US.
With the Boat Race traditionally taking place on the neutral waters of the Thames in London, this could perhaps be seen as a rather strained metaphor of the need for contributions to entrepreneurship from outside the two cities – intellectual capital from the universities, and the financial contribution from the City. Likewise, the detour via London may speak to the larger “Golden Triangle” defined by the three cities, rather than the more constrained Oxford-Cambridge arc.
Statistics apart, Oxford and Cambridge have different vibes – Oxford the more traditional, Cambridge the more entrepreneurial. Perhaps they can learn from one another? Some of the highest valuations achieved tend to be for biotech companies, a field in which both Cambridge and Oxford are internationally renowned. Or perhaps they can cooperate in AI, the fastest growing spinout sector? The idea of an Oxford-Cambridge arc suggests a synergistic collaboration. It doesn’t feel like that is there yet, but given what each university has achieved on its own, what could they achieve working more closely together?