Oxford vs Cambridge: Inside the Rival Startup Scenes

| Lucy Wilson

Home to two of the world’s leading research universities, Oxford and Cambridge have consistently been at the forefront of innovation in the UK. Spotlight on Spinouts, our recent report with the Royal Academy of Engineering, highlights how the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge, and London is dominating the nation’s startup scene, with just four institutionsOxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCLaccounting for one third of all academic spinouts in the UK. But even amongst this top bracket, Oxford and Cambridge come out far ahead of the rest. 

Over time, these universities, and the companies they’ve produced, have fostered innovation and growth in their surrounding areas. Tech clusters have developed in the regions, drawing in investment, and capitalising on both the area’s proximity to the Capital and its proven track record of success. As a result, Oxfordshire and Cambrigeshire have become hubs for new, ambitious startups, in which entrepreneurial spirit is rife, and investors and supporting organisations are very active. 

But, as we all know, these two love a bit of healthy competition… So, which region has the strongest startup ecosystem? While it’s been argued by some that Cambridge leads the way in the tech space, recent fundraising figures suggest this may no longer be the case. Read on for a rundown of our key findings, equity trends, and the regions’ biggest raises last year.

Oxford vs Cambridge: Headline figures

Correct as of 25th January 2021

The wider county of Oxfordshire is home to 611 active, high-growth companies. Of these businesses, 21% have been spun out of universities in the region. Meanwhile, there are 653 ambitious businesses active in Cambridgeshire, of which a slightly smaller proportion (17%) are spinouts. In both regions, Tech/IP-based businesses dominate the high-growth landscape, with a particular emphasis on the life sciences sector

But despite producing a similar number of companies, focused on similar industries, it seems as though Cambridge has the more mature ecosystem. Looking at exit figures, Oxford-based startups have so far been involved in 56 acquisitions and 7 IPOs to date. Whilst high-growth companies in Cambridge have held the same number of IPOs, they’ve been involved in 36% more acquisitions than Oxford. On top of this, Cambridge is also home to a greater proportion of later-stage businesses (growth and established), and a smaller proportion of early-stage ones (seed and venture), compared to its rival.

Overall, we’re seeing a similar picture in both regions when it comes to investment. Since 2011, high-growth Oxford startups have secured £4.62b through 1,325 equity fundraisings, whilst those in Cambridge have received £4.6b through 1,334 fundraisings. The regions have also attracted the same types of investors, with private equity and venture capital firms being especially active in both. The only notable difference here is that double the number of corporates have invested in Cambridge than in Oxford. 

As hotspots for research and development, both regions have also seen impressive levels of grant funding for their respective startups and scaleups. Since 2011, ambitious companies in Oxford have secured 537 innovation grants over £100k, whilst those in Cambridge have received 648. Cambridge seems to be winning in this area, therefore, at least in terms of number of grants.

Equity fundraising trends in Oxford and Cambridge

High-growth companies in Oxford have secured 445 announced equity deals since 2011. These fundraisings have grown substantially over the past ten years, peaking in both number and value in 2020. In comparison, Cambridge has seen less consistent growth in announced equity deals, but has received more than Oxford (572 in total). The number of fundraisings secured by Cambridge-based companies peaked in 2019, whilst the amount raised peaked in 2017.

Despite Oxford having its best year on record in 2020, even amidst the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, Cambridge startups saw a drop off investment. Between Q2 and Q4 last year, following the arrival of coronavirus, high-growth companies in Cambridge secured 56 announced equity deals, worth £281m in total, with an average raise of £5.03m. Whereas, those in Oxford secured 49 deals, worth £529m in total, with an average raise of £11.8mmore than double that of Cambridge. These figures have been skewed by a handful of very large investments into Oxford-based companies last year (a few of which we’ll discuss further on).

On top of this, the number of first-time fundraisings received by startups in each region also differs considerably. From Q2 to Q4, 13 Oxford-based companies secured their first round of announced equity funding, compared to just six businesses headquartered in Cambridge. During times of crises, there is a tendency for investors to double down on their existing portfolios rather than seek out new opportunities, but the question here is why hasn’t Oxford been affected to the same degree as Cambridge?

Biggest raises of 2020 

As already mentioned, 2020 saw several very large fundraisings secured by high-growth companies headquartered in Oxford. In fact, all three of the region’s biggest raises last year were megadeals, valued at £50m or more, with one even hitting triple digits. Cambridge-based businesses may not have reached such dizzying heights, but they did still secure some sizeable raises of their own. 

Biggest announced equity deals last year

Oxfordshire
1.   Zzoomm  £100m
2.   Oxford Nanopore Technologies  £84.4m
3.   Tokamak Energy  £67m 

Cambridgeshire
1.   Congenica  £39m
2.   Five AI  £32m ($41m)
3.   Featurespace  £30m 

Top Investments in Oxfordshire 2020

 Zzoomm 

Location: Henley-on-Thames 

Date of deal: 28th September

Amount raised: £100m

Zzoomm Logo

Not to be confused with the video conferencing software that many of us have come to rely on this past year, Zzoomm provides high-speed broadband. Using ‘Full Fibre’ optic cables, Zzoomm’s connection is faster and more reliable than most other networks, which instead use a mix of fibre and copper materials. The company believes its technology will be critically important to the UK’s post-COVID recovery, with the increase in working from home, and expected rise of video communication, cloud services, and big data in the future. 

Created by Matthew Hare (founder of full fibre provider Gigaclearanother Beauhurst-tracked business) in 2018, the company has secured two fundraisings to date, worth £107m in total. Its mammoth £100m funding round last year will support the rollout of Zzoomm’s network expansion across the UK. US-based alternative investment fund Oaktree Capital Management was the sole investor in the deal.

 Oxford Nanopore Technologies 

Location: Oxford 

Date of deal: 13th October

Amount raised: £84.4m

Oxford Nanopore Technologies Logo

Oxford Nanopore Technologies develops a range of portable DNA and RNA sequencing devices, that are also capable of characterising epigenetic modifications. Back in 2007, the University of Oxford spinout secured a £199k grant from Innovate UK. Since then, it’s raised £661m in investment, through 16 funding rounds, and is now one of just 23 private, UK unicorns. The company’s also been named on six high-growth lists, including the Deloitte Fast 50 in 2019, and 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain last year. 

The life sciences company secured five fundraisings in 2020 alone, working with public health labs and researchers around the world, and having developed a rapid, low-cost test for the detection of COVID (LamPORE). The second-biggest raise on this list, Oxford Nanopore’s £84.4m deal will be used to fund innovation in the field and the development of the company’s manufacturing operations. The round saw participation from International Holdings Company (IHC) and RPMI Railpen: Private Markets, as well as other, undisclosed, follow-on investors.

 Tokamak Energy 

Location: Abingdon 

Date of deal: 20th January

Amount raised: £67m

Tokamak Energy Logo

Tokamak Energy is working to advance the development of energy production through fusion, using devices that combine plasma in a magnetic field along with superconductors. By finding a ‘faster way to fusion’, it believes it can produce a clean, safe, and cost-effective energy source for the world. The company was spun out of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxford, and attended the Royal Academy of Engineering’s six-month SME Leaders Programme accelerator in 2019. 

To date, Tokamak Energy has secured £10.4m worth of grants, and £123m in investment, through 10 funding rounds. It’s also been selected three times for crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom’s Top 100 high-growth list of Britain’s Fastest-Growing Businesses. The cleantech company’s massive £67m equity fundraising, for which the investors have not been disclosed, is for the purpose of accelerating Tokamak’s plans to build a fusion reactor by 2030.

Top Investments in Cambridgeshire 2020

 Congenica 

Location: Hinxton 

Date of deal: 9th November

Amount raised: £39m

Congenica Logo

Congenica has developed healthtech software for the rapid analysis and interpretation of genomic data, with a particular focus on rare diseases and inherited cancer. It was spun out of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Cambridge. Congenica also attended the NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) in 2017, a programme designed to assist with the development and implementation of innovative medical ideas across the NHS and wider healthcare service. 

The life sciences company has so far received three grants, worth £2.62m in total, and £65.8m in fundraisings, across seven rounds. Its latest £39m raise, secured at a pre-money valuation of £52.4m, will be used to fund international market development and work on Congenica’s platform. The funding round saw participation from eight different investors, including Legal & General, Tencent, and follow-on investors Downing, Parkwalk Opportunities EIS Fund, and Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC).

 Five AI 

Location: Cambridge 

Date of deal: 4th March

Amount raised: £32m ($41m)

FiveAI Logo

Five AI is building artificial intelligence software components and development platforms for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. The company started out by developing their own AV system and successfully testing it on London roads, before leading the government-backed StreetWise trials. Now, Five are supporting others to develop their own systems, hoping to create a world in which transport is safe, green, and accessible to all, through greater collaboration. 

The company has so far secured three fundraisings, totalling £48m, as well as a £9.95m grant from Innovate UK back in September 2017. Its latest £32m round involved seven different funds, including British follow-on investors Amadeus Capital Partners, Kindred Capital VC, and Notion Capital. The new fundraising will be used for R&D, to facilitate Five’s development of a new platform.

 Featurespace 

Location: Cambridge 

Date of deal: 13th May

Amount raised: £30m

Featurespace Logo

Featurespace uses real-time machine learning to combat financial crime. The University of Cambridge spinout has developed analytics software which monitors customer activity, to predict future individual behaviour and detect anomalies. In doing so, it aims to spot and intercept online fraud, continuously adapting to new risks. In 2018, Featurespace attended TechNation’s Future Fifty accelerator programme for late-stage technology businesses, and has so far been named on 13 high-growth lists. 

To date, the company has secured £83.5m in investment, through eight funding rounds. Its most recent £30m raise, secured at a pre-money valuation of £197m, was led by Merian Chrysalis Investment Company and will be used to support Featurespace’s continued growth.

Closing thoughts 

The annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race may be happening behind closed doors this year, but it seems this isn’t the only way in which COVID has affected the pair’s long-held rivalry. Whilst the two regions, on the whole, seem to have quite similar startup ecosystems, Oxford startups have secured more investment during the pandemic, with some very large equity deals and more than twice as many first-time fundraisings than Cambridge.

Casting competition aside, however, it’s clear that both regions have been living up to their reputation, and we’re excited to see which new companies and disruptive technologies they produce next.

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