When Graham Richards began his research, he never intended to profit from it. However, fate had other plans. Discussing his latest book on university spin-outs, he admits to the "cock-up theory of history". Born on 1st October 1939, just one day after the draft was introduced for military service, he believes he may not have pursued a career in chemistry if he had been required to serve. This chance event led him to found Oxford Molecular and co-create Isis Innovation, generating millions for the university. His book recounts his successes and failures and aims to inspire others to pursue similar ventures, without sacrificing academic integrity.
While Richards does not view financial success as his main ambition, he admits to earning a couple of million from his various ventures. However, his Welsh background and strong work ethic have served him well, leading to his academic success and innovation. Richards produced the world’s first colour graphics of molecular structures, using computer technology to calculate the properties of compounds, eventually attracting the attention of the pharmaceutical industry.
Despite the commercial potential of his research, Richards initially saw no practical use for it. It was not until he witnessed the thriving hi-tech businesses in California during visits to Stanford University that he saw its potential. He worked with one of his research students, Tony Marchington, on creating a company, but the project ultimately fell through. Richards hopes his book will inspire others to try, without sacrificing values or personal integrity.
An additional woman had significant involvement in the founding of Oxford Molecular. The dedication in the first book published about the company reads, "To Margaret Thatcher, who made much of this possible." The mention of Thatcher’s name, a fellow chemist, would typically receive backlash from left-wing newspapers such as The Guardian, but the dedication stems from Thatcher’s role in opening the gates for spin-out activity through two crucial reforms in the mid-80s. The first reform allowed venture capital to be a source of financing, and the second granted ownership of publicly funded research’s intellectual property to universities. This transfer of intellectual property ownership led to the growth of technology transfer offices across the UK, which endeavored to exploit this newfound potential.
Subsequent UK governments have extended Thatcher’s reforms. The importance of funding has grown increasingly under Blair’s government, with universities encouraged to create fresh industries via research. Present day, oversights on banks by the UK government give the opportunity to fix issues surrounding secure long-term investment for small startups, allowing for innovation within the industry.
While the government’s growing interest in knowledge transfer is positive, it carries the potential to hire staff specifically for the money-making potential of their research, stifling essential university teaching and research. Prescriptive funding procedures have become too mainstream, Richards states. Committees establishing "grand challenges" for the research councils follow these procedures, which limits academic freedom and creativity, he adds.
Richards cautions those who believe that spin-outs are a paradise of milk and honey, saying the company’s peak and ultimate downfall was highlighted by the biotechnology market’s crash in the late 1990s. "You are not guaranteed to succeed." Still, by the time Oxford Molecular was sold, the university acquired 10 million pounds.
Now retired, Richards is still conducting research, serving as non-executive director, and authoring his book Spin-Outs: Creating Businesses from University Intellectual Property.