Lesser known facts about university spin-offs

This post has been contributed by Dr Ning Baines (De Montfort University) and Prof Helen Lawton Smith (Birkbeck)

University spin-offs (USOs) are a much-studied phenomenon. Stylised facts which emerge from previous studies are that they tend to be associated with top research universities and are predominately in bioscience, engineering and computing.

What is less well documented and analysed is what USOs deliver by way of innovation in the form of new products and services, what factors underlie the effective development of USOs’ products and services and how those products and services contribute to regional development.

A recent study undertaken by Ning Baines explored each of those three themes. She gathered and analysed data on 844 USOs from 133 UK universities. The study contributes to filling a gap in the academic entrepreneurship literature by providing an understanding of the impact of USOs beyond those of success factors in setting up USOs.

In the first paper (Baines and Lawton Smith 2019), it is demonstrated that the important factors associated with the success of products and services developed by USOs include understanding needs of customers, networks, clear market analysis, application of technology, and vision, mission and value of the company. The findings resonate with various studies in innovation management on the key elements of products and services’ performance predictors.

The second paper (Baines and Lawton Smith forthcoming) explores skills and capabilities in developing products and services within the unique and non-commercial context of USOs. The findings show that scientific and technological knowledge and intellectual property coupled with external (e.g. systems to integrate external knowledge and maintain networks with academics) and internal (e.g. knowledge integration sharing and communications and interaction among team members) capabilities can potentially engender the efficiency of the development process.

On the other hand, the paper finds that marketing capabilities considered important to the effectiveness of products/services relate more to a strategic marketing policy, for example defining competitiveness of the products/services and recognising market opportunities.

This paper extends knowledge on the interplay between knowledge management and product development. The application of the findings can also act as indicators in what is needed for the provision of appropriate support and training to academic entrepreneurs to foster and enhance further entrepreneurial activities.

The third paper (Bagchi-Sen et al. forthcoming) provides a comprehensive understanding of USOs in UK regions. Firstly, it examines the location and diversity of actors within the UK’s innovation ecosystems. The research-intensive universities produce the most USOs; the value creation is directly associated with particular kinds of universities. Secondly, university-based resources play an important role as exemplified by the positive correlation between the number of full-time academic staff and the number of USOs. This highlights the different scale and scope of knowledge production within innovation ecosystems within a region.

The paper also finds that geographical context (UK regions) shows that dominant regions and others offer a varying bundle of products and services; some match local clusters well and others do not. This implies the potential for USOs to contribute to innovation ecosystems through value generation and then directly creating possibilities for commercial opportunities for other local firms with which they engage.


  • Baines, N and Lawton Smith H (2019) Key driving factors in product and service innovation in UK spin-offs Industry and Higher Education 1-11
  • Bagchi-Sen, S, Baines, N and Lawton Smith, H (forthcoming) Regional variation in characteristics and output of university spin-offs (USOs) in the United Kingdom International Regional Science Review
  • Baines, N and Lawton Smith, H (forthcoming)Knowledge and capabilities for products/services development: The UK spin-off firms context Journal of Knowledge Management