HR & Management

The UK's six most entrepreneurial universities

13 min read

03 July 2015

British universities have climbed up world reputation rankings, according to the latest table published by Times Higher Education. But with the UK's recent focus on innovation, we've unveiled which of the nations universities could be deemed truly entrepreneurial and have made a contribution to the economy.

At its core, starting a business is much more of a creative, messy discipline – full of blurry edges and governed by hunches, experimentation, and instinct. That is according to Michael Hayman, co-founder of Seven Hills, who suggested that entrepreneurship has more in common with music than science.

The Beatles teach entrepreneurship better than business schools,” he said after noting that AOL founder Steve Case, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen were among many who have at one point had been performing musicians.

That might be true in the US, but in the UK business schools are about to become the new rock and roll, Lord Young argued. He suggested that business schools are a potentially phenomenal asset and that, historically, such institutions had been guilty of underselling expertise to the business community.

This was further highlighted by Ann Dowling’s review on business and university collaborations. As was cited in a recent Real Business article, business research and development is the foundation of productivity and growth – while university research collaborations have a vital role in providing business with new processes and technologies, highly skilled people and access to world-leading experts.

Responding to the review, the CEO of Innovate UK, Ruth McKernan suggested that despite Britain having world class universities, we needed to see that excellence turned into economic benefit.

With that in mind, we rounded-up some of the most entrepreneurial universities that the UK has to offer.

See also: Should the UK invest more in university-linked innovation to promote economic growth?

1. University of Cambridge

A Library House report has concluded that if the university did not exist, more than £50bn and over 150,000 jobs would be needed to replace its impact on the economy. It was also confirmed that Cambridge is a global leader ranked among the top three international research and teaching universities. Significantly, however, it achieves its world-leading position alongside Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and MIT with much smaller financial resources. 

Since 1960, it has played an increasing role in the development of the “Cambridge Cluster”, which now numbers around 1,000 technology and biotechnology companies – 1,400 when providers of services and support organisations are included. Up until 2006, 51 companies have spun-out directly from the university and a further 250 trace origins to the university. This number has undoubtedly increased.

Furthermore, Cambridge-associated researchers have received more Nobel Prizes than any other university, not to mention has constantly seen entrepreneurs in the region included among the “Sunday Times Rich List”.

Among its alumni are: Cobra Beer founder Karan Bilimoria; Tim Waterstone, founder of Waterstone’s; Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP, the world’s largest advertising group; Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, the managers of Iron Maiden and founders of Sanctuary Records; Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce; Michael Lynch, co-founder of Autonomy Corporation; Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton.


2. Imperial College 

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial’s contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. It has been ranked as one of the top five institutions to create wealthy graduates.

The science-based institution has the greatest concentration of high impact research of any major UK university, according to a Research Excellence Framework in 2014. Imperial suggested that it had transformed innovation processes in many UK-based organisations, such as Arup, IBM, Atkins, Laing O’Rourke and the Olympic Delivery Authority.

The college’s advise is regularly sought ought by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as HM Treasury, and it also boasts the Entrepreneurs’ Programme. Being known for its flourishing spin-out culture, the college created the programme to develop entrepreneurial skills through seminars, workshops and master classes. You don’t even have to be a student there to attend. 

Among its alumni are: Bebo founder Michael Birch; Keith Duckworth, founder of Cosworth Engineering; Thomas Arundel, who formed game developer Introversion Software; John Burland, a civil engineer who stabilised the Tower of Pisa; Michael Cowpland, founder of Corel; Queen guitarist Brian May.

Read more about the music industry:


3. University of Birmingham 

The university generates over £1bn in additional spending in the West Midlands on an annual basis, while at the same time contributing £530m to the region’s economy and supporting 11,830 jobs. This contribution was almost double that of the region’s eight largest football clubs.

Furthermore, Birmingham has a long history of research, with the most recent Research Assessment Exercise showing that 90 per cent of its research has global reach. It also noted that the university was awarded £145.5m in research funding. This is 87 per cent of the research income received by all Birmingham higher education institutions and equates to 12 per cent of the region’s total research R&D spend. 

It has recorded that 57 new inventions and six patent applications were filed in the space of six months. In addition, the university’s existing portfolio of 19 spin-out companies is likely to increase over the coming years with six new spin-out opportunities currently under investigation.

Among its alumni are: Michael Acton Smith from Mind Candy; Chris Banks, managing director of Coca-Cola UK; George Davis, the fashion designer who founded Next, George at Asda and Per Una; Peter Walters, CEO and chairman of BP; Patrick Head, co-founder and engineering director of the Williams Formula One team; Manchester United CEO David Gill.

Read on to find out which university is spin-outs leader on AIM and which one outpaces the rest when it comes to biomedical innovation.

4. University of Oxford 

The University of Oxford is the largest employer in Oxfordshire, with 16, 200 staff. It contributes £750m to the local economy. Oxfordshire’s growth rate in high-tech jobs is the highest in the UK – many of which are connected to the university.

What makes Oxford so unique is that since 1997, Isis Innovation has been responsible for creating spin-out companies based on academic research generated within and owned by the university. It has spun-out a new company every two months on average.

Over £266m in external investment has been raised by Isis spin-out companies since 2000, and five are currently listed on London’s AIM market. Oxford was also crowned the most innovative university in Britain in 2011, with Imperial College coming a close second.

Among its alumni are: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; Love Home Swap’s Debbie Wosskow; Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of; Nick D’Aloisio, founder of Summly; Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England; Chef Nigella Lawson; financier Nat Rothschild.


5. University College London (UCL)

UCL was ranked joint fifth in the world’s top ten universities by the QS World University Rankings of 2014. The UCL Institute of Education is ranked number one for education.

The institute truly stands out, however, when it comes to science. In fact, an NIHR survey in 2011 showed that UCL led the UK in most-highly-cited biomedical engineering publications. The scope of its research was hailed in an REF 2014 report, which suggested that it far outpaced other universities when it came to biomedical research and the impact that it had.

It also has a track record in implementation and impact – from licensing deals through to spin-out companies, and from novel devices to clinical breakthroughs. It is therefore hardly surprising that UCL is associated with several major teaching hospitals – such as the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, the Royal Free Hospital and Moorfields Eye Hospital – which provide Londoners with first-rate healthcare and contribute to major advances in medical research. 

Among its alumni are: Edwin Waterhouse, founding partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers; both of the managing directors of the Jack Wills clothing chain; Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars; Richard Martell, creator of the controversial social network “FitFinder”; Susan Ma, managing director of Tropic Skin Care and finalist on The Apprentice.


6. London Business School (LBS)

The school is ranked number one in the world for its full-time MBA programme and is ranked among the top ten for its executive MBA programme. LBS was also ranked as the top business school in Europe by the Financial Times in 2014.

LBS is truly a collaborative institution in the sense that it not only strives to connect students with different companies, but also across various countries. Launched in 2001, EMBA-Global Americas & Europe was jointly developed by London Business School and Columbia Business School to develop global business leaders. the school built on its existing partnership with Columbia Business School to launch the EMBA-Global Asia with The University of Hong Kong in 2008 – the first programme of its kind to offer learning and networking opportunities in London, New York and Hong Kong.

Among its alumni are: Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet; John Sunderland, chairman of Cadbury; Nigel Morris, co-founder of Capital One Financial Services; Cyrus Pallonji Mistry, chairman and CEO of the Tata Group; Richard Greenbury, CEO of Marks & Spencer; John Egan, chairman of Svern Trent after being known as CEO of Jaguar Cars and BAA.