Oxford’s contribution to COVID has been a vaccine that will save the world — but what can we offer for the climate?
Written by Gregg Bayes-Brown
Oxford’s response to COVID-19 has been an excellent demonstration of what the institution is capable of when it sets its mind to a task. The institution has produced multiple high profile research papers on the pandemic, created companies geared to tackling ventilator shortages and rapid COVID testing, and has delivered an affordable, effective vaccine against the coronavirus for the whole world.
As a result, many in the University and the surrounding area are asking, what’s next?
While the pandemic dominated the headlines in 2020 (and continues to do so), the climate crisis has not gone away. Even as the pandemic took hold, Australia was on fire and was followed up by similar blazes in the United States. The Atlantic Hurricane Season 2020 was the busiest and one of the costliest on record. NASA has said 2020 narrowly beat out 2016 as the hottest year to date. And as 2021 settles into its groove, our relationship with the planet has only become even more pressing.
Meanwhile, many governments (including now the United States) are increasingly discussing building back from COVID-19 with a green agenda. As a result, many cleantech firms are seeing a surge in interest and stock prices, with notable rises for energy and electric vehicles firms from 2020 carrying on into the new year.
As such, many are predicting that 2021 will be the year of clean and climatech.
Here in Oxford, we have been building a robust portfolio of companies either directly or partially involved in cleantech. Of the over 250 companies we’ve created across all sciences, our analysis shows that 24 are active in this space. And with record levels of investment coming into Oxford (over £1bn into our spinout portfolio in the calendar year of 2020 alone), we expect our cleantech portfolio to continue to scale in the year ahead.
A good portion of our companies are directly focused on energy production itself, including fusion firm First Light Fusion and next-gen solar company Oxford PV.
Founded to address the urgent need for a readily available and reliable source of clean energy, First Light Fusion is working towards delivering fusion energy over the next decade. Following an investment of $25m in December 2020, the company has completed upgrades to its “Machine 3” — capable of discharging 200,000 volts and in excess of 14 million ampere (equivalent to nearly 500 lightning strikes) within two microseconds. The next step for the company will be demonstrating “gain” (ie. more energy created in the reaction than it takes to generate it) in the coming years with plans to open a plant in the 2030s.
Meanwhile, Oxford PV is drawing on an already functioning fusion energy plant — the Sun — with its next generation perovskite solar cell technology. At present, silicon-based solar cells have conversion rate of turning sunlight into electricity of around 15–20%. Following the unveiling a research programme to take its technology to 37% efficiency over five years in 2018, the company has been going from strength to strength, raising £65m during 2019. Closing out 2020, Oxford PV demonstrated the fruits of its labour to date, setting a new record for solar technology with a 29.5% conversion rate, and plans to begin selling its products to the public in 2022.
Energy production isn’t the sole focus of OUI-supported ventures, however. YASA Motors, a producer of engines for electric vehicles, recently opened a new plant for production of its motors and is helping Ferrari produce its first e-supercar. Our automated vehicle technology firm Oxbotica continues to develop its technology with a view to deploying it in industrial settings, and recently secured $47m in its Series B. Smart boiler firm Mixergy signed a deal recently with Centrica and British Gas to install smart boilers across the UK which collectively work to reduce bills and energy demands.
Underpinning these already existing companies is a healthy pipeline of intellectual property for the next wave of cleantech technologies for licence, academic consultancy, and OUI-supported ventures. In energy, we have more renewable energy solutions on the way, including more fusion, as well as storage and efficiency technologies. We have sustainable materials and chemicals in development, as well as multiple transport-related IPs in hydrogen, sustainable fuels, and electric vehicles. We’re also seeing an increase of IP in water, carbon capture and recycling coming to bear.
“Oxford University’s cleantech innovation focuses in five main areas including energy, transport, sustainable materials, environmental recycling as well as natural resources such as water,” said Jane Jin, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager at OUI. “From OUI’s initial IP mapping exercise, we found our core cleantech IPs are generated from University’s word-leading research in hydrogen generation, energy storage, waste recycling solutions and carbon capture and storage technologies.”
Our response to the climate crisis, similar to COVID, draws on both the depth and breadth of Oxford’s expertise across the sciences. Our Chemistry and Physics departments, both prolific creators of spinout companies, are heavily invested in this area, as are our Engineering Science and Materials departments. Computer Sciences, Earth Sciences, Zoology, the Mathematical Institute and the Oxford Robotics Institute are also producing cleantech IP. We also have a solid community within social sciences in the Environmental Change Institute, Smith School, the Oxford Martin School, Geography and Transport Studies Unit which are collaborating on research and policy.
The sense on the ground here is that Oxford has a great deal to offer to the global effort on tackling climate change, and the University is increasingly investing time and resources into translating our ideas into impact. Here at OUI, we are fully committed to supporting the University and our companies into realising this vast potential, and are currently discussing ways we can accelerate development of this world-leading research while bringing more collaborators and investors into our cleantech network. We’re also continuing to assist our world-class academics with consultancy to organisations outside of Oxford, and aim to continue our record breaking streak of company creation, which saw 28 firms created in 2020.
The challenge ahead is sizeable, perhaps the biggest we’ve faced as a civilisation. Yet if the pandemic demonstrated anything, it is that Oxford and its peer institutions can have a sizeable impact in solving the world’s biggest crises, and we stand ready to deliver once again on climate.