Attention, U.S. Investors, Oxford Has Smart Entrepreneurs, Too

With all the brainiacs pouring out of America’s top universities and into startups and accelerator programs, it’s no wonder that U.S. investors don’t tend to look far when scouting for talent.

But Oxford University would like these investors to know that some of its own brainiacs have begun to found companies – and that the 800-year-old institution is doing more than ever to prepare them for success in their endeavors.

Indeed, Oxford’s technology transfer company, Isis Innovation, now has a two-year-old software incubator that has so far helped to incubate 16 companies, with two more entering its program next week. Of those 16 companies, at least a handful have received follow-on funding, including Brainomix, a software startup targeting that has raised the equivalent of $140,000 since entering the program six months ago; Colwiz, a maker of collaboration software for researchers that has raised more than half a million dollars since joining a year ago; and Oxiway, an online, student-focused service for swapping goods that Isis began helping nine months ago and that earlier this month was accepted by AppCampus, a mobile application accelerator funded by Nokia and Microsoft. (The program offers grants of up to $100,000 to startups; in exchange, the app makers agree to make their wares exclusively available on the Windows Phone or Nokia platforms for six months.)

The amounts are trivial by current U.S. standards, but the fundings are still a bit of a coup, considering the well-documented dearth of early-stage funding in the U.K.

The Isis incubator also represents a considerable amount of progress for another reason, notes Roy Azoulay, an Oxford MBA and software engineer who established and continues to oversee the unit. As recently as 2010, he says, many at Oxford considered “entrepreneurship to be something you did if you couldn’t get a proper job. Now everyone wants to do it.”

So who can enter the program, and what, exactly, do they get in exchange? Unsurprisingly, applicants must have a tie to Oxford; in this case, that means that academics, students, alumni, and even employees are welcome to apply. (Azoulay says the incubator sees about five applicants for every team it brings in.)

And while startups aren’t offered much in terms of office space – every team is allotted, and tends to quickly outgrow, two desks – each company receives between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds in exchange for 10 percent of their business. They also receive all manner of other assistance, from back office services, to contract negotiation, to marketing and business development.

Unlike many of its U.S. peers, Isis doesn’t focus much on outside mentorship. Azoulay says that Isis – which employs 80 people across the incubator and its 12-year-old 15-year-old tech transfer company — is far more interested in helping its startups develop a minimum viable product and some commercial traction, a process that involves reaching out regularly to potentially early adopters to learn what they want. (For example, Azoulay says that Isis speaks quarterly to an innovation team within the banking and financial services giant HSBC.)

The Isis incubator also encourages its startups – most of which have been founded by first-time entrepreneurs – not to incorporate straightaway, unlike in the U.S. Azoulay says not only are there tax incentives in the U.K. that make it “unattractive” to incorporate “before you have to,” but Oxford wants the startups focused on their products while part of the program, and not on lining up lawyers, accountants and insurance.

Still, the incubator sees plenty to aspire to when it comes to American startups, and it’s particularly keen on fostering relationships with more U.S angel investors and seed-stage firms, with which it has “very little interface” now, according to Azoulay. Not only could Oxford’s startups use the money; they could use the encouragement, he suggests.

Azoulay points to Esplorio, a still-in-beta startup that helps users track their activities and travels with the help of their social network postings. Though the company has had a “very difficult time” meeting with investors in the U.K., it was able to nab numerous meetings with “top tier VCs in the Valley” over a recent, three-week trip, during which its founders “received very enthusiastic feedback,” he says.

Enthusiastic feedback and term sheets are worlds apart, of course. But for now, apparently, such encouragement is reason enough for the company to keep plugging away.

(Correction:The original version of this story misstated the age of the Isis Innovation tech transfer company. It also stated that Colwiz, a startup in the Isis incubator, had raised north of half a million dollars; the piece should list instead TheySay Analytics, a maker of sentiment analysis tools that joined the incubator in February 2011; it has raised half a million pounds from investors.)

Logo: Courtesy of Oxford University.