ELO, Oxford & AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine: How to Go from Idea to Opportunity? (Part I)

This series of four blog posts focus on the entrepreneurial story of how the University of Oxford invented a COVID-19 vaccine and entered into a partnership with AstraZeneca to distribute 3 billion doses globally. This year’s ELO Oxford Entrepreneurial Leaders Programme will include a case study of the development and roll-out of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the lessons on innovation and entrepreneurship to be learned for global business leaders. The ELO Oxford cohort will get first-hand insights into how to go from idea to opportunity to then impacting the world. This is one of the most important stories of the COVID pandemic. We will be at the epicentre of this success story.

ELO operates the “Entrepreneurial Leaders Programme” in collaboration with Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford. This is a one-week intensive executive education offering each August for Christian marketplace and entrepreneurial leaders from around the world. ELO believes there is no better place in the world for this type of offering. Oxford offers an amazing combination of culture and history along with one of the leading universities in the world. The current COVID-19 pandemic and the race to find a vaccine has raised the profile of the University even higher.

The four blog posts will successively answer these questions:

Part I - How to go from an idea to an opportunity?

Part II - How to solve a global problem?

Part III - What’s the deal?

Part IV - How to execute?


How did the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine shoot to international prominence since early 2020? How did a small group of scientists at a place called “The Jenner Institute,” part of the University of Oxford, develop a vaccine for which there are 3 billion pre-orders from around the globe? What are the challenges of fostering innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit within a university with 900 years of tradition?

I first tracked innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford in 2007. I interviewed then Managing Director, Tom Hockaday, of Isis Innovation Ltd., for my book titled, Entrepreneurial Excellence: How To Profit From the Best Ideas of the Experts (Career Press, 2007) on going from an idea to an opportunity. Isis was the name of the University of Oxford’s technology and research commercialization company.  In 2016 Isis was renamed “Oxford University Innovation” (“OUI”). The role of OUI is to manage the University’s intellectual property, working with University researchers on identifying, protecting, and marketing technologies.

How does this process work? OUI provides business advice and funds patent applications and legal costs, negotiates exploitation and spin-out company agreements, and identifies and manages consultancy opportunities. After valuable research is identified, OUI will then decide which of three different means of commercialization is most suitable: licensing, launching a spin-out, or a material sales agreement. A “spin-out” is a process whereby a company splits off from its root organization to become a separate legal entity. The spin-out company takes intellectual property and technology from the parent organization. In most instances, the University (through OUI) is a part-owner of the spin-out company, arranges professional and consulting services, and possibly provides physical office/research space for the company. In other words, OUI effectively acts as a new-venture incubator for its researchers and builds a portfolio of spin-out companies.

Since 1987, OUI has spun out 15-20 new companies every year. Over £2.5bn in external investment has been raised by OUI spin-outs since 2010, and ten of the current portfolio companies are currently listed in London and New York. The creation of new spin-out companies also channels millions of pounds back into University research, benefits local economic development and has created many new jobs in the region. In short, the University through OUI has a system that serves its purposes well.

Where does the Oxford COVID-19 Vaccine fit in? There are several different entities connected to the process of taking the Vaccine from an early stage (an “idea”) to sorting out a process of commercialization (an “opportunity”). Some further context is required. OUI had one spin-out, formed in 1996, called Oxford Biomedica. The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE:OXB) and is a leading, fully integrated, gene and cell therapy group focused on developing life-changing treatments for serious diseases. Oxford Biomedica is based across several locations in Oxfordshire, UK and employs more than 550 people. Through a related entity, it also has a new commercial manufacturing centre, with cleanroom suites, to handle manufacturing capacity for vaccines. Oxford Biomedica that, on behalf of the University, would later enter into a deal with AstraZeneca for the global rollout of the Vaccine (this is detailed in a subsequent blog post).

While OUI is part of the University, there is a separate University-related entity of which the University is a shareholder but not a controlling party. This science and technology business is called “Oxford Sciences Innovation PLC” (“OSI”). OSI was started in 2015 as an independent legal entity to build on Oxford’s renowned research legacy, to create a leading science and technology ecosystem and home for entrepreneurs. OSI has attracted £600 million, or US$788 million, from outside investors ranging from hedge funds to Chinese conglomerates. OSI is intended to emulate American rivals like Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by fostering profit-making lab spin-outs. OSI, on behalf of the University, takes typically between 10% and 50% cut of the spin-offs and thus the University has varying degrees of control.

OSI’s mission is to enable Oxford’s scientists and entrepreneurs to build companies that solve the world’s most important problems. OSI ensures that Oxford’s world-leading science moves out of the laboratory and onto the global stage. In partnership with the University, OSI creates fundamental technology companies, built on science. They match scientists with experienced entrepreneurs and patient capital to turn idea to impact, discovery to company. OSI invests in life sciences, deep tech, health tech, artificial intelligence and software to create companies taking on challenges like diagnosis and treatment of disease and cancer, hyper resolution microscopy, renewable energy, drones, nuclear fusion and quantum computing. They back companies from their inception and invest for the long-term, helping them to build their businesses by finding senior management talent, entrepreneurs, expert advisors and global investors to realize their vision. OSI may appear to be a venture capital firm, but they think of themselves differently. They are not striving to maximize investment returns. Instead, they reinvest any returns back into the Oxford ecosystem and the next generation of scientists and technologies to create even more companies capable of tackling more of the world’s most important problems.

One of OSI’s portfolio companies is “Vaccitech”. Vaccitech was founded in 2016 by two scientists at the Jenner Institute, Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford vaccinology professor, and Adrian Hill, the institute’s director. The work on what became the Vaccine was conducted at Oxford’s Jenner Institute. The institute, named after British smallpox-vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner, is one of the world’s foremost centers for vaccine study. Its stated byline is “developing innovative vaccines.” In addition to the University of Oxford, there are many funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

At the start of 2020, the Jenner Institute was making an Ebola-virus vaccine in its small manufacturing plant. In mid-January 2020, shortly after the new coronavirus started spreading globally, Chinese scientists released its genetic sequence. The next day, the Jenner Institute team got to work. The idea was that the Jenner Institute and Vaccitech would work in tandem, speeding up lab research to boost chances for developing a vaccine that was effective against the COVID-19 virus. Profs Gilbert and Hill developed what was to become the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine which they patented. The University is the biggest shareholder of Vaccitech and owns 50%. Vaccitech creates vaccines and treatments for profit. Profs Gilbert and Hill remain at Oxford but also help oversee Vaccitech.

Vaccitech was an early product of Oxford’s initiative to make the university more commercially competitive in technology and life sciences. When Vaccitech set up shop, OSI received a big founding stake and has invested more since then, supporting Vaccitech as it struggled to turn its research into commercial hits prior to the COIVD-19 pandemic starting in early 2020. Vaccitech has other private shareholders as well, but Oxford holds significant influence.

As the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic became increasingly evident as 2020 wore on, the University began to consider how it’s new vaccine could be rolled out on a global scale. There were many interesting challenges that are typical when going from an idea to seizing an opportunity. In this case, there were two inventors, Profs. Gilbert and Hill, who worked at the University (the Jenner Institute) and had co-founded a separate company (Vaccitech). Vaccitech was supported by OSI, a commercial enterprise, and yet also working with OUI. All of this occurs within the bosom of the broader community of a taxpayer-funded University with its own ideals, ethos and reputation.

Now, given the urgency of the need for a solution to an evolving pandemic, the University had to sort out how to roll out a vaccine on a global scale. In light of the enormity of the task, who were the best partners? What to do next? How to solve a global problem? And all of this needed to be done with urgency. This was a classic case of innovation and entrepreneurship in action.

*NOTE: Not all details of commercial arrangements between the various relevant parties have been publicly disclosed at this time. I have attempted to be as accurate as possible with the information available at this time. Please note, as a result, that the information in this blog post is subject to further revisions for accuracy and we regret any omissions or inaccuracies.