#22 Starting a business in Oxford

Boasting business survival rates of 44%, Oxford is bursting with talent and business support. But is it the right location for your start-up?

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Why should you start a business in Oxford?

One of the oldest and most prestigious seats of learning in the world, Oxford continues to be at the forefront of cutting-edge developments in a variety of sectors. Businesses in knowledge-based industries like aerospace, engineering and life sciences choosing to locate here will find a wealth of expertise, infrastructure and collaboration opportunities in the city.

The world-class University of Oxford is closely connected with business activity in the city, and many successful start-ups begin as spin-outs from the institution. Notable alumni from the university include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Eventbrite co-founder Kevin Hartz.

Population: 159,600

The well-educated talent base in the city has also given rise to a burgeoning technology and creative cluster, earning Oxford recognition as one of the UK’s top 10 creative “hotspots” (according to innovation charity Nesta).

Despite its rather small size, Oxford has good transport links, with London Paddington just one hour away by train. Oxford Airport is located close by, but only serves regional destinations; for international links, the busy London Heathrow is around an hour’s drive. The picturesque city is quiet and compact, and getting around it is a fairly simple process.

Access to talent in Oxford

business talent72,500: Working age population with NVQ Level 4 and above (2015)
£589: Average full-time weekly earnings (2016)
2: Universities

The University of Oxford almost needs no introduction. One of the oldest universities in the world, it is consistently ranked amongst the top five globally and enjoys a peerless reputation amongst employers. Local businesses looking to recruit will find more than 22,000 of the UK’s best and brightest students and graduates right on their doorstep.

The University’s technology transfer subsidiary, Oxford University Innovation – changed from Isis Innovation in 2016 – helps businesses and academics research and commercialise their ideas and technology through a three-pronged business model. It has helped to launch more than 110 companies in the last 25 years with the start-up incubator supporting over 40 entrepreneurial ventures thus far.

Number of new start-ups (2015):685  – see how this compares with other cities

Oxford is also home to the modern Oxford Brookes University, located just outside the city centre. Whilst it lives in the shadow of its more prestigious neighbour, it is a well-regarded institution in its own right (ranked in the top 50 in the UK) with a particularly strong pedigree in architecture.

The universities’ dominating presence in the city has unsurprisingly resulted in a highly educated and qualified population. 63.4% of the workforce have NVQ Level 4 qualifications or above, second only to Cambridge (66.5%). Additionally, almost a quarter of employment in the Science Vale cluster is in professional, scientific and technical activities, compared with a South East regional average of just 8%.

While salaries are still considerably lower than London, the access to high numbers of skilled personnel has seen the weekly average increase, with Oxford now joint highest with Cambridge at £589 per week on average.

Access to business support in Oxford

business support1: Accelerators
3: Science parks

Business support in the Oxfordshire LEP is centred around the Science Vale UK Enterprise Zone, one of the most well-regarded science park complexes in the UK. Located 20 minutes drive from central Oxford, the 92-hectare site offers world-leading science facilities and access to research, alongside an extensive range of options when it comes to laboratory and office space.

Science businesses choosing to locate in Science Vale will be working alongside several leading science and technology companies including Infotec, Infineum, and Oxford Instruments, and will benefit from the usual range of incentives offered to Enterprise Zone businesses, including simplified planning, business rates discounts of up to £275,000, and superfast broadband.

Survival rates (2010-2015):45%

In line with Oxford’s reputation as an innovation centre, small businesses in the area can also access R&D tax credits of 225%. The Science Vale Enterprise Zone encompasses the two separate sites of Harwell Oxford and MEPC Milton Park – Harwell, in particular, is known for its work with the European Space Agency.

Science and technology businesses looking for nurturing environments elsewhere are spoilt for choice in Oxfordshire. Culham Science Centre, owned by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, specialises in cutting-edge nuclear fusion research and plays host to a number of commercial technology organisations alongside smaller start-ups hosted in its Innovation Centre.

Oxford Science Park is another option – operated as a joint venture between the University’s Magdalen College and Prudential, the site aims to become a “centre of excellence” for science, technology and business occupiers.

Most of these complexes offer some forms of support, knowledge transfer and networking opportunities to start-ups. More intensive support is available for software business through the Isis Software Incubator, which supports nascent ventures in the development of products or services through its facility in Summertown (although it doesn’t provide any direct investment).

Businesses in other sectors looking for office, lab or warehousing space have a good range of options. There are a number of commercial property parks in the surrounding Oxfordshire area, including Abingdon Business Park, Banbury, and Oxford Business Parks – a full list can be found here.

Oxford currently has a number of co-working facilities – WORKSPACE OXFORD, located a short walk from the city centre, The Old Music Hall, operated by Ethical Property and offering shared meeting rooms and a “communal breakout space” and HATCH, a co-work space and makervault (a converted vault set up for experimentation and prototyping, including a 3D printer and other tools).

Access to grants and funding in Oxford

business funding

Whether you are a seed-stage start-up or a fast-growth business, Oxford offers a good number of options when it comes to funding. Straightforward grant funding for non-social enterprises is, however, thin on the ground.

For smaller businesses, the Oxfordshire LEP offers ‘Innovation Support Vouchers’ which allow small and medium-sized enterprises to claim 50% (up to a maximum of £5,000 per voucher) of the cost of business training, mentoring, or access to specialised facilities which will drive the creation of jobs. This opportunity is currently closed, but future schemes will be announced on the website so it’s worth checking back.

Additionally, if you are experiencing difficulty obtaining funding from traditional sources, the Fredericks Foundation could help; the charity offers business advice and loans to start-ups struggling to raise the finance they need elsewhere.

Number of business deaths (2015):480

On the angel investment side, Oxford Early Investments provides backing of between £25,000 and £250,000 to innovative early-stage companies through its network of investors. The network is not sector-specific, and backs companies in the early stages of technical and commercial development with high growth potential.

For larger companies, the Oxford Investment Opportunity Network typically invests larger amounts of between £200,000 and £2m through its network. Whilst funding is, again, not sector specific, the organisation has a “particular interest” in companies with innovative or patented disruptive technologies.

Oxford’s pedigree and network of support means that its start-up companies do especially well compared to the rest of the country and it has a start-up survival rate of 45% (businesses launched in 2010 and still trading in 2015), however this is markedly less than its rival Cambridge which boasts survival rates of 49%.

Quality of life in Oxford

quality of life£427,140: Property price average (September 2016)
30.71: Crimes per 1,000 people (June 2015)
22.5mbps: Average broadband speed (2014)

Oxford is one of the best known historic cities in the UK, and boasts an enviable array of cultural, historic and entertainment attractions for such a small city. As you might expect, the University’s long presence here (the first colleges were established in the mid-1200s) provides the lynchpin of much of the city’s employment and lifestyle. Many of the colleges themselves feature appealing historical architecture, and are tourist attractions in their own right.

The Ashmolean Museum is one of the world’s most famous historic museums and contains artifacts and archaeological finds from across history, sourced from around the world. The stately home of Blenheim Palace, a stunning example of 18th century Baroque architecture, is another popular attraction. These are just some of many; the Visit Oxford site contains a more detailed index of the myriad diversions available.

The city has particularly impressive architecture, some of which dates back to the late Saxon period. The landmarks of Christ Church Cathedral, St. George’s Tower, the Church of St Mary the Virgin and more contribute to Oxford’s world-famous ‘dreaming spires’, and it is little wonder that the area continues to inspire authors, artists and filmmakers. The city is built around several rivers, most notably the River Isis (what the Thames is known as in Oxford) and the River Cherwell, famous for its punting and rowing.

Oxford’s large student population also drives a lively nightlife and live music scene across the centre, so it is not all Inspector Morse and punting by any means.

As you might expect, the trade-off of living in such a prosperous, picturesque city is a high cost of living. The average house price in Oxfordshire stands at a steep £427,140 second only to rival university city Cambridge (£446,796). Crime, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, coming in at the lowest on our list.

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