“You can make a holding company profitable, but it takes a bit of luck.”
Net investment profits for Uppsala university’s holding company UU Holding totalled MSEK 170. The companies in its investment portfolio today employ 450 individuals, have sales of approximately MSEK 450 and are valued at SEK 5 billion. This autumn, Lars Jonsson, CEO of UU Holding since 1998, retires and hands over a very successful investment business to his successor. “UU Holding is nothing short of a success story,” writes Uppsala BIO’s Erik Forsberg. Lars Jonsson has proven that it is possible to make a holding company profitable.
From both a national and international perspective, UU Holding maintains a top-level position in terms of financial profitability for a holding company. Since its inception about 20 years ago, it has invested approximately MSEK 130 in 95 projects and companies related to research at Uppsala University. Fifty-two of these remain in today’s portfolio, 20 have been sold while 23 have been closed down. Correcting for value increases, the net profit from UU Holding’s investments is a grand total of MSEK 170, despite the fact that its mission is to invest early on when the commercial risks are significant and private investors wary.
Wealth development averages 39% per year
Companies in UU Holding’s portfolio currently have 450 employees, sales of approximately MSEK 450 million and are valued at SEK 5 billion. UU Holding’s equity, which is reinvested in new projects and companies linked to Uppsala University, amounts to MSEK 75, which is the highest in the country. Wealth development has so far averaged 39% annually, and the business cannot be regarded as anything other than a huge success story for Uppsala University and the companies supported by UU Holding, partly financially and partly through the expertise of CEO Lars Jonsson’s leadership.
Lars Jonsson, CEO UU Holding
Challenging business model – yet strong profitability nonetheless
“It is possible to make a holding company profitable, but it takes a little luck,” says Lars Jonsson rather humbly.
The background to this statement is the fact that most holding companies linked to Swedish and international universities are not actually profitable: the business model is not easy to reconcile with profitability. In the United States, for example, only about one tenth of all so-called technology transfer offices (equivalent to Swedish university holding companies) are profitable. UU Holding belongs to this exclusive 10%.
Why run the remaining 90% of holding companies / technology transfer offices, you may ask? The answer is that they are considered very important in the innovation support system that surrounds most of the world’s universities. Thanks to these companies, promising projects and ventures derived from university research receive both early-stage ‘soft’ capital as well as skills support. Moreover, when they are as successful as UU Holding, the surplus generated can be reinvested in new young ventures.
Investments create value for innovation companies
Is it therefore possible, in the next step, to prove that this support (in UU Holding’s case, approximately MSEK 130 of invested funds) also repays its way back to society in the sense that it catalyses growth in these fledgling businesses?
That question does not have an equally clear-cut answer. The short reply is that this cannot be proved unequivocally because you cannot know what would have happened if UU Holding had not invested in the companies.
But what everyone can clearly see is the huge commercial value of UU Holding companies today as evidenced by their value, number of employees and turnover. In other words, the innovative companies that UU Holding and others invested in generally make excellent progress on their journey to success, gaining, for example, a broad spectrum of users in a commercial marketplace.
Allows the university to understand challenges
“Knowledge transfer is also two-way communication, which gives universities an understanding of the challenges in society – sometimes even concrete knowledge,”says Lars Jonsson, who continues:
“Through a small yet very early funding, UU Holding provides both legitimacy and money to cover initial costs for which soft contribution money cannot be used. We can also support negotiations with more commercially-minded investors and help create early corporate contacts,” he says. “For companies such as BioArctic and Q-Linea, this was crucial for them to commit themselves fully from the very beginning.”
Innovation combined with scientific advances
When, like Lars Jonsson, one is given the task of supporting innovation at a university like Uppsala, it is important to ensure that the operations do not create a conflict between the entrepreneurial success of university researchers at the receiving end of the support and their continued scientific production.
“However, studies show quite clearly that researchers who commercialise innovations most often belong to the academic elite in their area, and that their academic productivity is usually better developed than colleagues who are not so commercially active,” says Lars Jonsson.
One example where UU Holding provided early support is the analysis and diagnostics company Olink Bioscience. This venture, developed by Professor Ulf Landegren’s research team at Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology, Uppsala University, is an excellent example of symbiosis between research and business development. From the deal surrounding Olink Bioscience, two spin-off companies – Halogenomics and Q Linea – were also started up.
Professor Ulf Landegren, Uppsala University
“When we started Olink in 2004, I was keen that the university, which formed the very breeding ground for the venture, would be a co-owner of the company, and the same applied to other businesses we later spun out,” says Ulf Landegren. “Only afterwards have I understood how valuable it was to have had Lars Jonsson and UU Holding in these initiatives.”
The profit for the holding company after two of these businesses were sold on in 2011 was approximately 20 MSEK million (10 MSEK million from both Olink and Halogenomics).
“UU Holding made us credible”
Another example of successful companies that received early support from UU Holding is BioArctic, which has its origins in Lars Lannfelt’s research at Uppsala University’s Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Rudbeck Laboratory.
“The early investment from UU Holding was very important for BioArctic and the company’s first CEO, Pär Gellerfors. It gave the company a hallmark of quality and made it credible,” says Lars Lannfelt. The company’s listing on Nasdaq Stockholm Stock Exchange in 2017 generated a total of MSEK 23 for UU Holding.
UU Holding’s portfolio and operations today constitute a very strong activity plus an important support for researchers connected to Uppsala University. Soon, Lars Jansson’s successor in the CEO post will be appointed. It will be very interesting to follow the continuation of UU Holding’s success story.
BRIEF FACTS: LARS JONSSON
CEO of Uppsala University Holding AB 1998-2018. Background as a medical doctor and researcher in anaesthesiology, including service at Uppsala University Hospital. Was Hospital Director in Östersund for six years. Started the business that is currently UU Holding in 1998. Previously responsible for building up the university’s so-called Innovation Office, UU Innovation, in parallel with being CEO of the holding company.
BRIEF FACTS: HOLDING COMPANY
Since Swedish universities are not allowed to make financial gains from business ventures, the government has established holding companies at several universities and colleges. These higher education institutes can then contribute to economic growth and support the commercialisation of appropriate research ideas. UU Holding has a separate financial standing from the university and receives no economic subsidy from it. Nor can it share in any profits that may accrue.
Read more: www.holding.uu.se
Ph.D., Associate Professor, CEO
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