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Cambridge scientists form partnership to boost tech start-ups

Eight superstar scientists from Cambridge have agreed to co-found a partnership investing in technologies ranging from artificial intelligence and space to brain research and genetics.

Their Ahren fund has already pulled in more than £100m from outside investors and expects to raise substantially more money during the autumn.

The founder and managing partner of Ahren is Alice Newcombe-Ellis, a Cambridge university maths and physics graduate turned fund manager, who persuaded eight of the city’s best-known research leaders and scientific entrepreneurs to join her partnership as “science partners”.

They have put significant sums of their own money into Ahren, and are expected to play a more active role in running the fund than a scientific advisory board. Outside investors include Aviva, Wittington Investments and wealthy US families.

Ahren might sound like a venture capital fund, but Ms Newcombe-Ellis said: “Ours is a completely different model to anything out there.”

Differences include the close involvement of the well-connected science partners, the focus on high-risk, high-reward business opportunities, and being prepared to hold investments for a long time.

Ahren plans to invest in four overlapping fields: the brain and AI; genetics and biotechnology; space and robotics; and energy and environmental technologies.

Alice Newcombe-Ellis: ‘Ours is a completely different model to anything out there’

The first investment is a $10m stake in Cambridge Epigenetix, a biotech company developing tests for gene activity in disease.

It was co-founded by DNA sequencing pioneer Shankar Balasubramanian, who is also one of Ahren’s eight science partners.

Ms Newcombe-Ellis said that, after Sir Shankar recommended Ahren invest in Cambridge Epigenetix there was extensive consultation with the fund’s investors and the company’s shareholders.

She added that Ahren had conducted a due diligence exercise, which Sir Shankar did not take part in, to make sure there could not be any concern about possible conflicts of interest.

“We consider it a major positive for Ahren to have privileged access to invest in the latest technologies of our successful founding science partners,” she added.

Future investments under consideration by Ahren include one in quantum technology to increase energy efficiency, and another in “interpretable machine learning”, which enables AI to explain its decisions — so that consumers can be told why they have been turned down for insurance or a mortgage, for example.

Professor Andy Parker, head of physics at Cambridge university, said he had become a science partner with Ahren because the fund was an appealing contrast to his previous poor experience of UK investment in science-based companies. 

“The approach I have seen from investors here is to look for very big returns in a very short period, which makes it hard to carry out good long-term research and development,” he added.

Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific body, said he was excited to be one of Ahren’s science partners.

“The vision of investing in companies that can really make a big impact on the world — and supporting them for the long haul — appeals to me,” he added. “A big problem in Britain is innovative companies selling out too quickly, usually to Americans.”

Other scientific partners include professors John Daugman and Zoubin Ghahramani in AI and machine learning, Steve Jackson and Greg Winter in pharmaceuticals and bioscience, and Martin Rees in astrophysics.


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