University College London & Barclays launch ‘venture builder’ for deep tech start-ups


Barclays and University College London (UCL) have announced the launch of Conception X, a ‘venture builder’ that creates investable, early-stage deep tech start-ups founded by the nation’s best and brightest PhD students.

The initiative will enable PhDs in UCL’s top-ranked Computer Science programme to transform their dissertation into a deep tech start-up. The launch cohort, starting 27 February, consists of 27 teams exploring deep tech areas across verticals such as finance and health. This will, for the first time, extend the programme to candidates from other universities outside of UCL.

Over a nine-month period the teams will work on their business idea in a sustained effort to create a viable start-up. They will benefit from quarterly goal-based mentoring sessions with not only seasoned entrepreneurs and academics, but also potential investors and future clients – helping to finesse their proposition and boost their chances of funding after graduation.

Teams can also partner with an intraprenuer within a corporate to apply deep tech to an issue they would like to solve. This provides another opportunity to connect with potential clients and sheds light on real problems from industry.

Aside from being significantly longer than a typical ‘incubator’ programme, Conception X is unique in that students retain all IP associated with their project.

Barclays and UCL piloted Conception X with 14 teams last year, building a range of deep tech start-ups exploring areas such as AI, quantum computing, blockchain and augmented reality. All teams significantly developed their business idea, six emerged as fully-fledged start-ups, and many secured their first clients in addition to further funding.

Following the successful trial, Barclays has invested £1.2m to launch Conception X with UCL. The funding will also enable Conception X to scale to other leading universities across the UK over the next few years.

In addition, Barclays will support Conception X teams through Eagle Labs, one of the largest co-working, collaboration and incubator networks for start-ups and scale-ups in the UK. Whilst on the programme, Barclays’ Eagle Labs team will offer ongoing mentorship, access to funding and a network of potential investors and clients. Upon completion, Conception X teams are welcome to base their operations in any of the 21 Eagle Labs across the country.

The launch of Conception X follows the creation in April last year of a new business unit at Barclays called Barclays UK (BUK) Ventures. BUK Ventures has an independent mandate to deliver new customer experiences at pace and scale – ultimately driving growth for communities, business and Barclays – and is responsible for driving forward this venture builder with UCL.

Conception X builds on the mission of BUK Ventures to ensure that emerging technology in ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ is inclusive and accessible to everyone. In 2018 the team hosted over 40 AI Frenzy events – gatherings for anyone interested in AI to hear about and discuss the latest developments in the area – with over 4,000 people in attendance. With the opening of Conception X, the team continues to support diversity in deep tech: the launch cohort will include three all-female teams and six with at least one female founder.

Steven Roberts, Managing Director of Barclays UK Ventures, said: “Deep tech has the potential to transform communities, business and society, but only if talented individuals are given the opportunity to explore the art of the possible. We strongly believe that everyone should have that chance, which is why we’re partnering with UCL to launch Conception X. This will create the perfect space for the best and brightest students to experiment in fields that will shape the future.”

Riam Kanso, Lead of Conception X and Head of Student Entrepreneurship, UCL Engineering, said: “PhD students are often encouraged to go into academia or business after graduation but Conception X provides a third path: becoming an entrepreneur. Our partnership with Barclays will ensure students have the best chance of success. Not only will they have access to research infrastructure and the ability to experiment with riskier technologies as a result of being in an academic environment – they will also be plugged into sources of funding and growth, bringing together the best of both our networks.”