Oxford University creates its 200th spinout company PhishAR

22 October 2020

Cybersecurity company PhishAR becomes the University’s 200th spinout, while the institution’s companies collectively raised over $1bn in the past year

Oxford University, through its research commercialisation arm Oxford University Innovation, has created its 200th company based on academic research, PhishAR.
PhishAR builds on the work of Professor Ivan Martinovic and Dr Ivo Sluganovic from Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, and employs augmented reality to crack down on “phishing”, an online scamming technique which fools a user into handing over their digital security credentials and other sensitive information, such as personal data or credit card details.

The cybercrime is typically achieved through utilisation of fake websites or emails that replicate the genuine article, such as an email from a bank or an employer’s website. The fakes may appear as a near-perfect facsimile of the original, and may also use already obtained user information to form a sophisticated attack (spear phishing) or purposefully target senior members in an organisation for maximum gain (whaling).

PhishAR will help users identify fraudulent emails, websites and other online materials by scanning what is presented on screen and comparing it to genuine versions in its database. Discrepancies such as style and formatting, spelling and grammar, URLs used in the code, information the material looks to receive from the user, and other indicators will all be employed in order to highlight red flags to the user. The company intends for the software to help mitigate the impact of phishing, which results in several hundred thousand reported cases and costs individuals and organisations billions of dollars every year.

Phish AR’s seed round was led by Artur Kluz of Kluz Ventures, and has been accepted onto the MasterCard StartPath Programme to accelerate its development.
More recently, the University has seen a flurry of companies in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (including imaging diagnostics companies capable of identifying Alzheimer’s Disease and heart attacks before they happen), quantum computing (and incidental technologies in its development such as quantum-era cryptography and cybersecurity), and COVID-19. The University has produced two companies in the past few months to advance both ventilator and testing technologies for COVID-19, and another, Vaccitech, incorporates in its vaccine candidates the same adenovirus platform technology that is used in the COVID-19 vaccine licensed by OUI to AstraZeneca.

This milestone comes at a significant point in Oxford’s ongoing research commercialisation, with Oxford spinout companies having raised £880.2m ($1.14bn) in external fundraising over the past financial year, eclipsing previous records. The innovation boom in Oxford driven by the creation and growth of these companies is fuelling an influx of talent and investment to Oxford’s innovation ecosystem, known as the Oxford Cluster.

Ivan Martinovic, Professor of Computer Science said: “Conventionally, service providers have been authenticating the end-user, which is a one-sided process, while the end-user struggles to know who they are communicating with, and this is what criminals are continuing to exploit, on an ever-increasing scale. PhishAR’s innovation is in using augmented reality and artificial intelligence to see through their user’s eyes and ensure that they are “authenticating the authenticator”. Before any credentials are provided, PhishAR checks who is requesting the users’ credentials. PhishAR is the only proven mechanism to allow the end user to authenticate and identify with whom they are communicating, and thereby dramatically reduce the risk from harmful phishing attacks while offering a seamless integration and minimal costs with existing authentication systems.”

Adam Stoten, Chief Operating Officer at Oxford University Innovation, said:
“PhishAR and its mission to safeguard millions of people ever year against cybercrime is a company worthy of Spinout #200, and we warmly welcome the team to the Oxford spinout family. While it took Oxford 55 years to get from Spinout #1 to Spinout #100, it took us a mere six years to reach 200. Consequently, we look forward to announcing our 300th spinout and many more companies in the near term.”

Chas Bountra, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Innovation at Oxford University, added:
“These 200 companies are testament to Oxford’s research and its ability to have impact, and underline our status as the world’s number one university. Through our innovation, we’re tackling the world’s biggest killers, we’re tackling the biggest challenges of our era, and we’re building the infrastructure for tomorrow’s world – all while creating jobs and economic impact. Oxford may be an institution with its roots deep in the past, but we’re demonstrating that we can also have a fundamental effect on shaping the future.”

Notes to Editors

For further information, please contact : news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

About Oxford’s Spinouts
PhishAR is just one example of Oxford’s research being turned into real world impact through its spinout companies. Beginning in 1959 with the creation of research device manufacturer Oxford Instruments, the University has created companies in fields across the sciences. With 200 spinout companies under its belt, Oxford University is the most prolific creator of high-tech companies based on academic research in the United Kingdom, and is a global leader in the field of university innovation.
Examples of Oxford’s companies in action include:

  • Oxford Nanopore Technologies – a UK “unicorn” company developing DNA sequencers and presently involved in rapid diagnostics for COVID-19
  • NaturalMotion – a gaming company which developed the animation platform based on Zoology research for gaming mega-hits Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2. 
  • Oxbotica – the UK’s leading force in autonomous vehicle navigation systems.
  • First Light Fusion – a company working to achieve fusion, a potentially limitless energy supply, free from carbon emissions or fossil fuels.
  • Nightstar Therapeutics – a gene therapy firm developing treatments for rare retinal diseases, acquired by Biogen in 2019.

The University is also now developing social enterprises – companies which prioritise a social impact mission – and has created eight such ventures since its programme began two years ago. Oxford also supports the creation of startups (companies which do not utilise university research but are created by staff, students and alumni) through its Foundry, Bioescalator, Business School and the OUI Incubator, the latter of which has created 40 firms since its opened its doors nine years ago. In terms of spinouts, startups and social enterprises, OUI is responsible for the creation of nearly 250 companies since it began in 1987.

About Oxford University
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fourth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions. Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 170 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years.