Reseachers finding routes to market

25 Nov 2004

Dr John Murphy from the Department of Computer Science at University College Dublin set the tone for the recent Wireless Wednesday event, entitled Commercialising Wireless Research, at Dublin City University’s (DCU) Invent Centre when he said: “From day one, we’ve been interested only in research with commercial potential. It could take 10 years or even longer to happen but we’re not interested in pure basic research.”

He was one of several top researchers from third-level institutions around the country who spoke about their latest projects and, just as importantly, how they hoped to make money from them. Such an aspiration might have been laughable a decade ago when simple survival was the name of the game for most research teams. This is generally no longer the case, however, thanks to the money pouring in from a variety of sources.

For example, Murphy explained how his research group, which was established in 1998, had swollen to 33 researchers including five PhDs and had received €2.5m in funding in the past three years, mostly from Enterprise Ireland (EI). One of the EI-funded projects currently under way involves finding ways of improving the delivery of multimedia content over Wi-Fi by eliminating the ‘jitter’ syndrome, ie when video and audio break up during transmission.

Murphy noted that the focus is firmly on the user experience rather than the technology. “The user wants to move across different networks seamlessly so we are looking at how multimedia content can be accessed seamlessly across different networks,” he explained.

When it comes to commercialising technology, setting up a campus company is the vehicle that instantly springs to mind but, as Murphy emphasised, there are several other options open to researchers. These include selling the intellectual property to the highest bidder and seeking extra funding, say €50,000, to get the project to prototype stage.

Murphy’s preferred route was to establish a campus company and have someone else run it. “If a campus company is set up, the big question is who should run it. If the research leader runs it, his or her own research unit will die,” he noted.

The Centre for Telecommunications Value Chain Driven Research (CTVR) at Trinity College Dublin receives substantial funding from private as well as public sources. The centre, which focuses on testing and reliability systems for advanced networks, is a beneficiary of the €69m Bell Labs/Lucent research and development investment announced earlier this year.

It has also received major funding from Science Foundation Ireland as part of its Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology programme, which aims to set up research centres of excellence in a variety of disciplines. This dual-funding structure strongly influences the way the
CTVR commercialises its research, according to Dr Donal O’Mahony, co-director of the facility.

He noted that not only was the research programme heavily shaped by Lucent but that the US communications equipment maker will also get involved in commercialising the technology by, for example, contributing patents to start-ups or licensing technology for its own use of that of its partners.

Having an industry ally that can open doors would be invaluable, said Dr Mark Davis of the Communications Network Research Institute at Dublin Institute of Technology. The key to commercialisation is having the right contacts, he argued. “The biggest problem we face is getting access to the right people in the right companies; getting someone to open doors and make introductions.”

Mícheál Ó Foghlú, research director at the Telecommunications Software Systems Group (TSSG) at Waterford Institute of Technology, felt that Irish research teams are generally too small in scale and needed to be ramped up. This would increase their chances of success, he believed. “The key is to build up critical mass because we believe that things happen when they are already happening.”

He added that the TSSG’s structure was “unorthodox” in that it had a commercialisation division as well as research and operations divisions and that the whole ethos of the group was to be very market driven and responsive to the needs of industry partners. This had helped it attract funding, he said, and get to the stage where the TSSG had upwards of 17 projects under way at any one time.

Encouragingly, a number of the speakers were able to point to successful cases of commercialisation or potential candidates for same. For example, Professor Dermot Diamond of the National Centre for Sensor Research at DCU, noted that Swiss chemical company Fluka had licensed its sodium-sensing technology; while another innovation — a liquid measurement technology used to measure the properties of Scotch whisky among other things — had been spun off into a separate company and was being sold under the brand name ClearCense worldwide.

Likewise, Fergus O’Reilly of the Adaptive Wireless Systems Centre in the Electronic Engineering Department of Cork Institute of Technology, explained how a Cork-based company is using wireless technology developed at the centre to embed sensors in hurling helmets and sliotars to trace who had the ball for longest, who ran most, how often any player hit the ball and so on. The company believes that this technology would be a valuable training aid for the GAA.

As members of more recently formed teams, other speakers had yet to taste the fruits of success. Yet none was disputing the principle of turning science into marketable technology. O’Mahony summed up the feelings of all the participants when he observed that researchers now realised that they had obligations to society as well as science.

“As academics we serve two masters: on the one hand we want our research to be among the best in the world; simultaneously, we want to generate value for Ireland Inc and for the taxpayer.”

By Brian Skelly