Leaders’ Insights: Alison Campbell, Knowledge Transfer Ireland

29 Mar 2017

Alison Campbell, director of KTI. Image: Fennell Photography

Alison Campbell is the director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland.

Alison Campbell moved into the UK biotech industry after gaining a PhD in protein engineering from Imperial College London and, from there, into the commercialisation of research. She headed up technology transfer offices in the UK for the Medical Research Council and a top-tier university.

In 2013, Campbell came to Dublin to establish Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), a joint venture between Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Universities Association.

With experience as a non-executive director, working at board level in various international technology transfer associations, she is currently chair-elect of the Association of University Technology Managers in the USA.

Campbell received an OBE for her services to knowledge transfer in 2010.

Describe your role and what you do.

The role of KTI is to make it simpler for enterprise to access and engage with publicly funded research. The goal is to maximise engagement to drive innovation and competitiveness, primarily for industry and entrepreneurs, but this also applies to research teams, and the universities and institutes of technology in which they work. There is a wealth of expertise, ideas, technologies and intellectual property within our Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), on-the-ground people and technology transfer offices.

My job is to raise awareness of what is available, demystify the system and processes involved, and provide practical tools and resources to help both enterprise and the academic side to negotiate the right kinds of arrangements that underpin the business relationships. The role spans a broad range of activities including strategy and policy, communications, managing funding programmes and professional development; and it draws on my early skills in IP, contracts and negotiation. It also gives me the opportunity to get to know and work with some interesting people in industry, investment, and in the research and technology transfer community.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Having a clear focus on what we aim to achieve and how we will get there is crucial. At KTI, we work to a long-term strategic plan, which allows us to set shorter-term goals, and we test ourselves against these regularly. Having some big projects and clear timelines is really helpful, not just in terms of focus; it is also energising. It is easy to get distracted, particularly in a job such as this, where part of the role is to be helpful. But the road to hell is paved with good intent and so, one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn professionally is to say no, which you can only do if you understand the parameters.

That said, one of the joys of the job is the variability of the role and the need for flexibility. So long as I know what I need to get done in a week, I can roll with what the days might bring me in addition. It’s all about balance, judgement – and having a great team to work with.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

KTI was created to help companies to understand why, how and where to engage with public research and expertise, and to make it easier to do so. So, this tops the list.

KTI is a national resource where enterprises can find, in one place, the information it needs to help them on their innovation journey, at whatever point in that journey they happen to be. On the other side, a challenge for the technology transfer offices in our universities and institutes is how thinly they are stretched. As the volume and complexity of commercialisation and research partnerships increase, what they are asked to do today is significantly more than five years ago.

And that’s where we come in, encouraging best practice and offering tools to simplify the processes so that both sides can focus on the issues that matter and reach agreements faster.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

It is proven that companies that innovate are more competitive, and this is crucial for attracting, creating and maintaining high-value jobs as well as developing, nurturing and investing in teams. That is why getting companies engaged with new ideas and expertise in our HEIs is an amazing opportunity.

We are fortunate in Ireland in that there are lots of funding and people supports available to facilitate this. We are increasingly seeing companies gaining confidence in working with HEIs, through their own positive experiences. We’ve also seen some good things happen in the spin-out company space recently, and I think the new Atlantic Bridge University Bridge Fund initiated by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin will be a real game-changer, particularly as it is a fund that can follow on. The €60m fund is dedicated to spin-outs from Irish HEIs, a traditionally challenging area for investors due to the early nature of the opportunities and time to market – we don’t see a lot of patient capital in the sector.

At KTI, we are looking to see how we can help in supporting best practice in the processes that underpin spin-out company transactions.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I had the privilege to work with some fantastic scientists during my PhD, and gained the insight to see that I wasn’t destined to be one of them. I realised that getting research into use was something that excited me and that’s the path I’ve followed since, in a variety of roles. But it hasn’t been a carefully mapped-out route; rather, more about serendipity and an open mind. I like new challenges and there have been great opportunities for personal growth and development, both in the job and through taking on additional roles – it’s amazing what you find you can do when you try. I have also been very fortunate in my career in that I have encountered people who are willing to see the potential and take a chance on me.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Underestimating myself. Early in my commercialisation career, we were given a new technology breakthrough with commercial potential. After many discussions with the researcher, I still couldn’t quite ‘get it’. I assumed it was my inability to grasp the science. I brought in an external business expert to help me and to help drive the business proposition. Eventually, we discovered that the reason it wasn’t clear was because it wasn’t reproducible and the researcher had backed themselves into a corner at an earlier stage.

Time wasted, lessons learned. Ask the right questions. Be tenacious. Listen to your instinct. Now I try to apply the principle that if I can’t explain a plan or concept simply to someone so they can understand it, it probably needs reworking.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Setting clear goals, both short-term and long-term, is extremely helpful. People know what they are doing and why and how we connect, and they have ways to measure their progress.

Trust and empowerment are key too. Trust must be earned, but can be earned quickly when people are open about what they do, so it’s about encouraging that kind of environment.

Recognising and sharing achievements, in both the big and little stuff, is also important. I’m lucky, as we are a small team and so we all pull together. We are the sum of the parts and we recognise that. We’ve just undergone an independent review of KTI’s progress in its first three years of operation and it has been great to see such positive feedback. While leadership and direction play a role, it is a reflection of what we have been able to achieve together. 


Alison Campbell. Image: KTI

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

In the academic research commercialisation sector, I still see a lack of women in top positions in Ireland. Not so in the USA, where the heads of the technology transfer offices at both MIT and Stanford are women. Research indicates confounding factors include lack of role models, low self-confidence, lower levels of risk-taking and limited access to the right networks.

The Enterprise Ireland Female Entrepreneurship Unit has had a great deal of success. By specifically targeting and encouraging women, we are already seeing a surge in the number of new female entrepreneurs in Ireland. We already have a number of strong women in senior positions in the Irish venture capital community.

In the higher education sector, the HEA advocates equality, and the recent awards from Athena SWAN Charters – an international ‘quality mark’ for equality – to a number of universities are cause for encouragement.

But it is still a work in progress. I’d encourage women to step up and step out. We have the role models if you look for them.

Who is your role model and why?

My husband. As a high-performing VP for R&D in a major multinational, I have always been impressed with the way that he managed to achieve a work-life balance and to promote that environment at work. His investment in developing people and performance is obvious when you meet his staff and hear from them. It seems that bringing integrity, fairness and authenticity to work pays off. He is a formidable feminist and never stands in the way of ambition.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I love books that can take you to new places and experiences. Two of the most memorable I’ve read are: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which is a powerful and emotionally challenging novel that centres around a group of New York professionals and unfolds over a number of years; and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which describes the Nigerian civil war through the lives of ordinary people. I also love beautifully written books and How to Eat by Nigella Lawson falls into that category. It was a Christmas present some years ago and formed the basis of my holiday reading that year.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My diary and my phone. A pen and paper, for notes, lists and the joy of striking things off. Sparking off other people. A sense of purpose. Trying to see the funny side. Tea and KitKats.

The annual KTI Impact Awards will be held at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin 8, on Thursday 30th March. The awards recognise the achievements of HEIs and publicly funded research organisations in carrying out knowledge transfer in Ireland.