Europe needs to focus more on blue-sky research to drive innovation

11 Oct 2017

Image: Maynooth University

It’s time to aim higher, urges Peter Conlon of Maynooth University’s Commercialisation Office.

To feed Europe’s momentum in commercialisation and tech transfer out of its universities, there is a need to focus more on blue-sky research opportunities.

That’s the view of Maynooth University commercialisation executive Peter Conlon who was speaking ahead of the university’s Connect 2017 event on 23 October at Carton House.

‘If we focus only on the short-term impacts all the time, we lose sight of the big revolutions that are possible’

Conlon said that a key aspect of this year’s event will be collaboration with partners in the academic and commercialisation landscape across Europe.

As well as discussing progress in terms of investment support from Enterprise Ireland and the European Commission, delegates from universities in Portugal, Croatia, France, Romania and Estonia will present partnership opportunities and how to best leverage market-growth potential in their respective regions.

“We are bringing together the tech transfer communities from the various European institutions and how best to foster links.

“It’s not just about tech transfer but about making business connections to other places and allowing our clients to talk to a wider cohort of innovators.”

Think big picture

Europe needs to focus more on blue sky research to drive innovation

Peter Conlon, Maynooth University commercialisation executive. Image: Maynooth University

Maynooth University’s Commercialisation Office is supported by Enterprise Ireland and Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI) under the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative (2013-2016). The university is now part of a technology transfer consortium, an alliance with Waterford Institute of Technology, Athlone Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Carlow.

I point out to Conlon that a lot has changed since the turn of the century when tech transfer barely existed in Irish academic institutions.

“Tech transfer has been strengthening and, through the development of [KTI], it has really become an integral part of the university network in Ireland.

“At Maynooth University, we’ve approached tech transfer from a very pragmatic point of view, focusing on the social and economic impact of our research, and making sure that our partners and companies are licensing the best technology from us.”

Examples of tech transfer flourishing into commercialisation cited by Conlon include Neuromod Devices, which has come up with a novel technological cure for tinnitus, and Avectas, a company in the university’s MaynoothWorks incubator that is developing technologies for manufacturing cell therapies.

Blue skies ahead

Ultimately, Conlon believes that for Ireland as a region and for Europe as a whole to flourish in the science and technology world, there needs to be more of a focus on blue-sky research.

“To feed the potential commercial technologies, we have to focus on blue-skies technologies; the kind of stuff that might be 10, 15 or 20 years out but that has a policy and a structure that allows researchers to think about the big challenges and fund them appropriately.

“In the grand scheme of technologies, the major technical innovations that have existed in the world have all come from focusing on blue-sky opportunities.

“If we focus only on the short-term impacts all the time, we lose sight of the big revolutions that are possible,” Conlon concluded.

“Blue-sky research is what drives major innovation.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years