Colleges – commercialise research or lose funding

7 Apr 2004

The Tánaiste, Mary Harney TD, has warned that public funds would be withheld from universities and other public research institutes that failed to comply with new guidelines covering the commercialisation of research which were published today.

The Tánaiste was speaking in the Royal College of Surgeons at the launch of the National Code of Practice for Managing Intellectual Property from Publicly Funded Research. The Code, which was developed by a taskforce within the Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation (ICSTI) with the co-operation of Ireland’s third level institutions, provides Ireland’s first blueprint for commercialising publicly funded research.

The Code is nominally a voluntary agreement between all the stakeholders but the Tánaiste made it clear that research bodies would be given little headroom in how they apply it. “Although it is voluntary, it’s voluntary with a compulsory or contractual element to ensure it is enforced,” she asserted.

Harney said the vastly increased public expenditure on research – the Government has committed over €2.8bn to research in the National Development Plan up to 2006 – demanded an adequate return.

“I think if the funding means anything, it means that new discoveries and applications should be applied as quickly as possible.”

She continued: “It would be a shame if the money that’s invested was wasted because we didn’t have a system in place for commercialising research.”

She added: “Our substantial research investments will generate many new discoveries and applications with commercial and industrial potential. Our aim must be to excel at translating these ideas and applications into the wealth-generating commercial world and boost our competitiveness.”

The Tánaiste said she was pleased that the third-level sector had reached agreement itself, as the alternative – legislation to regulate the commercialisation process – was a less satisfactory approach in her view. “I don’t see the need for legislation. If we can do it in this way, it’s more beneficial for everybody and it can also be more easily changed if there are difficulties.”

Harney also announced that she had requested that the Council embark immediately on the next phase of work to develop guidelines for the management of intellectual property from public-private co-funded research in consultation with industry, research funding bodies, public research organisations and the financial community and to report before the end of this year.

In an interview afterwards with, Harney said the intellectual property challenge was not unique to Ireland. “In virtually every country I have visited recently one of the big issues is how you manage intellectual property – who does it belong to, how it’s managed and so on.”

The new Code addresses each aspect of the management and transfer of research and development results from universities, institutes of technology and public research institutions to the commercial marketplace.

Its main provisions are that: universities and other public research organisations should have a written policy on technology transfer and commercialisation of research; technology transfer offices should be an integral part of research organisations and be responsible for advising on marketing and negotiating commercialisation opportunities; the protection of intellectual property (IP) should be seen as merely a step in the commercialisation process and not an end in itself; and that each institution should have a published incentives policy, including provisions for sharing of benefits with inventors.

Ena Prosser, chair of the ICSTI working group on IP, said the Code was designed to iron out the bottlenecks in getting ideas to market. In this process, patents were one key area of concern. “Patents are very important aspect of IP. The main thing about them is that they are time limited. If companies have to have to negotiate separate agreements with different institutions, it’s a disincentive for them to go across the threshold. Also, it affects the timeliness of transfer of the invention from the start to the exit process – and time is money. For me, the goal is having a single system and timelines that encourage industry to cross the threshold more.”

Dr Edward Walsh, chairman of ICSTI, emphasised that the Code of Practice was the first step in a process designed to strengthen Ireland’s commercialisation framework. By building a robust framework for managing and commercialising intellectual property, he said, Ireland could develop its reputation and be seen as a particularly attractive location in which to do research.

He added: “The Code is about fairness and incentivising all those people along the way. In many cases, researchers either feel they are getting a bad deal or leave the university with their research. Universities have an opportunity to benefit from the research but if they are too grasping, that acts as a bottleneck. So there must be a judicious amount of benefit going to each party: the researcher, the institution, the venture capitalists and enterprise.”

Compared to other countries, Ireland’s IP output is poor. In 1999, Ireland held approximately 13 patents per million population compared to Finland (75 per million), Denmark (45 per million) and the EU, the US and Japan at 35, 52 and 90 per million respectively.

By Brian Skelly