Irish academic spin-outs make the leap from research lab to real life

14 Aug 2008

Technological innovations are at forefront of the careful commercialisation of third-level research.

The translation of research outputs into tangible technologies in this country is a slow burn, but we are beginning to see outputs and some spin-out companies have had success, according to Martin Lyes, divisional manager for research and innovation at Enterprise Ireland.

The agency recently released a report entitled From Bench to Boardroom – Commercialising Irish Research, which highlights 18 examples of research that has attracted the attention of industry. Most are in the areas of informatics or industrial technologies.

The report notes that Enterprise Ireland has invested over €300m in the third-level research and innovation system since 2000. During the three-year period 2005-2007, the third-level sector has produced 95 licences, 26 start-up companies and hundreds of patents and invention disclosures. In 2007 alone, there were 136 patents filed and 264 invention disclosures by researchers.

“Enterprise Ireland supports about 75 high-potential start-ups a year and 12-15 come out of the academic system. We would like to double the number of spin-outs coming from academic research,” says Lyes.

Focusing on the informatics case studies in the From Bench to Boardroomreport, some potentially valuable innovations are emerging, particularly in light of recent lapses in data security.

Professor Padraig Cunningham at the school of computer science and informatics in University College Dublin says the information leakage we’ve seen recently in various sectors can be controlled.

He and his team have developed a system based on machine learning which picks out sensitive documents in much the same way as a machine recognises spam. An Irish company Pixalert is running trials with licensing in view.

“The parameters might be names and addresses; it could involve CVs from a human resources department, or legal contracts, all of which have characteristic traces that can be picked out by a trained machine,” he says.

“We are running tests on this now, and we’re getting accuracies of about 91pc. This approach to screening can be a lot more effective than human supervision, because people processing data may not always realise that information is sensitive.”

The system goes beyond a simple blocking response, and documents are ranked according to perceived risk. This means the system can be used as an auditing tool, and if a laptop, for example, comes up suspiciously high, it can be checked. Once a machine has been fed a set of examples, it will continue to act as a security filter, and if necessary, the system can be retrained.

Turning to a different type of sensitivity, researchers at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) who featured in the Enterprise Ireland report have developed an instant messaging product that allows text alerts for last minute offers to be sent to time-sensitive subscribers.

The product, called Zimbie, works by harvesting alerts from a variety of sources, such as RSS feeds, and filters the information to give clients a customised text alert service.

“You could, for example, specify that you’re interested in the share prices of 10 companies. You want to know about those companies now, not when you get around to looking at your emails,” says Sean Lyons, a member of the Telecommunications and Software Services Group at WIT.

“[On the supply side], the cancellation of a conference could mean that, within a day or two, a big hotel would have hundreds of beds available, for example. The time limit usually means nothing can be done. Most travel agencies already have plenty of people on their books asking for cut-price deals. With an instant messaging service, all they would have to do is sign on to receive the latest alerts.”

Initial trials with some Irish operators are going well, and the next step is to launch and go international, he adds.

Roughly 450 people like Cunningham and Lyons – or 10pc of the academic community – are involved in the area of commercialising research. Enterprise Ireland’s first-ever Applied Research Forum in June saw 140 of these people come together.

“There hadn’t been a way for this group to get together before so there was an outpouring of views. There was a perception that applied research is looked down upon by some academics, as a sort of ‘selling out’, but the event showed huge energy and interest. If we really get this commercialisation thing right it will improve our international reputation and increase our chances of being world beaters in certain areas, like alternative energy production, for example,” says Lyes.

By Sorcha Corcoran

Pictured at the first Enterprise Ireland’s Applied Research Forum, from left:  Minister for Science, Dr Jimmy Devins TD; Dr Declan Dagger, TCD; Frank Ryan, chief executive, Enterprise Ireland