New university fund offers Irish entrepreneurs a bridge to the world


17 May 2021

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Dr Diarmuid O’Brien and Prof Orla Feely on why universities are partnering with investors to generate a new wave of companies nurtured on Irish campuses.

A high-tech minimally invasive treatment for a serious heart condition. Wearable systems that support athletes to achieve their goals and democratise the business of sports performance. In-hive sensors that monitor honeybees and – crucially – help bee-owners increase productivity. The link between these innovations? All were born on an Irish campus. And all have potential to make a real global impact.

Last week, Irish universities’ ability to commercially exploit new research discoveries took an important step forward with the launch of the world’s fourth largest collaborative university fund to invest in new campus companies.

The University Bridge Fund was founded in 2015 by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in partnership with Atlantic Bridge. It initially raised €60m for investment in the commercialisation of research from Irish higher-education institutions.

Now, a second fund of target size €80m has been launched with the welcome involvement of University College Cork and with continued support from the European Investment Fund, Enterprise Ireland and AIB.

‘It is the single largest coordinated private investment that is supporting the commercialisation of university research’

Since the fund’s establishment, it has invested in a wide range of technology-enabled ventures such as those named above and many more.

The University Bridge Fund connects university researchers with seasoned entrepreneurs. It provides ‘smart’ working capital at an early stage and supports our university campus companies to focus on global markets from day one. Through syndication, the new fund will result in up to €400m of private and competitive investment targeted at creating new companies from university research over the next decade.

The scale of this fund is a testament to the ambition and the quality of research within Irish universities.

From an Irish perspective, it is the single largest coordinated private investment that is supporting the commercialisation of university research.

Initially, investment will be made in more than 50 new university campus companies in sectors from medical devices to artificial intelligence and new therapeutics. Further investments will follow.

The companies that grow through these investments will help to build the reputation of Ireland as a European leader in innovation. In turn, this will help strengthen Irish enterprise as we recover from Covid-19 and Brexit by generating new markets, services and products.

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In Ireland we have come a long way in putting in place innovative supports such as the University Bridge Fund and the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative (TTSI) funded by Enterprise Ireland, which can translate world-leading research into world-leading business. As John Collison, the Irish-born billionaire and co-founder of Stripe, said recently: “It is entirely plausible that you could set up Stripe in Dublin now.” This must be our ambition for the next decade.

But, and it is a big but, we need to do a lot more if we are to reach our national Innovation 2020 policy target of becoming a global innovation leader. Latest figures show that Irish research and development investment, both public and private, is among the lowest in Europe, at 1.2pc of GDP compared to the OECD average of 2.4pc.

‘Ireland can now combine the strength of our talent and innovation and connect them to early-stage capital’

For decades Ireland has been recognised as a global leader when it comes to foreign direct investment. However, in tandem with this success story, it is critical we develop the capability to develop our own globally leading businesses from Ireland.

This new fund will drive that ambition further. This approach, coupled with other ambitious plans – such as the Grand Canal innovation district in Dublin, the development of the AgTechUCD innovation centre in Kildare and the creation of an Innovation Corridor in Cork – demonstrate how universities are committed to translating research to achieve economic and social impact.

The universities recognise that to support a sustainable economy we must develop a strong innovation-enabled indigenous enterprise base to complement and work with the global foreign direct investment community. Through this fund, Ireland can now combine the strength of our talent and innovation and connect them to early-stage capital, supporting our transition to a globally competitive innovation economy.

The success stories from the University Bridge Fund predominantly derive from curiosity-led research projects driven by the vision of researchers and their teams. These companies act as a reminder that the quality and breadth of research in Ireland is important in driving new company formation.

The minister responsible for research, Simon Harris, TD, recently announced his vision for an ‘innovation island’. The university sector is ready and willing to meet this aspiration. We are ready to lead and collaborate to establish transformational initiatives that will position Ireland on the global stage.

The University Bridge Fund is one such example. By enabling investment of hundreds of millions of private capital to enable economic and social benefits from publicly funded research, it can be a strong part of the platform on which we build an innovation-enabled economy.

By Dr Diarmuid O’Brien and Prof Orla Feely

Dr Diarmuid O’Brien is the chief innovation and enterprise officer at Trinity College Dublin. Prof Orla Feely is the vice-president of research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin.