Nurturing campus quality

29 Apr 2004

While the concept of spinning research out of universities and into the commercial world is well established in the US and provides a valuable source of funds for third-level institutes, it is relatively underdeveloped here. The undoubted campus company poster child in Ireland is Iona Technologies that spun out of Trinity College Dublin in the early Nineties and is now a major international software company. Such examples are few and far between and would suggest that the process of technology transfer from Irish research institutions is still relatively immature.

Kathryn Raleigh, director of the Irish Software Association (ISA), is just one of many in the technology sector who feels the level of technology transfer from the universities needs to pick up. “We are quite low down the league table compared to the US and Europe,” she says. “There’s some very good research going on — in particular with the impetus from Science Foundation Ireland [SFI] that should get credit.”

One of the main barriers that Raleigh sees is the lack of dialogue between industry and the universities. Clearly the ISA has a role to play in this regard — hence its recent forum on commercialising intellectual property (IP) that was addressed by representatives of both industry and academia — but other organisations such as Enterprise Ireland and IBEC subsidiary ICT Ireland will also need to push the agenda.

Bernadette Cullinan, chief operations officer with Irish software company Performix Technologies and also a board member of the ISA, sees barriers to the flow of people and ideas between academia and industry on both sides of the equation.

“On the university side, performance is determined by factors such as publishing achievements and student evaluations rather than producing research that is commercially viable or commercialised,” says Cullinan. “There is not sufficient incentive for university staff to wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to undertake research that has the potential to be commercially viable. The ISA thoroughly welcomes the Tánaiste’s recent comments on the importance of our universities as a source of very high-quality research that can enhance our position internationally in the software value chain. I believe that it has to be the case that the universities performance management and career advancement needs review to include substantial recognition for involvement in world-class research that has a clearly identifiable potential application,” she says.

“It can also be difficult to create a meeting of minds between the university sector and industry on what to research. A frequently heard complaint from industry is that university staff have no interest in doing research that is outside ‘pure’ research — the commercially viable focus, brought to bear by industry, does not appeal to them,” she adds.

Dr Maurice Treacy, director of the biotechnology division at SFI where he oversees a €138m research budget, is unequivocal about the reason for the low level of technology transfer in Ireland — particularly in the biotech sector. “There are many reasons but a major contributing factor is the inexperience of technology transfer personnel in the Irish universities,” he says. “SFI is investing in people, ideas and partnerships. It’s bringing high-level research into Ireland and giving all that IP to the universities. It’s incumbent on them to improve technology transfer. We are very interested that technology transfer is seamless as it is one of the ways we are measured as an organisation. As a result we will be very supportive of universities getting their offices up to speed.”

Professor Luke O’Neill, a research professor of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, has just established a company called Opsona to commercialise his research that could lead to new treatments for infectious and inflammatory diseases. “The key issue is business people. I’m a scientist not a business man,” says O’Neill. “That’s an important niche that needs to be filled. People with masters in business administration need to come and help us do this. Remember I have my day job as well. We are getting the science right in Irish universities but we need the business part to complement that. We won’t get the money out of venture capitalists without it.”

While he believes the process of technology transfer in the universities is improving all the time — particularly when compared to the situation 10 years ago — he agrees with Treacy that activity in this area needs to be ramped up. He compares the situation in Ireland where most universities have a handful of people dedicated to the task with Imperial College in the UK, which has a team of about 40 people working on technology transfer.

Raleigh has also called on Ireland to position itself as an IP-friendly location with low barriers to technology transfer and IP commercialisation. “We need to ask how we can be clever about this,” she says. “Look at the Irish Financial Services Centre in the financial space — it shows what can be done with a bit of imagination and when the desire is there to get it done. We need to make Ireland the best place to hold and manage IP and look at the range of initiatives needed to ensure that happens.”

Raleigh agrees that we can learn a lot from successful international technology-transfer programmes, such as that in operation in CalTech in the US, but believes any models introduced here have to be right for our situation. “We need a model to encourage transfer but that makes the universities feel part of the process,” she says. “You can’t alienate any one group — it has to be a joint process.”

While O’Neill concedes that his US counterparts are envious of the level of state support available for research through SFI, a major deficiency of the Irish system is that the universities do not have any funding to invest in their own campus companies. “Enterprise Ireland has invested in protecting my patents,” says O’Neill. “But in the US the universities will invest — they will either invest themselves or have a relationships with banks. Money is tight in the Irish education sector but it’s something the universities need to look at.”

Even if universities build funding relationships with the private sector or start investing their own funds in campus companies, it is clear that public money will always be needed. SFI’s Treacy points to research in the US that universities generally average a 3pc return from deals for research revenue. “It’s never going to fund the total cost of research,” he says.

Cullinan also feels the Government should put its money where its mouth is by acting as a major consumer of the fruits of Irish technology transfer. She bemoans the lack of a well-developed “Government as key purchaser” of new technology philosophy in Ireland. “A very significant portion of the successful research undertaken in US and Israeli universities has it roots in developing for the Government market,” she says. “Government as customer for both indigenous and foreign direct investment in Ireland will be a key driver in accelerating collaboration.”

Clearly industry will have to play its part in supporting research as well. Ireland has signed up to the Lisbon Agenda that commits us to investing 3pc of our gross national product on research by 2010 — but two thirds of that funding is expected to come from industry. Dick Kavanagh, director of the Industry Research and Development Group (IRDG) that represents commercial companies that invest heavily in research and development (R&D) believes that one of the ways to achieve that is to foster links between established companies and research groups in the colleges. “There are a lot of start-ups coming out of the colleges, which is a good idea but it takes time,” says Kavanagh. “We need to complement that by getting companies with critical mass in sales and manufacturing involved.”

That’s an issue SFI is hoping to address with its Industry Research Partnership Supplements – a set of grants that fund researchers from private industry to work with SFI-funded investigators at the universities.

Kavanagh feels that these kind of initiatives will be well received in the commercial sector. “There’s definitely an appetite to work more closely with the colleges,” he says. “A lot of companies are under pressure in R&D – they know they can’t do it all themselves. The colleges and institutes of technology are a resource that industry could tap into.”

While there is clearly a lot of talking still to be done and frustration felt on both sides of the debate, the significant increased investment by the Government could soon be start to pay off in spades. Eucharia Meehan, head of research programmes with the Higher Education Authority, highlights the fact that in the 2001/02 academic year approximately 450 postgraduate students graduated but over 2,600 students embarked on postgraduate studies, signifying massive growth at fourth level. “There was a low level of funding of R&D in Ireland up to the late Nineties — an order of magnitude less than what it is now,” she says. “As a result we haven’t been getting the deal flow coming through but that’s all starting to change now.”

Clearly Iona Technologies could soon have company in the exclusive club of successful Irish technology transfers.

By John Collins