Planting the seeds for growth on the campus

27 Jun 2008

The smart money is on the next generation of Irish campus companies that could drive future jobs and investment.

After a slow start, there are promising signs that efforts to turn ideas from Irish universities into products or companies are having some success.

The indigenous technology sector in particular looks well placed to benefit from these initiatives. A recent award for a researcher with the most commercial potential went to a developer of e-learning software.

Other applications include a plug-in product developed at UCD to allow software developers work with a range of hardware, and an automated instant messaging system from Waterford IT (WIT).

Enterprise Ireland, which is heavily backing such research initiatives, hosted its first Applied Research Forum last week, gathering academics to hear about some of the successes and to get feedback on the work undertaken so far.

Introducing the event, Dr Jimmy Devins TD, Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation said: “There’s a growing storehouse of IP held in our third-level institutions which has the potential to create vibrant new products, services and businesses.”

Minister Devins said there can be a tendency in third-level research to focus exclusively on publishing research papers. “However, it is also vital that there are those within the academic community who devote some of their energies to commercialisation of new discoveries and there is huge satisfaction to be had from seeing an idea turn into a product or service which others want to buy.”

Frank Ryan, chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, admitted the research commercialisation system here is relatively new. “Given that significant investment in developing a strong innovation and commercialisation system only really started at the turn of the century, the progress made to date has been remarkable.”

The state agency has invested €275m in third-level research and innovation systems since 2000.

“The outputs are excellent,” Ryan said. “In the three-year period 2005-07, the third-level sector produced 95 licences, 26 start-up companies, along with hundreds of patents and invention disclosures.”

Of that number, 18 of the start-up companies were a direct result of EI funding-applied research. In 2007, there were 136 patents filed and 264 invention disclosures.

EI administers four primary schemes to support academic researchers. The commercialisation fund helps researchers to take the outputs of research and commercial potential and bring them to a point where they are ready to be adopted by businesses.

The IP fund supports third-level institutions and industrial concerns to help in protecting and managing patents.

A technology transfer-strengthening scheme backs the EI staff who are based within the commercialisation functions of the universities. They work directly with the institutions to make sure best use is made of the research outputs with commercial potential. There are currently 10 such offices and Ryan said there would be more on the way.

Lastly, EI offers support for building and managing incubator space within the institutes of technology to encourage spin-offs from these places and to encourage collaboration with firms in the area.

More than €46m has been allocated to these four schemes for 2008, up from €40m last year and €33m in 2006.

It’s hoped some of the best research discoveries will now find a route to market in different ways.

WIT’s Barry Downes, a researcher who has successfully commercialised his work in the past, used funding from EI to create a new spin-out firm,

FeedHenry is a software application for embedding and syndicating content on the internet. “Media companies can distribute content to where their readers hang out,” said Downes.

The company is close to signing with several major reference sites and will shortly be seeking funds to expand into international markets, Downes added.

Dr Declan Dagger, a research fellow in the Knowledge and Data Engineering Group (KDEG) in Trinity College, won the inaugural ‘One to Watch’ award at EI’s Applied Research Forum for the researcher whose work is deemed to have the most business potential.

Using the Adapt e-learning system he helped develop, Dagger plans to launch a spin-out company called Empower the User next year which will offer customised e-learning programmes to sectors including legal, medical and teaching.

“Ireland has long been a hub for innovation in e-learning,” Dagger said. “We see a unique opportunity to position ourselves as the next generation of personnel e-learning solutions provider.”

EI also hopes existing companies will be interested in licensing technologies developed as part of academic research. In the past, many Irish tech firms tended to work only with systems they developed but there are encouraging signs of openness to adopting ideas hatched elsewhere.

PixAlert (see panel above) is evaluating some technologies developed at third level, with a view to incorporating them in its products.

Fergus Bolger, chief technology officer of Programming Research, a developer of software language analysis products with an international customer base in the embedded and systems software space, reckons there are many application areas that could complement its product suite.

“We believe there are many opportunities to harness complementary technology, some in conjunction with our own technology, and we are keen to license such suitable technologies from Irish universities.”

As lower-end manufacturing jobs increasingly go elsewhere, a lot is riding on research to help create an ecosystem that will lead directly or indirectly to employment, either from multinationals, existing companies, start-ups or campus spin-outs.

Downes pointed out that as people have left WIT’s Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) to join start-ups, they have been replaced and the companies themselves are also expanding.

“The net impact for our region last year was 21 replacement jobs within the TSSG – in fact, we hired several more – and 61 jobs in companies that we spun off last year.

“If you look at the knock-on impact, we reckon we created about 200 jobs last year as a result of our work.”

He also said the amount of funding needed to set up a spin-off in the US was much greater than in Ireland. “It’s substantially more effective than the best universities in the world,” he said. Ireland Inc will hope for similar effects.

Alert to securing a better product through research

Pixalert, a Dublin-based developer of information security software, sees the benefits of partnership with third-level researchers to add to its product.

“If you look at what makes a product great, it has to hit a need: seeing a business problem and having the right features to address it,” says Canice Lambe, CTO, PixAlert.

“If companies don’t have the skills in-house to build it, they can look outside for technology that adds value.

“Most software firms don’t have resources to direct relatively esoteric research so it’s best done at universities.”

An example of this is Professor Padraig Cunningham’s work at UCD’s School of Computer Science & Informatics.

He has developed a machine learning system that can spot if sensitive data is being leaked over a network. PixAlert believes this could be a useful addition to its data auditor tool.

PixAlert is also working with a group from Trinity College Dublin which has developed video analysis technology that could detect pornographic content on an organisation’s network.

“If we can make the product smarter, it means more product sales and better profits,” says Lambe.

By Gordon Smith

Pictured: Minister of State for Science, Technology and Innovation, Jimmy Devins TD with Dr Declan Dagger from Trinity College Dublin and Frank Ryan, chief executive, Enterprise Ireland

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic