Research and riches are a two-way street

13 Dec 2007

In 1999, before the term ‘knowledge economy’ became an abused form of political rhetoric of present-day Ireland, Dr Kevin McDonnell (pictured) of University College Dublin (UCD) was working on a project for the Department of Agriculture.

The project, studying disposal options for meat and bone meal, got McDonnell thinking that the team’s findings could be commercialised. He decided to approach the Department of Agriculture. “We felt we knew more about the project than anybody else and the logic was to do something with it. We approached the department because it was the project sponsor and owned the intellectual property (IP). Its response was ‘If you have an opportunity, try to sell it to Irish companies first.'”

McDonnell took that advice and today his company Biosystems Engineering provides important computer modelling and risk assessment services to companies like John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud, the Irish Rugby Football Union and William Fry Solicitors. And, as an SME in its own right, the company is participating in a joint project with UCD and has attracted EU funding of €240,000 to participate in a €2.5m EU-funded project.

Bridging the gap between the worlds of academia and business has long been called for but rarely achieved in Ireland. In the US, the story is different insofar as most companies look keenly to college research as portals to riches and it is understood that 60pc of the academic staff at Stanford University have commercial interests in business and tech start-ups.

SMEs across Ireland are being urged to invest more in research and development (R&D) in order to create new products that allow them to export more overseas and scale up in size. Enterprise Ireland (EI) is targeting that by 2010 at least 55 companies in Ireland will spend in excess of €2m a year on R&D.

In recent years new schemes have been introduced to encourage SMEs to invest in R&D ranging from €5,000 Innovation Vouchers to Tech Search schemes that find IP firms can use, to taking part in the €53bn European Framework Programmes with other European partners.

“The Irish economy needs to get away from its dependency on multinationals and start blazing its own trail,” says Jack Downey, an industry liaison officer with University of Limerick-based Lero, a Science Foundation Ireland-based Centre for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET).

Lero, an umbrella organisation encompassing researchers at UL as well as Dublin City University, Trinity College Dublin and UCD, works with businesses in the automotive, telecoms and financial services space to develop software to improve their products and processes.

The company has, for example, helped a Limerick firm called Vitalograph that manufactures medical devices such as an instrument that measures lung capacity. Working in conjunction with Lero, Vitalograph has developed a new model of software risk management that is being applied across the company.

Vitalograph was able to sponsor a Lero-based PhD student for €20,000 to develop the technology. “The value is you get an enthusiastic, motivated person,” Downey said. “If the person proves good you get first dibs on the IP. It gives businesses access to strategic long-term research without having to set up their own research department.”

But it doesn’t have to be as formal as employing a researcher. It can also be about getting reasonably priced access to skills available on a campus to develop products.

One small firm that has availed of the €5,000 EI Innovation Voucher Scheme is Carlow-based PlusPoint, which used the scheme to fund 50pc of the development of a new business opportunity that will go live in January.

“There’s a lot of untapped knowledge out there and we’ve managed to benefit from it,” says Sean Francis, managing director of PlusPoint. Francis agrees with the assertion that often the two worlds of business and academia don’t meet – the fast-paced business world is often impatient with the slow, measured step of third-level institutions.

“While they may lack commercial experience, the one thing they don’t lack is the hunger to do well and bring their technology into the business world. I basically heard about the Innovation Voucher Scheme and explored how it would help my business. I was sent a list of contacts and had a meeting with Philip Ivanoff from Creativa, a campus company at the Institute of Carlow. We discussed what I wanted and we felt confident that Ivanoff had the expertise.”

PlusPoint, which is in the purchasing consultancy business, wanted to build an electronic tendering site that links suppliers with SME buyers. “The upshot is that I have a product that will be launched in January and the voucher scheme covered 50pc of the cost.”

Another firm working on the Innovation Voucher scheme is Tipperary-based Cooleeney Cheese, which last year won the British Farmhouse Cheese Awards and is working with the Food Research Centre at St Angela’s College in Sligo to improve its product.

Shelley Kennedy of St Angela’s explained that the company is working with the college in the area of sensory analysis to review the different attributes of its cheese products. “It gives the company an overview of how to help with marketing, reviewing new product ideas; there’s quite a lot it can gain from this. For example, it can check to see the effect of changing ingredients on a product’s aroma, texture and taste.”

At the other end of the scale are the massive EU Framework Programmes. The current programme is the seventh in the series (FP7) and some €53bn is being pumped into supporting trans-European R&D. It is understood that Ireland has set a target of €600m for FP7, of which around 15pc is earmarked for SMEs.

Early indications for FP7 in Ireland are promising. EI says it has provided more financial support to indigenous companies and academic researchers for proposal preparation in the first year of FP7 than in the whole of the previous programme.

Biosystems Engineering, for example, collaborates with 11 partners from seven countries in EChain, a project aimed at developing a guide to identifying and addressing food and feed chain vulnerability to dangerous agents and substances.

Another example is Dublin publishing firm International Information Management Corporation, which has received €187,430 as part of a €450,000 project to tackle the digital divide in sub-Saharan Africa and has so far trained 100,000 government officials in Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.

Michael Moriarty, manager of innovation and global partnering at EI, explained that there are now 70 projects facilitating R&D between universities and SMEs under way. “It’s a pretty good barometer of what’s possible. There has been a real shift in how the agenda for R&D is being set. Industry used to do its research and the universities and colleges did theirs. Now you’re seeing industry-led research projects that are resulting in the colleges establishing competence centres to enable technology supply and knowledge transfer out of the college and into the business world.”

Kevin Burke, a technology transfer executive at EI, cited another form of bootstrapping IP – technology transfer through the agency’s Tech Search programme, whereby an Irish company licenses technology from firms such as Microsoft, IBM and HP. One such example is Galway-based Crospon, which licensed IP from HP to develop a new form of drug delivery.

“SMEs have a lot to gain from Ireland’s scientific investment,” says Frank Gannon, director general of Science Foundation Ireland. “If you look at the future of the Irish economy, we need to grow exports of indigenous firms. Without realising it firms are constantly conducting R&D as they improve the same products over a course of 10 years.

“But, if we want to retain and expand future companies we’ll need to help them make bold strides into new markets and that means creating novel new products and the academic world is there to help,” Gannon said.

The finishing school for trans-European research

Dr Jimmie Parkes, a former college lecturer who runs his own SME electroplating and surface treatment company in Carlow called Inter-Euro Technology, is considered something of a veteran when it comes to availing of the EU’s multi-billion-euro Framework Research Projects.

Parkes has completed nine EU research contracts and has been co-ordinator in two and a partner in seven. He is chair of the governing board of IONMET, a Framework Programme Six (FP6) project that aims to boost the competitiveness of the European metal finishing industry.

Under the scheme, more than 34 companies, including three Irish companies – Inter-Euro, Galvotech and Specialised Metals – will collaborate to introduce a new group of liquid solvents that will prove vital to the metal finishing and electronics industries. Out of the scheme Inter-Euro received funding of €182,000 to develop the technology.

“The Framework Programmes are effectively the EU’s shopping lists of things that would be useful in Europe, such as new ways of purifying water, or preventing desertification,” Parkes explained. “It puts out a call for proposals and companies and colleges across Europe would form a consortium and put together a proposal. If you succeed, you receive funding to make it possible.

“But often, even if you don’t succeed, companies still tend to work together. The great thing is you’re getting into a good network and it is quite worthwhile for winning new business.”

By John Kennedy