Technology transfer debate heats up

25 Mar 2004

In its submission to the Enterprise Strategy Group last month, the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) called for a detailed review of the barriers to greater research collaboration between industry and the third-level sector, which “despite numerous initiatives, remains at the levels reported over a decade ago”. In its submission to the Enterprise Strategy Group last month, the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) called for a detailed review of the barriers to greater research collaboration between industry and the third-level sector, which “despite numerous initiatives, remains at the levels reported over a decade ago”.

William Burgess, chairman of the NCC and former head of IBM Ireland, says there is a need for “real engagement” between universities and the multinational sector. “I’m interested in our ability to genuinely engage universities in projects that would could eventually lead to things such as labs being set up here in Ireland… I think real engagement in jointly funded projects with specific outputs would help build the foundations that would lead to bigger [R&D] investments.”

Meanwhile, at an EU symposium in Dublin, the Tánaiste, Mary Harney TD, argued that the EU as a whole and member states at a national level needed to re-examine their procedures for commercialising research. She said European universities had much to learn from their US counterparts in this area, the most successful of which better understood that partnership with industry was essential to accessing private funding and expertise.

But it’s not only the Government that is concerned about technology transfer; the Irish Software Association (ISA), whose members employ 30,000 and account for exports worth over €14bn, held a special summit on the subject at its IBEC HQ in Dublin a fortnight ago.

Taking as its theme ‘The Commercialisation of Intellectual Property from Universities’, the event debated the obstacles that the ISA sees as hindering the flow of good ideas and people between academia and the commercial marketplace.

“The issue of how to get intellectual property from the lab or workstation to the marketplace is one of the most important and challenging issues facing the Irish software industry,” comments John Shiel, chairman of the ISA’s competitiveness subcommittee. “To one extent, the easy bit is inventing it; the tough thing is going out to sell it. The models that we have are outdated and are not going to work in a modern economy,” he adds emphatically.

The nub of the problem, as he sees it, is that universities see technology transfer as a money-making opportunity rather than a worthwhile activity in its own right.

“I don’t believe colleges should see this as a big money spinner. They may look at this as: if we do this a number of times and develop a successful formula over a period of time we’ll make a lot of money from the spin-offs. But trying to do a one-hit wonder creates huge barriers for people trying to invest in it and big barriers for guys who are trying to leave with the intellectual property,” he says.

The proof of the pudding, he says, is that Irish universities can point to very few spin-off tech firms — a situation that contrasts starkly with the US market. “If you look at Caltech in California, that one institution has produced 400 spin-offs and something like 100 of those have done an IPO [initial public offering]. Why isn’t anything remotely like that happening in Ireland?”

Shiel reckons that the universities’ attitude deters potential investors from taking a stake in promising new companies. “It does sadden me to see really good technology, really good guys, and nobody wants to go near them because a non-contributing partner [ie, a university] wants to own 12pc, 15pc or 20pc of the business.”

He continues: “The universities have got to understand that if a researcher comes across something good and decides to go out into the big bad world and get the benefit of that [invention] they should be entitled to that.”

While industry argues that the Irish universities are extremely poor at facilitating technology transfer, Dr Conor O’Carroll, head of research of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU), points out that Ireland shares a technology transfer culture that is common throughout Europe.

Whereas a US university such as New York’s Colombia might generate revenues of US$200m a year from its technology transfer activities, the most successful UK universities earn only about £20,000 sterling from equivalent activities. In Ireland, the take would be even less. “The difference between the scale of activity in the US and that in Europe or Ireland would be dramatic,” O’Carroll points out by way of explanation.

He adds: “Of course, the fact that we’re not bad by European standards is not a good thing; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing a hell of a lot better than we are at the moment.”

O’Carroll denies that the issue of technology transfer is not seen as a priority by third-level colleges, pointing out that the creation of incubation centres such as the €10m NovaUCD facility is testimony to the seriousness with which the colleges view this process.

“The incubation centres play a core role in a number of ways: one is managing spin-off companies within the university itself and supporting academic staff in getting patents and so on. But another is supporting them in how to deal with companies, in terms of contract negotiations, with regards to the terms and conditions of intellectual property sharing,” he adds.

He concedes that the lack of standard contracts is an area that has been neglected in the past. However, he says it is now being addressed: CHIU is to set up a committee made up of representatives from all the interested parties, whose role will be to develop template contracts to use in a range of technology transfer situations. O’Carroll is hopeful that by the end of the year these contracts will have been agreed and be available.

Driving this initiative, he notes, is the growing amount of interaction between universities and the private sector and the recognition that a better system is needed to deal with this issue. “We don’t have any firm guidelines in place to deal with the sharing of intellectual property but it would far more beneficial for us if we had — not just for universities but for companies as well.”

The universities’ position, in summary, seems to be that the technology transfer process, while not perfect, is being taken seriously and the weaknesses that have been identified — such as the lack of template contracts — are gradually being addressed. The ISA, on the other hand, is impatient with what it sees as obfuscation and narrow-mindedness on the part of third-level institutions and believes sweeping changes are needed.

Shiel concludes that nothing less than revolution in thinking is needed if the situation is to improve. “We need a mindset that says we’re going to proactively commercialise research — but we’re a long way away from that.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured is NovaUCD, an innovation centre that aims to nurture and develop high-tech enterprises