Coming up with good ideas has been never a problem for Irish tech firms. What has proved more difficult for many is converting them into saleable products for which there is significant global demand. Dr Pat Frain (pictured) is helping to change all that.
As director of NovaUCD, Belfield’s sparkling new incubation centre for high-tech firms, Frain believes that he has at last at his disposal the physical building that will bring scientists and commercial people together and in turn attract more spin-off companies.
“Our vision is to become an international leader in the commercialisation of knowledge,” he explains.
Officially opened last November, the facility was built at a cost of €10m. A classic public private-partnership, it was funded by six private sector firms: AIB, Arthur Cox, Deloitte, Goodbody Stockbrokers, Ericsson and Xilinx Ireland, each of which pumped €1.27m into the project in return for a small (6pc) equity stake in the incubated firms. Enterprise Ireland pitched in a further €1.6m while the university contributed just under €1m, as well as the land and Merville House, the eighteenth century building at the heart of the three-acre site.
The centre has a staff of 14, nine of whom are professionals trained in the area of innovation and technology transfer. A key function of the facility is devising ways to identify, protect and commercialise the research resulting from the research on the campus. A second activity involves supporting entrepreneurs and new knowledge-intensive start-ups. A third aspect is improving links between the university and industry and to develop a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across the campus.
The final part of the jigsaw is developing the relationship with the six sponsor companies to harness their commercial expertise, be it in law, taxation or banking. What those companies put in now they will hopefully get back at a later stage when spin-off companies go to the market and investors can ‘cash in their chips’. But that’s not all the sponsors get from their investment, says Frain.
“Most of the services to young start-ups will be provided pro bono but in the longer terms they would see these people as valuable clients. It’s an investment for the future.”
NovaUCD is the new name for the university’s long-running and successful technology transfer agency, the University-Industry Programme. In the last five years such names as semiconductor design firm Massana, software firm ChangingWorlds and e-learning firm WBT Systems were born and weaned at the campus. Now a cluster of new firms are emerging from the under the protective wing of NovaUCD. These include NeoSera, a semiconductor component designer whose technology is being used by Philips Semiconductor in a major research project; Locumotion, which provides services to GPs and other healthcare professionals and Goldstack, a developer of incident management software for industrial applications. The newest firm to NovaUCD is Elearning Union, which specialises in software that allows courseware to run over a variety of technology platforms. The company is one of a number of e-learning firms that are looking to set up at Nova UCD, Frain notes.
So far, 14 of the 42 incubation units at NovaUCD have been filled, an occupancy rate that has drawn some spiteful comment in newspapers, Frain wryly observes. “There was an article saying that with an occupancy rate of only 40pc we were hardly bursting at the seams given that we’d been open since November. I thought it was a classic of its kind!”
He adds more seriously: “We are happy enough with our progress. We’re aiming for 50pc occupancy by the end of the year. At that stage, we’ll step back and try to decide which direction we should be taking.”
In fact bursting at the seams is what Frain would ideally like because then the facility would be buzzing with the sort of dealmaking and networking for which it was designed – the ‘community feel’ ingredient that will set NovaUCD apart from its forerunner, the University Industry Programme. “We do need to generate this community of entrepreneurs because it’s part of the attraction of the place; it’s what it’s all about,” he observes.
The prospects of this happening are probably better than at any time in the history of Ireland’s technology industry, Frain acknowledges, thanks to the Government’s heavy investment in research through the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions and Science Foundation Ireland in the last five years. But the increase in the flow of budding entrepreneurs clutching their hard-wrought patent certificates and business plans will also present a challenge for Frain and his colleagues at NovaUCD.
“An issue for us is that a lot of the government investment has gone into biotechnology and life sciences and for companies spinning off in that area, their time to market will be longer and the level of risk greater,” he notes. “The challenge for us is whether we can develop programmes specifically designed to assist to those type of companies because a lot of our success in the past has been more in the ICT area.”
He also believes that if it is to be successful, NovaUCD will need to be strict landlord and call time on tenants who have outstayed their welcome, which is why a set time limit of two years nine months is applied to incubation contracts. As Frain says, “We want to be an innovation centre, not a ‘rent-a-room’ facility.”
By Brian Skelly