The Keane edge

12 Mar 2008

Professor Mark Keane (pictured) of NovaUCD explains how the Government’s recent investment in science and technology can be turned into valuable intellectual property.

Land has always been a contentious issue in Irish history because it represents power, possibilities, progress and money, but as our landscape changes so too do our values, and intellectual property (IP) is the new currency. For Professor Mark Keane, vice-president of innovation at University College Dublin’s technology transfer centre NovaUCD, his role lies in helping researchers take their ideas and not just protect them but also turn them into working business models.

In a nutshell, IP is the focal point of NovaUCD’s innovation policies: one that will help researchers with patenting, licensing and other issues that revolve around their body of work as they go on to collaborate with commercial partners or start their own spin-off company.

“One of the problems until recently has been that the funding around the people involved in technology transfer has probably not been sufficient to deal with the amount of IP that was coming out,” Keane asserts. “As of this year, Enterprise Ireland has funded all of the technology transfer offices in universities countrywide to expand much further.”

In contrast to Keane’s current position overseeing technology transfer at UCD’s research hub, he started out as a psychology graduate before making his way into computer science through cognitive psychology. He co-authored Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook – one of the most widely-read textbooks on the area – and went on to become head of the department of computer science at UCD in 1998. Keane subsequently took up the role of director of ICT with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

From this perspective Keane is eager to ensure the €700m SFI investment in ICT and biotechnology research is put to good use: “We want to see the government investment over the past few years turned into IP,” he says. UCD itself, remarks Keane, is interesting in that it was the first Irish university to fund a full-time technology transfer staff member. “From here we’ll go from two people to seven,” he says determinedly. “This will strengthen NovaUCD and all the other university offices to a point where they can deal with the amount of IP that should be emerging from the SFI investment over the past few years.”

Spawning spin-offs

When we think of universities nurturing researchers into spawning their own successful spin-offs Silicon Valley tech giants like Google and Yahoo! are the first that spring to mind. Keane doesn’t think this is an impossible act to follow but feels that the Irish technology transfer scene is still young and we will have to be patient.

“That’s a very challenging area to do well in and if you look at somewhere like Stanford University in California, it takes a long time. You start seeing some of the benefits five to 10 years down the line. It is a very long-term play in a sense. In Ireland, at this point the earlier research investment should be bearing fruit. Right now, we should be seeing more invention disclosure, followed by patenting, licensing and campus spinouts around that IP.”

It is an exciting time for NovaUCD, playing host to the €30m AIB Seed Capital Fund for high-potential start-ups and having recently welcomed 12 new technology companies into its fold, adding to the 125 firms that have previously passed through its doors.

NovaUCD may provide a home for research students looking to develop their ideas into a viable business but it is about nurturing all high-potential start-ups.

“If you look at places like NovaUCD: it is an incubation place not just for university spin-outs but for spin-ins as well. About 30-40pc of the companies have come to Nova from outside to use it as an environment to grow in,” Keane says. “One of the ideas we have here is Belfield Innovation Park: the idea with that is to try to put more buildings on campus that would enable companies to be on site and have those sort of interactions and that is one definite way to go,” he adds.

PhD course support

Innovation and technology transfer as part of academia are fairly new concepts that have an American tinge and this US influence is growing: “As of this January one of the changes will be structured PhD programmes,” Keane confirms. “In the past you just did your thesis and that was it, but now there are elements of a US model where there are taught courses. UCD will have courses on IP and entrepreneurialism within the PhD programme. The idea behind that is very clear – it is to give people room to take the ideas they have and go directly out and start companies or work in companies with those ideas.”

While there are currently just two modules, Keane says he is eager to add a whole range of related modules that people would take right throughout their PhD course. The present modules cover acquiring general entrepreneurial business skills and about protecting IP: if you are in a laboratory discipline you have to be careful about what you record and how you record it, Keane observes. “We’re trying to give PhD students at a very early age initial knowledge of how they should be going about protecting their ideas. Then further down the line you need to be thinking in terms of how do you take an idea once you have it, how do you push it through to a patent? How do you then look for someone to license that patent? How do you use it in a company context?”

Amid all these challenges Keane is satisfied with the progress of campus incubation in Irish universities: “I think the level of production in Ireland has been quite high by international standards. Rather than a numbers game it should really be a quality game – it is better to have one or two really good spin-offs than to have 20 that are all going to remain with three employees.”

Looking to the UK scene Keane explains that around five years ago there was a strong push on university research investment to channel it into campus companies. A review of this, the Lambert Report, showed there wasn’t much benefit from this: some companies disappeared within a few years or didn’t turn into anything big, so many of them changed their strategy after that. “That’s the view NovaUCD has too,” Keane says. “If it makes sense to have a campus company then that’s what you should do, but many US universities exist on licensing by simply taking a patent that you have and giving it to somebody else who pays a royalty for it.”

This is Keane’s vision for living off the academic land: IP farming, an idea that makes sense financially for universities and from industry’s point of view. “There are lots of other reasons why the IDA wants to follow that idea: already there are tax breaks around having IP units in Ireland, also you basically situate the ideas part of a business in the country and that is better obviously for R&D: so that’s the strategy,” he concludes.

By Marie Boran