University researchers: ‘We are hungry to help grow the economy’


19 Mar 2009

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SMEs who want to beat the recession should start talking R&D with their local colleges.

The unmistakable smells of spring and the reminders of growth belie the deepening evening twilight — not to mention the gloomy financial debates on the radio I’ve just gladly switched off — as I get out of my car and march purposely across the campus at National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth.

As I enter the university’s Office of Commercialisation, the sights and sounds of college life are eclipsed as its director, John Scanlon, gets straight to the point.

He recounts a story about   how, when the former UK Prime Minister John Major took office, he visited US universities like Stanford and research bodies such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]. On his return, Major summoned all the chancellors of the UK’s prestigious universities and asked them why they weren’t working more closely with private enterprises. “It isn’t our job,” they replied. “It is now,” he retorted.

Scanlon’s point is that, despite over €500m being invested by Science Foundation Ireland in increasing Ireland’s research talent and a realisation of what is happening in places like Silicon Valley, academic staff in Irish universities and colleges are still paid to teach and research, they are not paid to commercialise that research or work with companies.

“It’s a financial issue,” he laments. “What little money is given to universities in Ireland is for teaching and research, not helping business.”

The wider economic issues facing Ireland’s economy and the students and academics’ own ambitions for the future are leading to a step change. Scanlon’s colleague, Owen Laverty, explains: “We’ve had researchers here march up to us and say we want to help the economy. They’re begging to help.”

The area where they intend to help in particular is working with local SMEs who are struggling in the current economy and need to modernise processes or create a new product that can be exported overseas.

“One successful R&D project with an Irish SME could be the difference of 10 or 15 new jobs in the economy,” says Laverty.

On 1 April next, over 150 owner managers of SMEs, as well as academics, Iona’s Chris Horn and representatives from Enterprise Ireland, will converge on Kildare’s Carton House Hotel to discuss better ways in which SMEs can make use of college commercialisation departments.

Scanlon cites the example of how NUI Maynooth’s Department of Electronic Engineering worked on an Enterprise Ireland-funded commercialisation project to model and control wave energy devices. This model was then implemented by Irish wave energy company Wavebob and prototypes are now in use in California, Portugal and Finland.

The NUI Maynooth Commercialisation Office is launching two new initiatives to boost the university’s impact on economic development. The first, Your R&D Resource, will help firms to make use of their Enterprise Ireland-funded Innovation Partnerships and Innovation Vouchers.

The second, Market Driven Innovation, will see industry experts brainstorm with the university’s multidisciplinary teams to come up with marketable products.

“We need to break out of tradition,” says Scanlon. “Academics are hungry to be successful, but the problem is their day job is teaching, their second job is writing research papers and their final job is to help out with the economy and turn that research into something.

“We need to look at what’s being done with the research money. It has to deliver something back to the economy, not just wait and see what €100m will turn into in five years.”

Laverty adds: “We also need to avoid dangerously focused research. Sometimes, you can be too far ahead of the curve or there is far too much blue skies research. Academics need to be talking to industry and finding out where the pain is. We need to allocate finances differently, so academics are focused more on research and interacting more with Irish companies.”

While every university and institute of technology in Ireland has a commercialisation department, the problem, says Tim Regan of CampusRock.com, is ensuring there is a mechanism to allow businesses interact with college resources, while also ensuring academics who work with SMEs and large companies get paid for their efforts.

Regan, a former senior manager at Lucent Technologies, has established the CampusRock.com website, which aims to give businesses genuine access to campus resources.

“The whole idea is to create a global platform that allows both the business community and the third-level community to reach each other and generate real, tangible results.

“We’re not just focused on getting businesses in touch with the cream of the crop in terms of PhD researchers, but also undergraduates and academics who have potential value to add to a business that wants to tap into a potential export market or create a new product stream,” he explains.

Once two parties agree to work with each other, the site has a workflow feature that allows them to keep the project on track until completion.

“It’s not a social networking site, but a private exchange that allows resources to bid privately to organisations about what they can do.”

CampusRock derives revenue by billing firms once a milestone that has been agreed between the business and the campus resource has been reached. The fee usually works out at 9pc of the overall fee agreed between the college and business.

“We started the business in 2007, and the site went live during the summer and now we’ve launched into the UK market. Over 20 business-college projects have been initiated so far,” says Regan.

By John Kennedy