Developing the third role at third level to benefit economy

1 Jul 2010

Third-level institutes have traditionally had two roles: education and research. They are now being challenged to develop a third role, says Dr Michael Whelan, technology transfer manager, Waterford Institute of Technology.

Over the past 10 years, third-level institutes have recognised that they have a third role to play, namely that of pursuing a targeted agenda in the economic and social development of the region in which they are located. How do you think Irish universities can meet their third role?

There has been a widespread belief that the Irish third level could contribute significantly more than it has done in the past in additional ways to the economy, and the expectation is that it should – it is an obligation that the institutes and universities in Ireland have taken on.

The most important point is the commitment level within all of the institutes and universities and within the Government to pursue that path and provide the resources to do it effectively.

Should technology transfer and commercialisation be taught from the very beginning or should it be aimed at fourth level?

This is a point of contention. Some universities prefer to restrict technology transfer to fourth level. Personally, I think there is a role for ideas around technology transfer and education as integrated parts of the courses – things like business-plan competitions and invention competitions and challenges – even at undergraduate level. If you look at the educational role of institutes, they are educating people to stay in a society where things like commercial relevance and thinking about competition and making trade-offs between price and performance are absolutely essential. So, involving students early on in thinking about those things is a valuable addition to their education.

Would you see technology transfer as being a practical way of learning, in that it’s not just about trying to commercialise technology but it’s also another form of acquiring knowledge?

Absolutely. If you think of technology transfer as trying to make money from new technology then it’s a very myopic way of looking at it, and you’re probably never going to be satisfied with the return on investment. You really have to think about it in a much broader context, as improving the collaboration and relationships between the institutes and industry and society in lots of different ways. The role is much more about facilitating the development of technology to the benefit of the local, regional and national economy.

Third-level institutes have traditionally been underfunded. Do you think technology transfer is a way for them to help fund themselves, and become more independent?

It’s too easy to say this will allow the institutes and universities to get extra funding and augment, or even supplant, what they receive from the State. If you look at universities worldwide and see how much they generate from the actual end-licensing stage of technology transfer activities, it’s often relatively small. But if you go to those universities and look at how well embedded they are in the region and the impact they have indirectly working with companies you see something dramatically different. That’s where the real value is.