Excellence and impact in Irish science (video)

22 Mar 2012

Newly appointed SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson believes science and business are converging all the time

The new director general of Science Foundation Ireland Prof Mark Ferguson knows all about starting up companies and subsequently leading them to IPO.

More than a decade ago, there was little or no technology transfer in Ireland.

With the founding of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2001, a lot has changed and Ireland’s cluster of science centres, ranging from Lero in Limerick, CRANN in Dublin, Tyndall in Cork and many others, are putting Ireland in the top global league tables in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals and software to nanotechnology and microelectronics.

In a short time, Ireland has become a pivotal location for scientists and researchers to locate themselves and build upon a rich science heritage laid down by Irish discoverers like Robert Boyle, Ernest Walton and William Rowan Hamilton.

To ensure this tradition – and trajectory – is maintained, a new director general in the form of Dr Mark Ferguson has been appointed. A native of Belfast and one of the youngest ever recipients of a PhD qualification in the UK, he is on a mission to make science in Ireland more inclusive for the general population and at the same time see science generate jobs and opportunities for future generations.

Prof Mark Feguson’s background

Ferguson, a leading academic and successful entrepreneur at the age of just 28, was appointed professor in life sciences at the University of Manchester in 1984. His research interests include cellular and molecular mechanisms in scarring and wound healing, developmental mechanisms in normal and cleft palate formation, and alligator and crocodile biology. He discovered scar-free embryonic wound healing and temperature-dependent sex determination in alligators and crocodiles.

Ferguson is the recipient of numerous international awards, prizes, medals and honours for his research and he is the author of 365 research papers, eight books and 60 patents.

He is also a successful entrepreneur. His university spin-out Renovo is a global leader in the discovery of drugs to reduce scarring and using tissue regeneration to improve wound healing. The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Ferguson believes that science discovery in Ireland will yield both economic and societal benefits. “What attracted me to the director general role of SFI was really the ability to mould and shape science in Ireland,” he says.

“If I look back on my career – I started as a researcher, worked in a lab, worked with alligators and crocodiles, then I moved on to wound healing, I founded a company, grew that to IPO on the London Stock Exchange. That gives me a perspective.

“I think Ireland can be the best country in the world for what I call excellence with impact. What I mean is it can be the home of excellent research that is also impactful – from an economy point of view, a society point of view.”

Ireland and science


Ferguson believes SFI has succeeded in the last decade in taking Ireland from nowhere in science to being increasingly relevant.

“Ireland has climbed the league tables, has built capacity, has got really excellent people and linkages with industry.

“It is now about going from good to excellent. That is always more difficult but more challenging and a lot more fun. It is about trying to get the science out there – that can be in different ways: it can be industrial collaboration with existing companies, anchoring companies in Ireland. It can be about anchoring companies as spin-outs and that’s about growing new businesses. It can also be about licensing to major companies.

“It’s also about producing talented people who will go out and either start up or work in companies, and it’s about educating and engaging the public.

“Science is a culture, it’s a good way of making decisions about things but it’s also important for people to understand the impact of science, the wonder of science and be able to take a balanced view on the difficult things that science throws up.”

As well as founding his own company, Ferguson also founded the Manchester Biosciences Incubator and takes a keen interest in start-ups.

He agrees that across the world, particularly in universities like Stanford in California, many academics are entrepreneurial minded and he believes this culture should transcend the science landscape in Ireland.

He is also pragmatic. While the Irish Government has stayed on course with its science investment – €500m this year – Ferguson thinks State funding should be a catalyst to attract more substantial private-sector investment and create jobs.

“Excellence and impact are completely compatible. I talk about research as being a continuum. I try not to use the words basic and applied because they are pejorative to different people. I think it’s a continuum; we want the science to be excellent, we want the impact to be there.

“And that’s about encouraging people to engage with the commercial world, to form companies and it’s a really interesting, exciting and, at times, nerve-wracking experience to understand that you have something and really you are trying to establish that and sell it to people.

“And you have to have high goals. High goals to start with are getting the research out of the university, developing it into a form where it is an investable proposition, bringing what I call non-Irish exchequer funding to the table – not Irish taxpayers’ money – in other words venture capital money or industrial money or investment money, growing the company and either growing it to be big or selling it.

“That’s the really exciting journey and it is completely compatible with doing excellent science. You have to have excellent science, a good eye for where the market is, exploit that, build clever teams of people, get out there and nothing succeeds like success.

“When you have one or two of those successes, people recycle and go round again. In academia, the two things that always work are ego and jealousy. As soon as somebody does it and does it well, everyone will want to do it.”

Leading Renovo to IPO


64pc: The surge in the number of students in Ireland applying for science and technology courses – CAO

€500m: The Irish State’s scientific research budget

28: Prof Mark Ferguson’s age when he was appointment professor in life sciences at University of Manchester in 1984

60: Number of patent families Ferguson has created

I ask Ferguson about his role as co-founder of biotech company Renovo and leading it to IPO. “I’d always wanted to do research. There’s a huge buzz about discovering something nobody else has known. That’s an indescribably wonderful feeling. But I’ve always wanted to discover things that are useful.

“If you think about it, what’s the point of discovering something that’s useless? But if it’s useful then what are you going to do about it?”

Ferguson believes the convergence between business and science needs to continue and scientists and researchers need to pay more attention to commercialisation opportunities.

“Research allows companies to progress. If it is de-risked then they will pay more for it. That’s fine, the investors get a return, everybody is happy. But it is also about risk – sometimes research doesn’t work. If it doesn’t quite work go back and do something else. That’s the message to get out there.”

You can tell Ferguson relishes the opportunity of his new role. One of his objectives is to make science more inclusive in Ireland.

“I’m very keen on what I call public engagement in science. That has two facets: one is an educational thing telling people about science, about the excitement of it, what you can do and how to have a terrific career, and that’s something we can always do more of.

“But engagement means giving people a say. One of the things I would like to do is engage the public about decisions about which science to fund.

“Currently, we fund science by receiving proposals in response to calls, we get international experts to assess it for the quality of the science, we fund it and then we monitor how it is progressing.

“Would it not be equally interesting to have people write these proposals in a way that is straightforward and have members of the public say what pieces of science they would like to see funded?

“It is taxpayers’ money being invested. Roads, schools and hospital beds are about today, but science is about tomorrow.

“I genuinely believe that the public would be very interested in science in a way that is not laden with jargon. You get real engagement when people feel they can make an impact.”

Welcoming Ireland’s 64pc surge in applications for third-level science and technology courses in the recent CAO applications, Ferguson believes we are turning a corner.

“It’s about giving young people the training, the potential to achieve PhDs. It is also about attracting the high net worth people from overseas who help stimulate the economy in other ways – the dry cleaners they use, the cars they get serviced, the nannies they employ.

“I’m very enthusiastic about it, I think we can do a lot. I don’t underestimate the challenge but we’re up for it.”

Prof Mark Ferguson is one of the panellists at Silicon Republic’s Digital Ireland Forum tomorrow in the Convention Centre Dublin.

Watch a video of SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson talk about instilling a start-up culture in Irish science:

SFI director general Mark Ferguson on instilling start-up culture in Irish science 

Watch a video of SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson discuss the convergence of business and science:

SFI’s Prof Mark Ferguson on the covergence of business and science 

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years