John Scanlan, Maynooth University Director of Commercialisation
Up until about 15 years ago, universities understood their contribution to the knowledge economy as mainly confined to teaching with limited and poorly funded research activity. Top level, highly qualified graduates were streamed from our institutions into the jobs market and formed a talent pool that represented one of the great draws of Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland. This contribution was widely feted. With the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland in 2003, a much stronger focus on research emerged and funding for basic science grew dramatically. In the last number of years, and particularly since the publication of the Innovation Taskforce Report in 2010, the role of universities has been re-evaluated in terms of how this investment in research can impact our economy.
The Innovation Taskforce Report outlined a new strategy for investing in research to drive economic growth and foster a culture of collaboration between companies, entrepreneurs and academics. This coincided with a widespread growth in confidence amongst business leaders in the value of investing in research: between 2008 and 2013, industry investment in R&D grew by 31% to just over €2 billion.
The growing desire of universities to support national policy and work with entrepreneurs and companies to commercialise research has resulted in significant changes in the profiles and activities of Irish universities. This represents a huge opportunity for companies that are willing and able to engage with the sector. Not only can they leverage the broad range of supports offered by universities to access world-class expertise and state-of-the-art services and facilities, but they can also avail of significant funding supports from Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, and the EU. The much talked about “Knowledge Development Box” that will guarantee a favourable tax rate for income generated through R&D investment only serves to make the proposition more attractive.
Furthermore, entrepreneurs and companies can benefit from a shift in intellectual property management and dissemination making it very favorable to industry. The National Intellectual Property Protocol published in 2012 called for universities to avoid retaining exclusive control of intellectual property rights. It put the infrastructure in place to make it easy for businesses to exploit and commercialise discoveries. The establishment of Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI) has made it even simpler for entrepreneurs and companies to utilise this system. KTI gives prospective collaborators access to lists available expertise at all Irish universities, “how-to” guidelines, and model intellectual property agreements.
Maynooth University is hosting its biennial knowledge transfer demonstration event, Connect 2016, on April 5th. This event will outline exactly how companies can navigate this national system to optimise their benefits and hear the stories of companies who have succeeded through doing so.
This includes Sigmoid Pharma which develops new therapies for immunological and gastrointestinal diseases. It has created a network of alliances with leading academic and medical centres of excellence including the Department of Biology at Maynooth University.
Treemetrics, a company focused on forest management, has established a similar network of researchers to tackle its forest mapping and monitoring questions. Tim McCarthy in the Maynooth University Social Science Research Institute has been an active collaborator with Treemetrics from the earliest stage of the business. In the case of both companies, this collaboration with universities has helped to grow their business.
The upshot of all this is that there has never been a better time for entrepreneurs to work directly with universities. Research collaboration, consultancy, use of facilities and equipment, engagement with the undergraduate and postgraduate student pool all provide opportunities for companies at various stages of development and growth.