Industry-research ties deliver innovation at lightning speed

21st February 2022

Alison Campbell is director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, the national office with responsibility for connecting businesses with publicly funded research. KTI’s new webinar series, Unlocking Knowledge Transfer, is newly launched.

Ireland’s research and innovation through public research is thriving. With latest annual figures showing that more than 3,600 businesses engaged in new research with higher education institutes, the time is ripe for business to consider the means through which working with the Irish research base can innovate business and improve performance and boost overall competitiveness.

Building out in-house research expertise, digitalising business functions, improving processes and production and innovating products and services — through access to expertise, specialised facilities and funding opportunities — are just some of the reasons why working with Irish public research makes good commercial sense.

Looking ahead

The pandemic has brought into focus how researchers and businesses come together to share knowledge and collaborate for the benefit of society. Innovation is happening at a phenomenal speed — lives have quite literally depended on it. 

This is going to be equally as important as we look to re-igniting the economy. The ability of companies to innovate, to work smarter and to develop new products and services that differentiate them in competitive markets will be essential. 

Studies have shown that organisations involved in R&D perform better than those without such activity. For example, SMEs who own intellectual property (IP) rights have 28% higher revenues per employee.

This is where working with the higher education sector can add value. In Ireland, companies that collaborate on R&D have been shown to have exports twice as high, and employment 1.5 times higher, than those that do not.

Enterprise Ireland clients engaging with one or more higher education institutes have twice the turnover compared to those that do not. To this end, there is a wealth of funding supports available to encourage collaboration, and with over 2,700 research engagements between companies and this research base, these collaborations are clearly working.

Embracing the system

Ireland also has a successful track record in facilitating research collaboration with companies who have decided to create a large presence on our shores.

Boston Scientific recognises the value of research in Ireland, with an RD&I investment €30M announced last year into its Cork facility. The company has engaged with several Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) across the country.

In 2020, Boston Scientific engaged University of Limerick on a piece of academic consultancy into research gas barrier coatings used in the production of medical instruments. The research resulted in a new technology being developed which directly led to Boston Scientific in Clonmel establishing a nanotechnology coating lab on-site and in turn a focus within the organisation on commercialising the technology across multiple product platforms.

The consultancy also evolved into a wider piece of research under Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Partnership Programme — a funding programme that can provide business with up to 80% of the cost of a research project with an Irish HEI. Furthermore, the project positioned UL and Boston Scientific to collaborate on a submission for funding from Horizon Europe, the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation.

Another company embracing the opportunity of working with Irish state research is Rockley Photonics Ltd. Rockley Photonics is a leader in silicon photonics — a technology through which data is transferred among computer chips by optical rays.

Since 2017, Rockley has collaborated with the Irish Photonics Insights Centre (IPIC) based at the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork during which time the company has taken 11 commercial licences to research outputs. 

The relationship and successful outputs from the research undertaken contributed to the company’s decision to establish Rockley Photonics Ireland in Cork in 2020, which grew to 21 employees last year. The company continues to engage with the university and IPIC and has signed a new contract with UCC to continue working together until 2024.

Alcon is the world’s largest ophthalmic company specialising in innovative life-changing vision and eye care. The company sought to improve its manufacturing line process for an instrument called the IOL nozzle injector. 

Working with the Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateway CAPPA, based at Munster TU, they developed a new, early-automated software system that can predict the quality of products and remove reject injectors. The underpinning software was licensed to Alcon and meant significant improvements in manufacture and production line-testing for the company.

It also provided valuable new information on company products and manufacturing process. This was the first time Alcon developed a process improvement outside of the US and Alcon Ireland is now seeking approval to deploy a second system at the Cork plant for use on another production line. Alcon and MTU went on to review options for a follow-on process improvement project.

This type of activity creates employment and sustains economic activity in the regions and far beyond.

The case for competitiveness research matters. The foundations that are laid through sustained research funding allow us to respond in times of crisis and to build a brighter future for the well-being of society and the economy. 

Researchers are open to new opportunities and new ways of working. Government agencies can work swiftly to support R&D challenges. Partnerships between companies and higher education are effective.

With the added economic pressures of the pandemic, Irish firms need to hold and build their competitive advantage and it’s more vital than ever that the role of research as a driver for innovation is understood and funded. 

Ireland, through the support provided by the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment as well as the newly formed Department of Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Science has seen great strides made in supporting knowledge transfer — the commercialisation of research resulting from partnerships with HEIs and other State research organisations.

In 2019, Ireland was in 12th place in the Global Innovation Index and in 2020 the European Innovation Scoreboard placed Ireland as a Strong Innovator in a group of seven Member States with a performance between 95% and 125% of the EU average.

Our national policy for research commercialisation produced by KTI and the Irish system of public research in Ireland are well recognised throughout Europe and beyond. These are just some of the outcomes of measures taken over the last two decades, including the founding of the Knowledge Transfer Ireland, which places our country in good standing.

Getting support

There are a range of funding supports available through Government agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and others.

In addition to funding for the research, support is also available for companies seeking to access the expertise more directly, by bringing new talent and skills in-house through programmes delivered by bodies such as the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

As well these national supports, Horizon Europe — the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation — also provides business with funding opportunities and offers a number of funding schemes and programmes to help companies bring public research talent in-house.

The Directory of Research, Development and Innovation Supports 2021, available from the KTI website, details the various national and European research and innovation supports available to businesses operating in Ireland — from SMEs to multinationals.

The global economy is in line for unprecedented changes over the coming years and it is imperative that our nation remains competitive and innovative to cope with that.

Businesses based here, foreign and domestic, and research institutions must be supported to come together and develop solutions for societal problems; not because we are forced into it, but because that is how we position ourselves ahead of the challenges of tomorrow.

Source: Irish Examiner