Irish technology firms are keen to listen and learn


Innovative new technology is emerging from the country’s third-level sector all the time. Getting access can boost your business, or create a completely new one.

That’s what happened at Atlantic Therapeutics, maker of Innovo, a wearable device that helps strengthen the wearer’s pelvic floor.

It arose from a patent application filed in 2009 by UCD for a technology that could help restore the muscles of the pelvic floor using external surface electrodes in people with urinary incontinence. It’s a problem sometimes suffered after pregnancy or prostate surgery.

The intellectual property (IP) arose from a research collaboration between Bio-Medical Research (BMR), maker of Slendertone toning products, and Professor Brian Caulfield of UCD’s School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science. The IP was licensed to BMR, which incorporated it into a new product, now known as Innovo.

“BMR quickly recognised that this product was so significantly different from their offering, and aimed at a different audience, that it needed its own management structure and a stand-alone entity to realise the opportunity,” said Danny Forde, global product manager at Atlantic Therapeutics, the business subsequently spun out of BMR.

Atlantic Therapeutics raised €15m in funding in 2017, followed by a further €28m earlier this year. The cash will support its bid to move from a current prescription-only sales model in the US to a direct to consumer one, via e-commerce. It is currently working on achieving the required Food and Drug Administration approvals.

Innovo already sells in Ireland, the UK and a number of European countries. The success of Innovo is clear evidence of the value of Ireland’s third-level technology transfer programmes, said Forde. “It’s the science that provides the strong foundation on which to build the commercial strategy,” he added.

Atlantic Therapeutics currently employs 50 people around the world, and has “a healthy product road map” for the future. “We have re-established links with UCD in recent months and see the potential for further innovations.”

At the end of 2018 there were more than 1,800 active collaborations taking place between industry and academia, according to Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI). It is the national one-stop shop agency for businesses interested in partnering with the country’s publicly funded research base, including at universities and institutes of technology.

The agency was set up six years ago to make it simpler for businesses to engage with innovative research. Today 55% of its collaborations involve small or medium-sized businesses.

KTI’s website is a good place to start for any business looking to see what’s possible. It also hosts regular events and produces a number of publications on the subject each year. All this activity is about helping business owners gain “the confidence to work with third level”, said the agency’s director Alison Campbell.

Its own research shows that companies that engage in R&D are more successful in terms of growth and exports. Despite this, “one of the challenges is to help raise awareness in companies that they might need to innovate, and that actually, there’s a resource system in place to help”, Campbell said.

Partnering with academic research expertise is a cost-effective alternative to hiring the capability to do it in-house, and the first steps on the journey can be supported by the government’s Innovation Voucher scheme, which pays businesses €5,000 towards the cost of academic research projects.

Where previously applications for vouchers had to be made at certain times of the year, these are now available all year round.

Ireland’s universities and third-level institutions all have technology transfer offices, part of whose role is to proactively seek out businesses that might benefit from their research capability.

“Ireland has become very joined up in its ecosystem. Knowledge transfer is increasing as a result of national strategy feeding into funding strategy,” said Campbell, pointing to the government’s new €500m Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund as a case in point.

Key to KTI’s success is breaking down the traditional fear factor inhibiting small businesses that might otherwise be interested in tapping into third and fourth-level research expertise. KTI can help put business owners in touch with key research personnel and can provide resource material such as sample IP contracts to help. “It shouldn’t be daunting,” said Campbell.

Forde agrees. “We see that the academic landscape is getting much more aligned to working with industry, so for businesses, it’s worth being prepared to invest the time to collaborate with them, to develop the proven use cases,” he said.

Working with academics is helping Restored Hearing, creator of a sound therapy programme for sufferers of tinnitus, significantly.

The business was set up in 2009 and started its academic research collaboration with a €5,000 Innovation Voucher. In October it was awarded €2.3m in funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 SME programme, to help it develop and commercialise new sound-absorbing technologies.

Today it works with academic experts in materials science and mathematics at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick, to develop new solutions to help protect hearing loss across a range of industries, from construction to aerospace.

Not alone do such academic collaborations allow it access to top talent, “it also gets us access to equipment and lab space that we would otherwise have had to buy”, said Eimear O’Carroll, who co-founded it with friend Rhona Togher.

Xtract is another good example. The start-up has developed a claims platform for crash data. It aggregates and visualises a range of information for motor claims handlers at the moment a crash takes place, helping them to determine liability, detect fraud and automate the vehicle damage “triage” process. Those involved in the crash simply upload incident details via a phone app, and the system takes it from there.

Founder Michael Flanagan worked with maths experts at the University of Limerick. “At the very start we needed to create an algorithm around crash detection, with 12 physicists from around Europe to create our first model,” he said. From there he was able to develop a minimum viable product, or MVP, and start commercialising the product.

“It gave us the foundation,” he said. Two years on the business has nine staff and is partnering with some of the biggest insurance companies in the world. “For every sales call and investor meeting I had, I was able to say ‘We worked with the University of Limerick to develop this’.”

Source: The Sunday Times