Need a Helping Hand? Ask the Experts

12th July 2021

For the uninitiated, understanding — and knowing how to interact with — the knowledge transfer landscape in Ireland can be daunting. However, SMEs in the early stages of thinking about engaging with public research should be aware that the knowledge transfer ecosystem is a welcoming one that is geared towards helping them innovate and gain competitive edge. In addition, the research network has a joined-up approach, so there’s no wrong place to start — once a company makes the first move they are in the system and will be referred on to the right programme, centre or financial support for their specific needs.

Alison Campbell, the director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, says the push to connect industry with public research reflects the real value of such collaboration.

“The focus is excellence and relevant research and it’s about stimulating innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness within the Irish company base and economic environment,” she says. “We want to make Ireland the best it can be in terms of innovation because that’s going to be absolutely critical as we look to the future. We’re going to have to be doing different things in different ways for different markets. The more innovative we can be the better.”

A useful starting point for any company considering knowledge transfer and how it might apply to their business is the Knowledge Transfer Ireland website ( The site has comprehensive information about all the support and programmes available, and the various institutes and centres that make up the public research network in Ireland.

“It’s a simple first destination that can move people quite quickly to thinking they would be interested in talking to a particular college or research group,” says Campbell. “There are links through to find out the best people to talk to. If you can talk to someone close to the source, you can have a much more cogent conversation.”

Some companies may already be used to talking to researchers or familiar with a college within their local environment. “If they already have contacts I’d encourage them to go back to those people as their first interaction because they can then be referred on.”

A range of valuable research and expertise is available within Ireland’s higher education institutes (HEIs). Ireland has eight universities, two technological universities and nine institutes of technology, all of which have a strong focus on collaborating with industry and research commercialisation. Their performance can be measured through their success in winning funding through international programmes such as Horizon Europe.

These 19 higher education institutions (HEIs) form the backbone of the public research capability in Ireland. Each has an innovation office or technology transfer office that leads the institution’s commercialisation efforts and can be a good entry point for SMEs and other organisations interested in finding out more about areas of expertise and what the HEI has to offer.

The offices are staffed by people who have worked in industry and investment environments, and understand the issues and challenges companies face when they are looking to innovate. Business managers of these offices are sector experts who have extensive experience of interpreting the needs of business and identifying commercial opportunities.

All across the country, and primarily sitting within and around these HEIs, are research centres, technology centres and technology gateways created in specific areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), which can also provide research and development expertise to companies.

There are, for example, 16 large-scale research centres under the SFI Research Centre Programme. Each of these incorporates research groups from across various HEIs to create cutting-edge research capacity in thematic areas that are considered to be of particular economic importance to Ireland, including pharmaceuticals, software, digital content, big data, telecommunications, photonics, medical devices, nanotechnology, marine and renewable energy, functional foods, perinatal research and applied geosciences.

These centres are open to collaborating with Irish and international research performing companies, from SMEs to multinationals. Partner companies do not have to have a base in Ireland.

Another layer of interaction is the Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateway Network, which is focused on helping industry take advantage of technological expertise from the seven institutes of technology and two technological universities. There are 16 specialised gateways focused on key technology areas, including mobile, polymers, photonics, coatings, industrial design, mechatronics, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, wireless technologies and precision engineering.

The gateway network has also developed three R&D clusters, which specialise in the internet of things (Applied IoT), engineering, materials and design (EMD) and food and beverage (Irish Food Tech). More than 300 research and engineering professionals are employed across these clusters and so far they have delivered more than 4,000 innovation projects with 2,500 Irish companies.

Each of the gateways acts as a portal to industry-focused capability across the network and on to Ireland’s wider research infrastructure. “Although they may work in a very specific sector, they all work together and collaborate and cross refer,” Campbell says.

“If a local gateway can’t solve your problem, they’ll be able to refer you on to somebody who can. If the solution doesn’t fit within the gateway — either because it’s not within their area of expertise or because your challenge is of a different nature than they might provide a solution for — they can cross refer within the universities and institutes in which they’re embedded.”

Gateway staff manage the interaction between companies and the various institutions, help SMEs source funding where necessary, and ensure the successful delivery of projects. The services of the gateway network are available to all companies.

Elsewhere, the Enterprise Ireland/IDA Technology Centres programme is a joint initiative that aims to help Irish companies and multinationals work with research institutions on market-focused strategic R&D projects together.

Eight technology centres are funded in this programme and have been formed around significant groups of companies to use cutting-edge R&D in their respective areas of interest. The specific technology areas of the eight centres are: data analytics and machine intelligence; dairy processing; functional and health food innovation; manufacturing research; educational and learning; microelectronic circuits; meat technology; and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The fact that the research landscape in Ireland includes different kinds of centres of excellence that operate in slightly different ways is an advantage for companies, Campbell says. “There should be a way of engaging that suits different companies depending on the stage of their own RD&I journey and how they want to get involved.”

She stresses the fact that it is a “whole system approach” rather than being one of individual siloed centres.

“For example, the EI technology centres and the SFI research centres all straddle several universities and institutes. They’re not islands on their own, they’re very much part of a collaborative inter-woven research solution.”

Any company with an interest in developing their offering and becoming more competitive should at least consider the potential benefits of knowledge transfer, she says. “It’s rare that you have all the resources you need in-house. Most companies’ strategic planning involves looking at capabilities they’ve got in-house and the capabilities they can perhaps outsource. Knowledge transfer is a channel to help with that outsourcing. It really allows you to tap into the skills, expertise, facilities you may not have and that you don’t need to invest in full time.

“It’s there, it’s available and if you can think through what you might need and begin to have conversations with third-level and other research-performing organisations then you can really build out your asset base relatively straightforwardly. I would say, don’t be frightened and really think about this extra resource to support your company’s journey in its competitive road. I’d encourage companies to engage early and engage often.”

Source:The Sunday Times