Reap the Rewards of Teamwork

8th July 2021

If you are in any doubt as to the potential of a well-considered third-level collaboration, the Kastus founder and chief executive, John Browne, can probably disabuse you of it. The Irish nanotech firm could be considered a “serial collaborator”, as Browne puts it. A long-time believer in working with third level, the company — which specialises in antimicrobial coatings — has worked with numerous higher education institutes over the years, including Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin (UCD), Athlone and Sligo ITs. But perhaps its most significant partnership is the one it has with Technological University (TU) Dublin, a good fit given its CREST laboratory and hot-house facilities.

“From the very early stages of the company’s evolution we dealt heavily with the CREST facility,” Browne says. “The team there, led by Dr Brendan Duffy, were instrumental in getting our technology to the stage where it was proven and effective.”

TU Dublin helped the company with its development processes and with testing to various international standards. It’s a collaboration Browne sees continuing “indefinitely”. Kastus has offices in TU Dublin’s Grangegorman campus and has recently signed up to another Enterprise Ireland (EI) initiative to help it to develop a new technology to complement existing products.

Having access to the expertise, machinery and facilities of a third-level institute in its early days was a huge boon for the SME. “Without that, companies like ours would never get off the ground,” Browne says. “There are pieces of equipment we have access to that cost hundreds of thousands of euro, not to mention the expertise to operate them. Even now that we are well funded, we still wouldn’t have the financial ability to set up labs of that standard.”

Apart from the obvious benefits of working with higher education facilities in terms of product development and testing, there are other less tangible payoffs too. One of these, Browne says, is networking. “Third-level institutes tend to be very well connected and respected internationally.”

Another benefit is problem-solving. “For example, if an issue arises, even if one facility can’t fix it they may be able to pick up the phone to another who might be able to help,” Browne says. Casting his mind back to when Kastus first got involved with third-level research, Browne says the fact that EI made the initial introductions to CREST was a big help. After that, though, he says anyone going the same route will “get out of it what you put in”. “Industry tends to move at a different pace to third-level institutions, so there will be a bit of push and pull to make sure everyone is going in the same direction and understands the deliverables,” he says.

Gearoid Mooney, EI’s divisional manager for research and innovation, supports Browne’s view that companies will get out what they put in. “Enterprise Ireland’s range of funding support programmes are designed to assist companies with the financial aspects of collaborative research, but successful research activity between companies and the third level is as much about building relationships and the mutual sharing of expertise as about funding and focusing upon the end result,” he says.

“When done well, collaborative research is very much about making alliances and working together to find solutions. Generally, those that treat the project as a partnership and those that invest more in terms of time and human resources to the research — in addition to the financial piece — will reap greater success and greater rewards.

“Irish companies and Irish institutions are very much leading lights in terms of successful collaborations and outputs that are leading to real breakthroughs in terms of our health, how we work, our leisure activities and leading to improvements globally for the next generation. That’s what the real achievement is.”

Another Irish SME that is no stranger to a spot of collaboration is Innopharma Education, a pharma technology and research company that provides education and upskilling programmes for the pharmaceutical, medical device and food industries.

Ian Jones, the founder and chief executive, says that he has always believed in fostering relationships with third-level institutions and research centres. One of the company’s most significant and continuing collaborations is with University of Limerick (UL) research centres Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC) and Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Technology Centre (PMTC). Research partnerships like these make sense for Innopharma on two fronts: not only does its business benefit from accessing the external expertise, it also gives it the opportunity to develop research programmes and PhD programmes jointly.

“This means we can shape the research even more strategically towards what we need,” Jones says. “And we also get the benefit of graduates who have learnt to work with our machines and whom we regularly hire.” The other important point is that in many cases these institutes and research centres will be the company’s early adopters.

Innopharma has installed the same advanced manufacturing technology in the two research centres at UL as it has at its labs in Dublin. “This means we can design experiments in Dublin and send them via the cloud to UL,” Jones says. “They run the experiments for us and we see the data in real time.”

He says that this demonstrates to those in the pharma sector and elsewhere that it is possible to have a hybrid working model, which is particularly pertinent post-Covid. Jones gives the example of the fact that some countries in sub-Saharan Africa face big challenges in medicine manufacturing; technology such as this shows that there is potential for them to take part in a hybrid model whereby medicines are made there, even though the expertise may be somewhere else.

Third-level collaboration works for companies of all shapes and sizes. The global giant Siemens, for example, collaborates with 25 universities worldwide and is partnering with the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) at UCD, which has been up and running for about four years. The focus of this work is the use of data to improve biopharma operations.

The reason Siemens initially came together with NIBRT was, says Domhnall Carroll, the country lead for digital industries, because of certain gaps in its expertise. “As a company we are very experienced in engineering and software, but we don’t have huge experience in the science of bioprocessing,” he says. “We are also very interested in bioinformatics and using big data in biopharma settings.”

The collaboration with NIBRT aimed to bring together those four areas: engineering, software, bioprocessing and bioinformatics, and it has already had a huge impact on the profile of Siemens as an entity in Ireland, Carroll says. “It gave us the opportunity to do things that weren’t being done in other parts of Siemens and therefore made us much more relevant,” he says. “The kind of work we’re doing is at the cutting edge of data usage in biopharma; that’s not a profile we could have had without the NIBRT collaboration.” He says that, when preparing to work alongside third-level bodies, clear communication from day one is really important. “The academic community operates in a different way to commercial organisations; it’s really important to have good early discussions and acknowledge that different types of organisation work in different ways.”

He says that Siemens has never been disappointed with what has been delivered through NIBRT but has sometimes been surprised by “when things arrive and in what way”.

“Good early communication about expectations, not just of deliverables but of how people are going to work together, is really important,” he says. According to Chantelle Kiernan, the senior scientific adviser for innovation and digital transformation at IDA Ireland, third-level collaboration is not just for companies that fit a certain profile; in fact, she says, the Covid experience has probably highlighted the fact that businesses across the spectrum have much to gain.

“If you look at the companies that would traditionally have been involved in third-level research, they tend to be progressive and perhaps already have some strong global partnerships. They were able to pivot quicker towards digital transformation, whereas it was much harder for the smaller or more traditional companies,” Kiernan says.

She adds these businesses need to know that they can “leverage the expertise that sits within universities and use that collaboration to upskill and cross-skill themselves”.

Any company that believes it could benefit from engaging with third level should not hesitate to take that first step, she says. There are specialists in IDA Ireland, in the case of foreign direct investment, and Enterprise Ireland.

“We can help companies to look at their own business and see where they want to go and provide practical advice to help companies understand where the right fit may lie. They may find there is significant expertise right on their doorstep.”

Source: The Sunday Times

Image Source: InnoPharma Education