Enterprise Ireland, the country’s government-sponsored economic development agency, last week said that it is providing €8.5 million ($11.4 million) to a group of Irish universities to augment their technology-transfer operations.
The award is the first in a series to be drawn from a €30 million government technology-transfer fund and granted to all of Ireland’s universities, technology institutes, and research hospitals over the next five years.
The aim is to turn basic research into licensable technologies and spin-out companies, with a particularly strong focus on life sciences and biotechnology. The resulting increased tech-transfer activity will also for the first time provide a way for the government to measure return on research investment, which could improve the way it supports funding agencies.
The first round of funding was announced last week by Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment Micheál Martin at an event held at University College Cork. According to Enterprise Ireland, the money will be used primarily to staff the technology-transfer offices at UCC, National University of Ireland-Galway, NUI Maynooth, The Royal College of Surgeons, and University College Dublin.
“The appointment of these new technology transfer professionals will spearhead the drive to commercialize the ideas and technologies produced in Irish research institutions,” Martin said in a statement. “If we are to remain a world leader in the high-tech sector then strong links between our researchers and our entrepreneurs are vital.
“I look forward to seeing a marked increase in patents, licenses, and start-up companies as a result of this latest investment in the knowledge economy,” Martin added.
Ned Costello, CEO of the Irish Universities Association, said that the money is intended to infuse the universities’ tech-transfer offices with industrial blood.
“Fundamentally, it’s about putting technology-transfer professionals into the universities,” Costello told BTW. “Many of the people who are being supported under the initiative might have been involved in advanced research in universities earlier on in their career, but have also had private sector experience and are coming back now into the university system.”
He added that the five universities to initially receive funding in many cases already have recently appointed directors of technology transfer, but will receive money to support the professional teams that will be working under those directors.
Ireland does not have legislation in place akin to the US’s Bayh-Dole Act that enables universities to retain the rights to IP generated from nationally funded research. However, the technology-transfer process in Ireland is generally similar, Costello said, due to a set of codes of tech-transfer conduct developed about three years ago by Enterprise Ireland and Ireland’s universities and research institutions.
Despite this, “if you were to compare us to many different measures of international standards, and if you took a snapshot of us right now, we are lagging behind,” Paul Roben, director of Enterprise Ireland’s biotechnology commercialization group, told BTW. “That’s just the bottom line.”
He said the reason for this is that the country has “only really started investing in the research base in a serious way in the last six or seven years. So you kind of have to get the basic research base up, and then you can start talking about getting some of that out into the industrial side.”
Roben added that Ireland was approximately two-thirds as efficient as the US in commercializing technologies for each dollar spent on research. “Obviously we’re aiming to catch up,” he said.
Costello agreed that the lack of technology commercialization in Ireland was a matter of timing, not effort.
“Ten years ago, there was relatively little government investment in research,” said Costello, who previously worked in the government’s Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, and helped draft much of the agency’s funding strategy for research.
To address this, the Irish government established Science Foundation Ireland to implement awards to support scientists and engineers developing biotechnology and information and communications technology.
According to Costello, SFI provided about €500 million in funding from 2000 to 2006, split roughly between biotechnology and IT. According to SFI’s website, it is also responsible for investing another €1.4 billion over the next six years to support research in these areas from an overall €8.2 billion budget allocated for scientific research under Ireland’s National Development Plan and Strategy for Science, Technology, and Innovation.
“But over the last seven years or so that the new science [research] strategy covers, there has been a huge process of catch-up,” Costello added. “Now that we’ve actually got an emergent and very strong research base, the spotlight falls on the knowledge transfer and … on the exploitation side of things.”
Because Ireland does not have a strong system of national research laboratories, it decided to base the core of its applied and translational research in its universities.
“Because this is all taxpayers’ money, and you’re putting this money into research, there’s the whole question of payback and exploitation of the knowledge that’s created,” Costello said.
Both Costello and Roben said that it was difficult to determine exactly how much of future technology commercialization efforts will be in biotechnology, but both agreed that the government has earmarked a significant amount of funding for applied research in this area.
“The money they have put into commercially focused applied research – which is what we’d be expected to translate through this tech-transfer initiative – about a third of that funding is in life sciences, and roughly about a third of the licenses and spin-out companies we see coming through from universities is in the life sciences,” Roben said. The remaining two-thirds are primarily earmarked for information technology, materials science, and other industries.
“If you were to compare us to many different measures of international standards, and if you took a snapshot of us right now, we are lagging behind.”
As part of the financing program, Enterprise Ireland will also act as a liaison between academia and industry to help foster relationships, and will itself receive some of the funding to support these efforts.
“There is a new strengthened section of support within EI, which is also being grown under this initiative,” Costello said. “So we’ll have a network of universities and EI, and the universities will then be able to avail themselves of the very strong relationships EI has with client companies and of its expertise in growing high-potential start-ups.”
EI’s Roben said that the goal of the tech-transfer funding is two-fold. The first, he said, is to generate research activity that is of interest to industry.
“Obviously we prefer that there is some sort of impact to Ireland, so certainly [creating] start-ups here [is] of great interest to us,” he said. “But in terms of licensing, our industry base isn’t developed to the extent that we can always guarantee that we are going to get [technology] into an Irish company, so we do license to multi-national [companies] in the interest of generating activity. That’s still a return for us in the long run, anyway.”
The increased tech-transfer activity will also for the first time provide a measuring stick for return on government research investment, which in turn will allow Enterprise Ireland to advise national funding agencies on what areas of research need additional funding.
“Now we’ll know what the economic benefit is of all the research funding – not just from one entity, but all across the board,” Roben said. “And it allows us to go back to that system and inform better in terms of, ‘Maybe you should be putting money here instead of there.’”
Future grants from the €30 million coffers will go to Ireland’s remaining three universities – Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, and University of Limerick – and then to the country’s 11 research institutes to put staff in place to manage their own IP portfolios.
Roben said that the five universities receiving the first €8.5 million award were selected because they were already more advanced in terms of research than the other entities.
It is too early to proclaim the national tech-transfer strategy a success, but Roben said that early indications are positive.
“In the last year we’ve seen a complete changeover in staff in the tech-transfer areas of the universities,” he said. “We have new people in from industry that have revitalized the whole thing. And this €30 million is to try and resource them so they can drive us.”