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Two Dublin Schools Pen 10-Year, $878M 'Innovation Alliance' to Spur Irish Economic Development


University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin will partner in the areas of technology transfer, new enterprise development, industry relations, and post-graduate entrepreneurial education in an effort to drive economic development in Ireland, the universities said this month.

The new TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance will be supported with some €650 million ($878.5 million) over the next 10 years from the Irish government, industry, and other private funders, with the aim of delivering 1,000 specially trained post-graduates annually and establishing 300 new high-tech companies over that time.

The alliance, which will create Ireland's largest tech-transfer and academic spinout-development program, will also largely tap into TCD and UCD's existing life sciences and biomedical research and commercialization capabilities, Des Fitzgerald, vice president of research at UCD, told BTW last week.

"The majority of this – about 65 percent – will be biosciences," said Fitzgerald, who is also a professor of molecular medicine at UCD. Underscoring this point, Fitzgerald pointed out that both UCD and TCD have medical colleges and multiple medical centers that together enroll some 300 medical students and provide more than 2,000 beds; and have associated with them three clinical research centers.

"A big part of this for both of us is in public health and healthcare delivery," Fitzgerald said. "TCD has a big program on cancer drug development; and [UCD] has a big program in proteomics and related applications, and identification of drug targets."

To a lesser extent, the Innovation Alliance will also seek to leverage existing expertise at the universities in the areas of information technology and nanotechnology, Fitzgerald said.

As part of the alliance, the universities will look to establish more multi-disciplinary research collaborations in these areas, as well as develop stronger industry ties, create new companies based on UCD and TCD research, and train post-grads to be more innovative.

"The Innovation Alliance is intended to impact across a range of areas," Fitzgerald said. "For example, we will have the business schools involved, and we would also see involvement from human sciences in some of the programs.

"So it's innovation in the context of new knowledge and new ideas, and technology to create new products," he added. "But it's also innovation in terms of organizational innovation and process innovation."

'Innovation Ecosystem'

The Innovation Alliance will have two major components. The first component, dubbed the TCD/UCD Joint Venture in Enterprise Development, will build on the universities' existing tech-transfer operations and enterprise facilities.

This will include creating new facilities for "pre-competitive research and design, prototyping, and process innovation to help harness and commercialize new ideas," the schools said in a statement.

The second component will establish a Fourth Level Innovation Academy that will provide specialized training in the area of innovation to fourth-level students, which are equivalent to post-doctoral students in the US.

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"Both universities will establish innovation as the third objective of the university," Fitzgerald said. "At the moment, our objectives are research and education. We will join our post-graduate education programs in some cases into programs where the students would be jointly managed by the two institutions, and there would be a joint appointment of the academics advising them."

The schools expect to begin working in this area with existing fourth-level students at both institutions by September.

All told, the Innovation Alliance is aiming to graduate some 1,000 specialized fourth-level graduates annually. Other goals of the alliance include establishing 300 new high-tech companies over the next 10 years, which the alliance and the Irish government hope to parlay into "thousands of sustainable jobs" by 2018.

The initiative will cost approximately €650 million over 10 years, to be drawn from a combination of sources including existing Irish government programs to spur innovation and economic development, industry, and private funders such as venture capitalists.

The majority of this funding – though it is unclear exactly how much – will derive from the Strategy for Science, Technology, and Innovation, established by Ireland's Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment. This national economic development plan, which started in 2006 and is set to run until 2013, is investing about €8.2 billion in national infrastructure and programs, including about €2.2 billion for academic research.

"What we're saying to the government with this alliance is that we would like to see that the investment in research is targeted more toward innovation, so that the universities can become a more integral part of the economic recovery in Ireland," Fitzgerald said.

"We believe that economic recovery is going to be based on knowledge and education, and we have a strong record for education in Ireland," he added. "We want to go further and see the government invest in innovation, where we take those ideas that have been generated in the universities and turn them into products."

The overarching idea for the Innovation Alliance and how it will feed into regional and national economic development was inspired in part by previous efforts almost a decade ago to establish an International Financial Services Centre in Dublin to concentrate the country's financial services sector into one main area.

"The universities are very close to each other in Dublin – they're only a few miles apart," Fitzgerald said. "So it's the same idea, to create a concentration in terms of innovation and the creation of new companies in a relatively small area that spans the two campuses."

The new strategy also drew inspiration from other international "innovation ecosystems" that successfully aligned education, research, and enterprise creation, such as Silicon Valley and the area surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US; and similar environments created in Finland and Sweden in the 1990s, UCD and TCD said.

"This is not just tech transfer," Fitzgerald said. "It's an innovation ecosystem that involves universities [and] government, and places industry at the center. Actually, industry is what we're trying to support here, not the university."

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