Finding partners at the tea dance of open innovation
INNOVATION PROFILE: University of Ulster
OPEN INNOVATION recognises that RD is expensive. In some industries, it can be prohibitively expensive for smaller firms. The idea of open innovation is that other organisations can do the RD – at their risk – and you can pick and choose what parts of it you want as you are ready. Universities are particularly well set up to do RD and not good at manufacturing and selling, so in theory open innovation is a win-win partnership.
In 2011, University of Ulster launched its open innovation platform “Open Ulster” which aims to provide open access to its intellectual property. The university has been licensing the fruits of its RD for many years, but in the last few years had been looking at ways to make the engagement between business and its RD products as simple and transparent as possible.
Dr John MacRae, technology commercialisation manager at University of Ulster, explains: “The greatest concentration of RD expenditure is in the US, so we looked at open innovation practice there. In fact, what we found in the US was extremely fragmented; a jungle inhabited by patent trolls, brokers, technology intermediaries operating for profit, innovation dating agencies which attempt to match problem solvers with solution seekers, websites which look a bit like eBay for patent auctions.
“This innovation jungle would be somewhat intimidating if you are a business wanting to pick through RD products to try some out, equally so for a University with its new ideas coming out of RD but not sure how to release them into the wild.”
Warming to his dating ritual metaphor, MacRae talks of old-fashioned tea dances. “My grandparents used to talk about going to the tea dances in rural Ireland. The lights stayed on, the music was gentle and the strongest drink was tea. Dating rituals are played out in nightclubs now; the lights are off or else flash wildly so that you only get intermittent glimpses of what you are buying, the music is loud so conversation is out of the question. All kinds of drinks and pharmaceutical products are allegedly available to enhance or impair your judgment.”
Open Ulster is designed to be the tea dance of open innovation practice. “The lights stay on: you can see what RD products we have on offer. The music is quiet: you can talk to us about any of the technologies on offer; there is no onerous licence documentation and no confusing legal terminology. There are no strong drinks: you can evaluate any of the Open Ulster technologies in your own time and in your own way. If it doesn’t suit your requirements or your purposes, it can be handed back with no further commitment.”
LifeScienceHub is an example of a company which has found what it was looking for at the Open Ulster tea dance. Founded by entrepreneur Declan Service, LifeScienceHub is in the medical device industry and has recently agreed funding from Belfast-based venture capital firm eSynergy along with Invest NI. The company is looking for products and innovations which are emerging from University RD but not yet ready for market exposure.
“LifeScienceHub is in the business of clinical trials, regulatory approvals and then of course sales and marketing,” Service explains. “I have 25 years experience in the life sciences industry, working for and with the major global organisations that dominate this sector. Taking life sciences products to market is not like selling farm gates. It requires a huge depth of knowledge in all the complex issues that can arise. LifeScienceHub aims to apply that experience to emerging life sciences RD wherever it can find it.”