Trinity changes direction to run open-door policy for industry

The hope is that jobs and greater funding will result from the new strategy for corporate tie-ins

Mon, Mar 31, 2014, 01:05

Trinity College Dublin is revamping the way it does business with businesses. Under its latest guise the university’s corporate link between research and the business world will take on a far more informal role, inviting businesses to team up with its researchers in a less formulaic way.

The hope is that this collaboration will not only lead to jobs and new enterprises, but also greater funding. So firms of any size – from SMEs to multinationals – can drop by and request help with research projects or expertise on everything from high-end science to business management advice.

No fees are mentioned in the new plan, but the undoubted hope is that collaboration between the firms and the university will lead to financial rewards for both.

The university launched its Office of Corporate Partnership and Knowledge Exchange last Friday. It represents an important part of the institution’s wider strategy for innovation and entrepreneurship, explains Trinity’s dean of research Prof Vinny Cahill. The short launch event included insights from Trinity’s industrial partners on how it might work to mutual advantage.

“We launched [the university’s Strategy for innovation and entrepreneurship] strategy last November and there are a number of initiatives under that umbrella, including this new office. Our overall goal is to try to maximise the impact of our research, creating monetary value, cultural value and social value from it,” he says.

“Dublin is becoming something of an innovation hub and Trinity is right in the centre of the city near where the multinationals are setting up. There are a lot more start-ups in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) but also in cultural areas, drama, animation, special effects, TV production, video games. Having the new office is a significant part of the strategy. At its core it is about how Trinity can help economic development in the city and country. Obviously supporting indigenous and multinational companies is a big part of that,” says Cahill.

In a way it sounds like what’s already in place – or was in place – in many third-level institutions: running an open door policy that encourages industry to drop in and see what is on offer.

However, Cahill says the university is intent on ensuring there are benefits on both sides – both the firm and the university – to make it all worthwhile. For one thing it had representatives from Ibec on hand along with existing industrial partners. “The intent is to improve connections between external stake holders particularly in the enterprise sector and both academics and students,” he says. “If you are an external company and you think there is something we can help you with hopefully this office will be visible and you can connect with Trinity via the office. We will also attempt to be proactive, to get out there and let them know what kind of services and expertise exists in Trinity, reaching out through the State agencies and also directly to companies.”

Trinity’s thinking very much reflects the view within Government that holds the State should be getting something back from all the investment in Ireland’s research infrastructure over the past 15 years.

Spinout companies
It wants discoveries to be moved out of the lab and into the marketplace as quickly as possible, the hope being that it will spinout new companies, create jobs and boost exports.

The new office is meant to stimulate this, helping companies to become more research-active and forming commercial relationships that can develop further. The office also provides the back office activities needed to support this work through preparing proposals, ironing out intellectual property issues, striking research contracts and integrating corporate and academic partnerships into the wider world through access to funding sources such as the EU’s science budget Horizon 2020.

“Trinity signed a record €140m in research contacts in the 2012-13 academic year,” says Cahill. “Obviously we have a lot or researchers at world- class level. They are attracting funding on an ongoing basis for fundamental work and also for applied work. As a strategy we are trying to leverage the funding for more collaborative research and more engagement with industry.”

Working against this are excessively tight budgets that make it more difficult for the higher education sector to retain researchers, particularly post doctoral research fellows.

The fixed contract arrangements required by EU regulations means that when a pot of funding granted through Horizon 2020 or Science Foundation Ireland runs out the promising young research goes too.

All of this impacts the research agenda. “Obviously what we are seeing is that funding sources are generally more focused, with expenditure particularly indigenous sources targeted at near term economic benefits based around meeting national research priorities,” he says. “But there is still a wide range of funding streams out there.”

The new door into Trinity may be open but it remains to be seen who steps over the threshold. Even so, the drive to connect with industry and advance the university’s reputation as a hotbed of innovation continues. “The ecosystem in Dublin is developing. We need to find better ways to connect with indigenous and multinational companies,” says Cahill. “You don’t want to stand still.”

There are other things in play too. The university is preparing to launch an entrepreneur-in-residence programme in order to bolster entrepreneurship generally across the campus. “We expect to have three or four entrepreneurs in different areas,” he says.

“We want to connect academics with great ideas with people who know the markets and who can help to channel research opportunities in the right way.”

And other undertakings to spread the word about innovation and entrepreneurship across campus as mapped out in the wider strategy continue as part of the wider process.

“Our students are more and more interested in not just getting a job but in starting their own ventures. This is true right across college, not just in Stem areas,” he says. “A lot of our students are going to be self employed. The culture is changing out there. The students themselves want to have an impact on society.

“We are going to see more start-ups and high profile start-ups, involving from teens to established serial entrepreneurs. Once you have those role models in place it makes it a legitimate career option. That is something students are considering, maybe they are less risk averse than they were in the past.”

This is only in keeping, Cahill says. “I argue that Irish people have always been entrepreneurial. There has always been a spirit of doing things out there. And we would like to support that aspiration.”