Commercial agenda encroaches on the realm of research


Commercial agenda encroaches on the realm of research, writes DICK AHLSTROM

DERIVING FINANCIAL benefit from the State’s investment in research activity has become a central element of the Government’s overall science policy. It is fundamental to the recently released prioritisation plan and is now an assumed constant in any Government statement on enterprise.

The concept is simple enough, but how does it operate on the ground? Are there sufficient numbers of scientists coming forward to have their research discoveries turned into successful products and companies? Do we have a cohort either of firms or talented individuals who have the business acumen to turn bright ideas into commercial successes?

A quick look at the figures suggests we are holding our own when compared with other countries, according to one commentator. This view is based on looking at various output metrics, including invention declarations, patents and spinout companies. “It doesn’t look bad by international standards,” the person said. We are not rushing ahead of the competition, but we are holding our own.

This may, however, reflect underlying problems – for example, a lack of interest on the part of researchers who view the pursuit of their research as far more important than making a buck from it.

“For the majority of researchers commercialisation is not an important part of their working lives,” according to Dr John Walsh of the Irish Research Staff Association.

Many research areas cannot readily be turned into a business, he suggests, yet there was always the danger of a “one size fits all” approach, with demands to bring ideas to market becoming the focus rather than the research itself.

His contention seems to run counter to figures delivered in a survey of researchers conducted last October for Enterprise Ireland. This Towers Watson study found that 82 per cent of the 552 respondents said they would like to see their work commercialised. Of these, 68 per cent said they would like to do so by working with existing industry and 32 per cent by going the start-up company route. The respondents represent only a fraction of the total number of researchers working here, however.

Enterprise Ireland is an important funder of this activity via its Commercialisation Fund. It has put €19 million into 90 projects in 18 institutions since 2010.

Another long established route from bench to business is via the on-campus commercialisation team, the local technology transfer office (TTO). All seven of Ireland’s universities have TTOs and these are in place to help bring ideas to market. In University College Dublin, for example, NovaUCD provides this service, and the university has run its Campus Company Development Programme for the past 17 years.

TTO staff acknowledge however that it can be difficult work to get researchers to step outside their comfort zone and engage with business. “It means a cultural change for scientists,” one staffer said. Many view going the commercialisation route as somehow “anti-academic”, and are uncomfortable with the idea of research discoveries heading for patent rather than for release in the research press.

Researchers also need to learn a new skill set – a decidedly foreign skill set – in order to engage with commerce. There is no point in pretending that all of this can be hived off to an incoming chief executive hired to run the nascent campus company.

An age bias is also evident, according to a number of commentators. Younger researchers seem more inclined to embrace the commercial world and adapt more readily to what is required of them.

Older, more established researchers also, however, have more to lose if they decide to break ranks and get into business. In many cases, the universities want these people to remain committed to their research in order to keep the ideas pipeline well supplied and ready to deliver fresh commercialisation opportunities.

Even so, academic researchers who bid for and receive support from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Enterprise Ireland are left in no doubt about the commercialisation agenda. The Foundation tallies individual research performance for its annual “census” and publishes the results.

While the Foundation is more than willing to gauge success for individual principal investigators in terms of citations, the big-ticket outfits – the Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology and the Strategic Research Clusters – need to do more than publish papers to prove that they are doing a good job.

So if the pressure is on to commercialise why have we not yet produced an Irish Nokia or Microsoft or HP? Are the ideas coming forward not quite good enough or is the system incapable of delivering a local “giant”?

The Government says watch this space but at the end of the day, it could all come down to money. Our universities are slipping down the international quality rankings due to a lack of investment, making it more difficult to squeeze a world beating discovery out of the system.