A fresh approach to the business of tech transfer
A new tech transfer body, KTI, will use novel ideas for exploiting research, says its head, Dr Alison Campbell
Dr Alison Campbell: “Engaging with the business community means you have a greater chance to see your research having a broader impact.”
Its head, Dr Alison Campbell, says she wants to try novel approaches to the business of exploiting research, including “easy IP”, in which a company might gain access to a licence for next to nothing with no strings attached. Impossible, you might say, and yet it makes sense here where a company might have to continue with its own research effort before managing to make a research discovery pay its way.
Campbell has a clear view of what she wants to achieve in the coming years, and it is not all about fast bucks.
“We have to get away from looking only at the money because it is not just about that. This is about economic development and societal benefit. If we want to benefit the economy then we are not going to do the big fat licensing deals,” she says.
The new tech transfer office, KTI, is hosted by Enterprise Ireland, but is not wholly new given its previous incarnation as the Central Technology Transfer Office.
KTI is run as a joint operation by Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Universities Association and promises to open up a two-way street between business and academia. It will encourage companies to avail of higher education institution expertise, or to become purchasers of licences and technologies from their discoverers. It promises to be a one-stop shop for companies looking to buy into useful research findings, but; however, similar claims were made over the years by earlier efforts at streamlining this problematic area.
Secret ingredient Previous attempts to kick-start Ireland’s knowledge transfer have delivered only limited results, but this one promises to be different due to its secret ingredient: Campbell herself. She was hired by the IUA last July as its director of tech transfer and then took over as the head of the joint Enterprise Ireland/Irish Universities Association office. She has an extremely useful mix of experience and expertise that should serve very well as KTI gets underway.
One of the new approaches Campbell wants to try is easy IP, in which you might give a technology licence away for very little but with certain minor conditions. If the company can’t make proper use of the licence it has to return it so someone else can have a go. But if there is some success with it then the company has to let the higher education institution that made the original discovery know their original ideas worked.
There is a payback even though it won’t all be about money, she believes. “The IP becomes a tool to create relationships.” Adding in a “bonanza clause” to seek a payback if the IP becomes a blockbuster breakthrough is just another IP licence, she argues. “You have to be brave enough to go with it.”
Campbell has a PhD in biochemistry, specialising in protein engineering and conducted research within higher education but also in the biotech industry as a lab staffer, so she knows research from both camps. She enjoyed the contrast between the two and what could be achieved. “I began to get interested in commercialisation and the interaction between industry and academia,” she says.
She next joined a funder, the UK’s Medical Research Council, working in its tech transfer operation at a time in the 1990s when the whole business of commercialising the results of publicly funded research was really getting traction. “We became a wholly owned subsidiary of the MRC as MRC Technology and we began to concentrate on the transfer of applied research.”
Review panels Then it was back to the higher education sector, running the commercialisation unit in King’s College London, followed by a long stint working as a private consultant. She had served on a number of review panels in Ireland, including with Science Foundation Ireland, and so had some exposure to the system here. When she heard about the job with the IUA she thought it was a very good fit. “It seemed a terrific challenge but it brought together what I was doing in the past and also my experience as a consultant,” she says.
It is not as though Campbell would necessarily shun cash deals arising from licensing, but it may be that more impact can be achieved by not selling a licence to a big multinational. The idea is to let an indigenous company buy it for a much smaller amount and then develop it further in the hopes to a saleable breakthrough. The returns might amount to small change for the big multinational but could turn into jobs and international exports for the local company, she suggests. “What we are trying to achieve has to be about the whole system.” It is wrong to think we can only move forward by looking at business only or the higher education institutions only, she says. “It is a whole system approach we need. Everything goes back to impact. We have to understand the impact and outcomes of these ventures.”
Make connections The main thrust of her approach is quite simple: to get the business community and academics talking. “We want Irish companies to engage with the research community where appropriate and to make connections with experts that exist within the research organisations. There is knowledge in there that might help them.”
But there also have to be benefits for the researchers. “Engaging with the business community means you have a greater chance to see your research having a broader impact. Academics don’t do research in a vacuum – they want to see some benefit coming from it.
“Involvement with companies should also allow them to bring back insights, for example, knowledge of how a company works. The institutions that will be really successful in this are the ones where the heads see this as strategically important.”
She will not be drawn into the old argument about funding for applied versus basic research. “It is all about the knowledge so let’s get the knowledge out.” One way or the other, ultimately it will be about the researchers, she believes.
“You can build a technology transfer team but actually it is the researchers who will deliver this agenda.”
The KTI will be assessed on a number of metrics but Campbell has a clear idea of what success will look like.
“At the end of the day it will be when the business community become advocates for the KTI system,” she says.