Innovation Talk: Making the magic of Silicon Valley happen more quickly

The Frontline report describes TTSI 1 as the ‘starting point’ for knowledge transfer, but if that is true what have we been doing for the past 15 or 20 years?

 

Ireland has long struggled to see research and technology discoveries in higher education laboratories transferring readily into the private sector. There were a host of reasons, with academics and third-level officials blaming the companies for squabbling over intellectual property guarantees or rewards on licences, and businesses saying the academics had unrealistic expectations or weren’t doing anything worth commercialising.

Year after year, this correspondent heard how things would all come right once the licensing procedures were straightened out and proper legal structures were put in place. But as the years passed nothing much seemed to change. It seemed an unfortunate truth that the magic that happens in places such as Silicon Valley or Singapore wasn’t going to be repeated here.

It could reflect a lack of vision here, and an inability to see the potential of knowledge transfer to deliver societal advances, jobs and new companies. Or it could have been a timing thing, a mismatch between the capacity of the universities and institutes of technology to turn out research findings that had the potential for commercialising and the willingness of companies to make the effort.

Remember that substantial State funding for research here only really started to flow around 2000 once the then government agreed to put €1 billion into academic research via Science Foundation Ireland and other funders. It took a long time to build up our research capacity, both the world-class labs where credible research could happen and also tune up the people needed to lead research in those labs. It was also going to take time to break down the prejudices held by both sides in this public-private dance and overcome the resistance and indifference to doing deals.

Run the clock forward a decade and a half and see where we stand now. In 2007, the then government launched the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative (TTSI 1) with a budget of €30 million to beef up knowledge-transfer offices in the higher education sector. All third-level institutions now have some form of knowledge-transfer office trying to find private sector partners who will licence or buy discoveries. Some complain the results don’t justify the expenditure in support of knowledge transfer, while others, principally the Government and Enterprise Ireland, would argue that great strides have been made.

On Wednesday, EI will launch a fresh assault on commercialisation, a new iteration of TTSI that should simplify the business of making publicly-funded research yield a return on investment. (This sounds very familiar.) EI will also launch The Irish Technology Transfer System 2007-2012, a report on the performance of TTSI 1 by UK firm Frontline Consulting. This report will say that in 2005 the combined national knowledge transfer system could only generate 12 licences and deliver five spin-out companies. By 2012, the yearly average number of licences had risen to 85 and there were 22 spin-outs a year, the report will say. The figures are going in the right direction, although the comparison with 2005 would have to flatter, given the then reluctance of academic researchers and companies to do business.

The report also looks at jobs arising from collaborations in more recent years. Frontline says that a sample of 65 Irish firms reported that 1,844 jobs were created or retained as a direct result of TTSI 1 activity and 27 per cent of a combined turnover worth €371 million – equivalent to €100million – arose because of TTSI 1 activity.

Innate hesitancy A director to oversee improvements sought from the knowledge-transfer system here is already in place. Alison Campbell has served as director of the central Technology Transfer Office at Enterprise Ireland for about a year. There is an overt link with the universities, given she is actually employed by the Irish Universities Association but works in offices provided by EI. She will now head this new version of TTSI 1 when it is announced this week.

As ever, the question remains whether the innate hesitancy of academics and business people to join forces for the common good of themselves and wider society can be overcome. Bedrock policy from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation holds that one way or another, the public investment in research must yield dividends, which within that department usually means commercial returns as jobs, start-ups and business expansions. But it also gives the nod to societal benefits, not just via employment but in making Ireland more competitive, building up our capacity to do research and supporting higher education.

The Frontline report describes TTSI 1 as the “starting point” for knowledge transfer, but if that is true what have we been doing for the past 15 or 20 years when told that tech transfer was up and running? Certainly it has not been running very fast. Let’s hope it can pick up the pace.

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