Ireland can learn from Israel’s technology transfer model

Third level must embrace market-led research and innovation with commercial edge


Higher education institutions need to double down on their market-led research and innovation efforts and their engagement with the commercial world or they risk irrelevance. “Colleges that don’t embed market-focused innovation into their DNA are doing a massive disservice to their students who will need to invent their own jobs,” says Benjamin Soffer, chairman of the Israeli Tech Transfer Network and former head of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s technology transfer office.

Soffer was speaking to The Irish Times ahead of his presentation to a conference on technology transfer hosted by ASTP, the pan-European knowledge transfer association, in Dublin last week.

While Ireland is certainly not behind the race in the technology transfer stakes, Israel has achieved some truly remarkable results in this area relative to its size and those looking for best practice have increasingly beaten a path to Israel to discover why.

Israel’s technology transfer offices have generated more revenue from intellectual property (IP) sales than any other country outside of the US in recent years and tellingly, both Harvard and UCLA have chosen experienced Israelis to direct their technology transfer offices in recent years. The Technion’s research budget of about $90 million is a fraction of that of MIT, yet its income from commercialisation of research is broadly similar, he notes.

One specific reason Israel is successful in technology transfer Soffer suggests is the concentration of efforts by two separate elements in the state. The Israeli military, he explains, concentrates its research efforts on a small number of areas including big data and encryption, while the university sector concentrates on everything else.

One of those key areas for the university sector is biopharma. Israel’s life science industry is particularly strong and has been growing at a phenomenal rate in recent years. According to the Israel Advanced Technologies Industries body, there are now about 1,600 life science companies in Israel, employing 83,000 people. Of these, almost 1,400 have been established in the last decade.

Speed and agility, along with a strong national framework which prioritises the removal of bureaucratic roadblocks, are among the key reasons why Israel has done well, Soffer says, something he sees echoes of in Ireland now. “You need to think in terms of a having a fleet of speed-boats roaming the sea, seeing where the opportunities are and reacting quickly,” he says. “Ireland is dynamic in terms of speed in this area relative to many, but Israel is faster when it comes down to deal-making.”

Limited budgets and small tightly-focused teams often generate innovative, winning approaches in research and small spin-out companies, he says.

Thinking outside the box includes novel ways of securing funding.

Recent trend

An interesting recent trend, Soffer notes, is the number of universities now developing their own venture capital funds. The Technion institute, for example, is in the middle of raising a $200 million fund for its own research activity, he says.

“People ask why, and the answer is synchronicity,” he says. “Universities often operate in time frames of 10 years or more whereas VCs operate in much shorter windows. The VCs are looking to get in and out fast on their investments while charging the maximum amount of management fees.”

While arguing that universities need to engage more closely with the market, Soffer says that the government also needs to invest in more pure research with higher level institutions and that the two are not mutually exclusive. “It is a fundamental part of the role of universities to do basic research after all,” he notes.

However, even at this level, the research needs to have some relationship with the market and there needs to be more early-stage engagement with the private sector. Traditionally, he observes, a lot of academic research ends up “looking for problems to solve” when clearly it should be the other way around.

Making the connections between researchers and the private sector is key and Soffer refers to the process as a “contact sport”.

Israel is a pioneer in technology transfer offices, organisations that actively seek out, develop and market the know-how accumulated in public institutions such as colleges and hospitals, turning patents into commercial products.

Technology transfer offices are credited with having a major role in supporting Israel’s life science industry, with many patents, spin-out firms and licensing agreements in the industry originating in the eight research universities and 11 research institutions located across the country. In 2017, Israel’s technology transfer offices filed 604 patent applications and were involved in setting up 39 start-up companies.

According to Alison Campbell, director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, the body charged with getting publicly funded technology and research into the hands of business, who gave the welcoming address at this week’s conference, Ireland is also punching above its weight in technology transfer. “Research is increasingly industry-focused with a lot of bright, energised entrepreneurial students in third-level institutions collaborating with commercial partners,” she says.

College spin-outs Between 20 and 30 spin-out companies a year have been created over the past five years from research in Irish public institutions. These spin-outs have created over 900 jobs.

Campbell, who was recently chair of the Association of University Technology Managers, the global association of technology transfer professionals, highlights two important factors in this success. First, she credits the well-established network of technology transfer officers working at the interface of institutions and commercial partners.

A second factor she cites is the adoption of a national IP protocol in 2012, which has recently been updated. The protocol sets a benchmark for good practice in the commercialisation of valuable intellectual property on terms that are fair to both researchers and businesses. The 2019 IP protocol includes a section on best practice in the formation of spin-out companies.

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