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How business and academia can work together

Collaboration in R&D has given higher education institutes much-needed cash boost

 Director general of Science Foundation Ireland Prof Mark Ferguson. The SFI this month granted approval for eight new research centres.  Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography

Director general of Science Foundation Ireland Prof Mark Ferguson. The SFI this month granted approval for eight new research centres. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography

 

The third-level funding crisis has forced the sector to look elsewhere for funding opportunities.

One of the biggest developments in recent years has been the growing research and development collaboration between business and academia, which has given the higher education institutes a much-needed cash boost and provided academics with a chance to create and develop products and services that can solve useful problems, particularly in science and technology. Business, meanwhile, has gained access to the brightest minds in the country.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether commerce has too much influence in the third-level sector and whether that is unduly influencing research priorities, but it seems there’s no going back.

In any event, much of the products of this collaboration have great potential to improve human health and the world around us.

In 2012, there were about half a dozen formal legal contracts between Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and industry collaborators where a company was paying money to a third-level institute.

Now, five years later, there are more than 500 signed industry contracts and more than €100 million in going to the public sector to support this kind of research. Latest industry figures show that about 50 per cent of multinational companies are collaborating with public sector R&D. Budget 2016 saw the introduction of the “Knowledge Development Box”, which allows companies to carry out R&D in Ireland at a tax rate of 6.25 per cent.

Funding

And, only this month, eight new research centres have received approval from SFI with four of these having received funding and another four awaiting funding approval.

Ireland has massively improved, says Prof Mark Ferguson, director of SFI, but Ireland still ranks low in the OECD and EU figures for the amount of private investment in public research and development. So are we doing enough?

“We have improved and we are still growing, but we are coming from a low base. We will do more through SFI research centres and there are industry partners working with these groups [on problems relating to data analytics, fetal and neonatal health, communications, data analytics, marine and renewable energy, software research, digital content technology, gastrointestinal health, advanced materials and bioengineering, medical devices, applied geosciences, photonics and pharmaceutical process innovation] across Irish HEIs. There are particularly strong collaborations in the pharma industry, including AbbVie’s work with the APC Microbiome Institute. ”

The four new research centres which have received funding are Confirm, which studies smart manufacturing IT and industrial automation systems; Déantús which focuses on techniques and processes in additive manufacturing; Beacon, which looks at alternatives to fossil fuels; and Future Nero, which studies how chronic and rare neurological diseases are diagnosed, monitored and treated.

With four more institutes in the pipeline, it is a massively ambitious strategy for research and development.

The Government’s Innovation 2020 strategy is the foundation on which bigger and better research partnerships can be built, but is this enough to make Ireland an innovation leader? “How do we attract multinationals if other countries lower their tax rate?” asks Prof Ferguson.

Innovation centres

“We have to develop indigenous companies, and SFI’s task is to grow the network of innovation centres. We also need to increase the number of PhD students; they are particularly in demand by pharma and medical technology firms.”

SFI isn’t working alone, however. As well as overseeing the research centres which bring together academics from around Ireland with organisations such as Teagasc (the agriculture and food development authority), and Enterprise Ireland is also playing a key role in developing and deepening the links between business and academia.

Dr Alison Campbell is the director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, an organisation which was established by Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Universities’ Association.

“Our role is to make these collaborations happen,” says Dr Campbell. “We want to make sure that R&D supports between industry and third level are fit for purpose for these companies and that there is a wide range of them. From Enterprise Ireland’s perspective, it is about helping to drive innovation and competitiveness.”

Are there obstacles to developing better R&D capacity in Ireland? “Yes, for many businesses it is as simple as not knowing what supports are available and how they can engage with them, as well as what sort of expectations they should have.

Practical supports

“The State has developed a national IP protocol which sets this out quite clearly and is supported by a range of practical supports which help companies when they are thinking about how to work with third level. Most of these interactions need to be underpinned by a contract or agreement and we have tools and supports including innovation vouchers to help them.”

* Companies looking for more details of how this works can refer to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation’s “directory of innovation supports, research centres and technology centres” (Google search those words to find the relevant document or click here).

The directory sets out the key financial supports for innovation that are available to companies, information on where companies can get advice and guidance on which financial supports are most relevant to a business and a directory of research centres and technology centres. There’s information on tax credits for R&D as well as the knowledge development box, supports for in-house R&D and details of how to access graduate researchers. It is an invaluable tool for businesses big and small and it’s free to download.

Examples of business and academic collaborations

The Knowledge Transfer Ireland Impact Awards showcase companies that have successfully worked with Irish HEIs and publicly funded research organisations across seven categories including consultancy, spin-out company, initiative and achievement.

– Graphene licenses: In 2014, Trinity College Dublin and UK-based fine chemical manufacturing company Thomas Swan signed license agreements relating to graphene and other 2D material. Since then, Thomas Swan has launched graphene and boron nitride products which, at a single atom thick, can be used for a variety of high-value products.

– Probiotic strain license to Alimentary Health Ltd: The strain bifidobacterial has been licensed by UCC to Alimentary Health Limited (AHL) since 2002. This strain of bacteria has been shown to have significant benefits for the immune system and, in 2015, AHL launched Alflorex in UK markets as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. At home, this won best Irish pharmacy product of 2015 and became Ireland’s top-selling probiotic supplement.

– Controlling hospital superbugs: Controlling the spread of hospital superbugs is one of the biggest challenges in hospitals. Ten years ago, Kastus Technology worked with FIT to develop an anti-microbial coating technology that can be used on a range of surfaces. Kastus sub-licenses the technology to large multinationals that manufacture components for things that people touch (door handles, computer and smart device screens, toilet seats) and which are vectors of disease. This relationship between DIT and Kastus has deepened and developed.