Why shaking up third-level R&D would pay economic dividends


A UCD lecturer argues more money is needed for R&D – and a fresh approach to spending it, writes IAN CAMPBELL

IF IRELAND is to create more start-up companies out of third-level research and compete in emerging global industries, it needs to attract academic talent and be prepared to significantly increase its university funding, according to a lecturer at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business.

Rory O’Shea has made academic entrepreneurship his research speciality. He is currently adding the final touches to a book that identifies what universities need to do to spawn commercial success stories and create clusters of companies that benefit the economy.

At a time when questions are being asked about the return on Science Foundation Ireland’s €8.2 billion funding, he argues that more money is needed for research and development (RD), along with a fresh look at how it is spent.

Crucial to successful spin-off activity are “star scientists”, according to O’Shea, top academic talent that can create the innovation that is conducive to commercialisation.

“Despite all the funding, we still haven’t attracted enough star scientists, not just for start-up activity but for building university ties with industry.”

He says that in Ireland there are only eight “highly cited” researchers that could be categorised as academic stars, compared with 47 in Israel and 64 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alone. Universities that have gone out of their way to attract academic talent have made significantly more progress in commercialising research, he says.

O’Shea uses MIT as evidence of how academic excellence and entrepreneurship can be pivotal in triggering successful start-ups.

Research shows that an estimated 6,900 MIT alumni-founded companies in Massachusetts have gone on to generate worldwide sales of about $164 billion (€115 billion), while a further 4,100 are based in California and generate an estimated $134 billion in sales.

O’Shea cites the University of California, San Diego, as another example. It set out to attract a critical mass of top scientists in the 1960s with high wages and superior accommodation, and today finds itself at the epicentre of a cluster of biotech and wireless communication companies.

To attract talent to Ireland, O’Shea calls for radical ideas including tax breaks for high-end research. “We have the tax emption scheme for artists but why stop there? If someone comes to Ireland with a pioneering innovation that solves a form of blindness, for example, shouldn’t they be entitled to a similar scheme?”

More direct investment is also needed, he says. Irish universities receive between €30 million and €80 million a year, a low figure compared with the US, where MIT receives $800 million, and the UK, where the University of Manchester has an annual research budget of £375 million (€262 million).

“We need to have two universities that have an RD spend of €500 million if we want them to be considered anywhere near a top-50 research institution. Right now we are very far off that mark,” says O’Shea.

He also makes the case for frontier research. “It is a prerequisite for top universities. Frontier research with application leads to radical innovations that meet societal demands. There are already examples of it happening in the solar-power industry and around the green technology sector.”

With public funding now under greater scrutiny, O’Shea defends his call for more money for university research, arguing that the return on the investment manifests itself in many ways. “As well as the alumni-founded starts-ups, research universities generate a knowledge spillover that attracts RD investment from multinationals. It would also accelerate student entrepreneurship.”

This last component suffers badly in Ireland, says O’Shea, because students only receive feasibility grants to develop an idea if they have the money to match the funding. “It needs total restructuring. In the US, funding is based on the promise of the opportunity. An idea is evaluated and if it’s deemed good enough then the student gets the entire sum.”

O’Shea also calls for technology transfer offices, the university departments responsible for commercialising RD, to be more innovative and business savvy. “In the US they have deep industry expertise so when technology comes out of the labs they have an idea where the market opportunities are. It’s an area that needs to be improved in Ireland.”

Key points

To make the most of third-level research, Ireland must:

Substantially increase research funding

Come up with incentives to attract top academic talent

Change the feasibility grant structure for student entrepreneurs

Pursue frontier research to meet societal needs

Improve the business focus of technology transfer offices

Rory O’Shea is co-editor of Building Technology Transfer Within Research Universities: An Entrepreneurial Approach, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2010