Innovation Ulster Limited (IUL) is a knowledge and venture company of Ulster University, set up as a means by which the University can put its research to work through innovative companies, creating tangible economic and social impact throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The organisation’s flexibility makes it an attractive environment for individuals or teams from inside or outside academia to assess their idea or vision, through encouragement, rewards, and enthusiasm of the future generation of new inventions and knowledge.
We are a research-intensive university, creating research that impacts society and the economy
Since its start in 1998, when IUL was one of the first commercialisation companies in Ireland and one of the earliest in the UK, it has evolved and invested at a remarkable pace.
Ulster University was in the top 10% for outstanding or considerable impact in 2021 in a report from a group named Research Excellence Framework (REF) in a bench-marking exercise rolled out by the organisation every seven years across UK universities. The report examines the quality of university research, including its impact beyond the campus- gauging factors such as public policy, creative works, health care provisions and economy.
Another impressive impact statistic from the same report deemed 80.1% of Ulster University’s research outputs as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent.’
Tim Brundle is the director of Research and Impact at Ulster University. He directs Ulster’s research strategy, governance, and administration, and guides its commercial output through knowledge transfer and intellectual property commercialisation. He also holds the position of executive director of Innovation Ulster Ltd, Ulster’s venturing and investment company.
‘’We are a research-intensive university, creating research that impacts society and the economy. We have very flexible intellectual property arrangements- over the past decade at least we have not lost a single project due to IP. That is something which evades a great many universities, almost all throughout the Republic of Ireland. We are a founder-first, business-first university. We want to put the ideas, the innovation, and the ingenuity into the hands of the founder- the entrepreneur.’’ says Brundle.
Another body: The Higher Education Statistics Agency 2019 HE-BCI record, collects data annually from all higher education institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. Its study found that Ulster University is number one across the board for jobs created - 36,000 which could be linked back to IUL.
Asked about the profile of the typical entrepreneur, Brundle says there is no such thing, ‘’We are looking for the best ideas, people with big vision and excellent research. We have every age range and a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds’'.
IUL can boast an outstanding gender balance; with all the entrepreneurs and teams it has supported, the majority have been female. For context, if you bench-mark this against the venture capital system which is invariably less than 10 per cent, this is a remarkable feat of gender equality.
Brundle says the organisation changed its view about 15 years ago as to what the ‘right’ kind of project to work with is.
‘’Historically, like many universities, we would have dealt mainly with academics. Primarily we still support academic ‘spin outs’ but now we provide seed capital to graduate start-ups as well. We were the first university on the island of Ireland to provide venture capital for graduates. We have a current success story in a company named Axiul- 3D, which produces affordable 3-D medical visualisations and models. The owner has recently just made a colossal deal with a 3-D printing company named Stratasys. This is a company that started as a project conceived in the classroom by somebody on a Masters course. We were able to provide him with a seed fund and secure venture capital for him and now he has a multi-million-pound business that is trading internationally.’’
Another type of company that IUL have brought on board is what they refer to as ‘spin-ins’; fledgling technology companies or entrepreneurs with great ideas but with a need to access the technical framework or academic and research capability to grow their ideas. These are individuals or teams who come from the outside and draw from IUL’s Intellectual Properties and research, in return for an equity stake.
One of their biggest success stories in this arena is a company called Sisaf currently worth hundreds of millions of euros. Sisaf has developed the Bio-Courier platform of silicon-stabilised hybrid lipid nanoparticles to dramatically improve the stabilisation and delivery of RNA-based therapeutics and vaccines for everything from acne conditions to other genetic and non-genetic diseases.
The woman behind Sisaf, Suzanne Saffie began operating in 2008 with investment from IUL and went on to win the ITLG- Irish Times Award in 2010.
Since then, she and her company have formed a partnership with Croda International plc and launched a skincare subsidiary in the U.S.
In 2019, the company focused its research and development activities on gene-based medicines with a pipeline developed through a partnership with Avellino Labs USA to co-develop topical gene therapies for corneal dystrophies.
Within NI, IUL has been a nexus for great ideas, entrepreneurs, capital, and business experience coming together. The group is open and enthusiastic to collaborate with people right across Ireland and beyond, whether investors or entrepreneurs.