There were more than 1,800 active research collaborations between industry and Irish higher-education institutions at the end of 2018, with 33 new products and services launched on the market as a result. These are among the key findings the latest Annual Knowledge Transfer Survey carried out by Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), the State body charged with making it easier for businesses to access publicly-funded research.
KTI is responsible for helping business access research of commercial benefit that comes from Irish universities, institutes of technology and other State research organisations. The research can be commercialised through collaborative projects between business and academia, through the creation of spin-out companies founded on particular research results or through securing a licence to intellectual property coming from the third-level research expertise.
During 2018, research collaborations between business and these bodies resulted in the creation of 30 new spin-out companies, up from 21 in 2017, and 124 patent filings with the university sector accounting for 76 per cent of these. There was a 33 per cent increase in licences, option agreements and assignment agreements in 2018, the highest number since the survey began. The majority of licences were signed with Irish companies (76 per cent per cent) of which 61 per cent were with Irish SMEs.
"The results show that we have developed a strong platform for knowledge transfer in Ireland, that is continuing to mature and evolve," says KTI director Dr Alison Campbell. "The level of international interest in the Irish system and in KTI has been encouraging. The survey findings confirm the value that enterprise places on accessing Irish research and expertise to drive innovation and the upwards trend in repeat engagements reflects the quality of that experience."
There has also been a shift in the nature of the collaborations. “We see a continuing move from a transactional model between research and industry that requires negotiations for each new project, towards a relationship model, leading to the accelerated translation of research into products,” Dr Campbell says. “As evidence of this, there were 365 repeat collaborations in 2018, an increase of 19 per cent year on year. Our focus will be to build on this momentum of qualitative progress as well as increased volumes.”
KTI supports these collaborations in a number of ways. “We bring together a variety of materials and resources on our website that help companies on their journey to engaging with a third-level institution,” she adds. “For example, they can see all if the financial and other supports available for R&D in Ireland. We also have a range of framework documents on the rules of engagement for collaborations. There are template legal agreements there which allow firms to spend their time thinking about the project rather than [spending it] on the legal terms and conditions governing it.”
Companies can also use the website to find potential research partners. The site features an interactive map of all the universities, institutes of technology and research centres in Ireland with details of their areas of research expertise and licensing opportunities. Companies can also access an up-to-date list contact details for the right people to talk to in the different research-performing organisations.
“We have a swift self-serve model to help companies to decide where might like to go,” says Campbell. “If their idea is for a particular product, they can look at providers of research in that area either in their own region or nationally. You can search a database of experts in the area. You can also get the name of the best person to speak to in the institute or technology transfer office.”
The site also points users towards the network of Enterprise Ireland technology gateways around the country. These were established by Enterprise Ireland in partnership with the institutes of technology to deliver technology solutions for Irish industry in specific technology areas and are open access points for industry of all sizes. "Their job is to help industry solve problems and if one gateway can't help, they might refer a company to another which can," says Campbell.
One form of engagement can evolve into another over time. “We have a list of all of the technologies and intellectual property that is available to licence from third-level institutions around the country. Companies can search it for technologies in areas of interest to them, but they often find that a particular patent might not be for them and end up working on a collaborative research project on something similar.
“In other cases, companies who do get access to a particular piece of intellectual property find that the people behind it are actually more valuable. It’s all about the innovation journey. Research shows that companies that engage in R&D are more successful in exports and turnover than those which do not and the more they can access expertise in the third-level sector the better they will be at it.”