A central goal of most modern universities is to commercialise their research output both to fund future research activities as well as to make a contribution to the wider economy.
The University of Ulster has a proud record in this regard, having fostered 38 spin-out companies with a combined turnover of £115 million over the past 10 years. These companies have shown an average annual growth rate of 12 per cent and have secured £21 million in venture capital investments.
This impressive track record doesn’t come about by accident, however. In the case of the University of Ulster there is a strong support infrastructure in place which is aimed at translating the institution’s intellectual property into marketable products and services.
At the core of this infrastructure is the dedicated Office of Innovation, which offers a range of services research and consultancy services to businesses of all sizes.
Research commercialisation is the main role of the office’s innovation services team. In addition, the university has a separate company, Innovation Ulster Ltd, through which it engages commercially with the business community and investors. This company has just announced investments totalling £1 million in five university spin-out companies.
The funding was secured through the Ulster Innovation Fund (UIF), an investment fund designed specifically for spin-outs from Ulster, which is supported by Invest NI and managed by early-stage venture fund management specialist E-Synergy Ltd. The UIF is part of the EU-funded Northern Ireland Spin-Out (NISPO) initiative aimed at supporting start-up and early- stage businesses in Northern Ireland.
“Our focus is on technologies that have come through the technology transfer process and have good commercial potential,” explains Caroline McGoran, head of investment and enterprise with the Office of Innovation.
“Most of the technologies which come to us will have been developed through the academics’ own research work over a two- to three-year period. We help them validate the commercial potential of their work before bringing it to the next stage.”
This next stage sees the research being put through the InvestNI supported Proof of Concept Programme, which supports the pre-commercialisation of leading-edge technologies emerging from Northern Ireland's research organisations. The aim of the programme is to improve the level and quality of commercialisation from the universities.
“During the programme the academics are helped to look at the commercial potential of the research and how it could be marketed, a mentor is brought on board, they might be brought to a trade show, and the aim is to get it to a stage where it might be attractive to an external commercial partner,” McGoran points out.
Where McGoran and her team get involved is identifying the projects with the most commercial potential and bringing them on to the spin-out stage. She explains that projects in some sectors may not be suitable candidates for spin-outs for a number of reasons. For example, life and health sciences research tends to require a very long lead time and high levels of investment before it comes to commercial fruition, and this makes it relatively unattractive to early-stage investors who are looking for a nearer time horizon for a return on their capital. Engineering and IT research, on the other hand, tends to offer a quicker payback and therefore lend them- selves more readily to the spin-out route.
The five spin-out companies which have shared in the £1 million UIF funding have tended to come from these areas. One example is Solaform which has developed a revolutionary new cost-effective, solar water heating system, which is designed specifically for pre-heating domestic water.
Pioneered by Dr Mervyn Smyth and Dominic McLarnon from the School of the Built Environment, Solaform's SolaCather technology is easily installed and has the potential to improve on the cost-effectiveness of traditional forms of solar water heating already in use.
"The company exhibited in San Francisco last year and there was huge interest in the technology," says McGoran. "What is needed now is for the product to be tested over a period of time in our climate to validate its effectiveness. We are looking at a partnership with a social housing provider who would install the technology and provide that data."
Vifkon is commercialising a new building system developed by Prof Faris Ali which offers enhanced protection for personnel and buildings against fires and blasts. The fire-blast protection system is the first dual-function system in the world of its kind and is designed for use in industrial and military premises, civil buildings, and tunnels and other vulnerable structures. Prof Ali and his fire-blast system were finalists in The Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Awards 2013.
Tactility Factory initiators Ruth Morrow and Patricia Belford from the Art and Design Research Institute have developed a process which brings textile thinking and technologies to concrete manufacturing. This innovative blend of textiles and concrete create a unique, tactile and beautiful "skin" which is used in luxury, high-end interiors delivering unique surfaces with a crafted artisan experience. Tactility Factory's technology can also be integrated into other precast products or used in a variety of products.
Surf-Spec is the brainchild of Dr Cormac Byrne and is focused on surface science and engineering. The company offers pioneering technologies and processes in the field of surface augmentation. The initial commercial focus is on the high-value biomedical materials and device markets, where the Surf-Spec products offer efficiencies in performance and cost.
Dr Joan Condell, Dr Kevin Curran and Prof Paul McKevitt from the Computer Science Research Institute are behind the fifth funded spin-out Hidinimage. The team has created a digital watermarking innovation, based on the science of steganography but developed in such a way to conceal and retrieve information from within digital computer files.
These five companies are just part of a pipeline of new technologies coming through from the University of Ulster. "There will be another Ulster Innovation Fund from NISPO 2 next year, and we have over 20 projects going through the InvestNI Proof of Concept programme at the moment and we hope that a number of these will qualify for funding," says McGoran.
“We are also looking at student entrepreneurship and we hope that over the next year we will bring one or two student projects into Innovation Ulster. That’s part of our work, creating opportunities here in Northern Ireland and highlighting the exceptional quality of the research happening at the University of Ulster.”