Irish universities and institutes of technology (ITs) are upping their game in the race to commercialise research John Holden reports in the Irish Times Business & Innovation section on Monday, 7 April 2014. He writes that the job of straddling academia and industry lies with the technology transfer office of each higher education institution. This arm is becoming more active in terms of courting commercial interests into the halls of these institutions – not always an easy task.
The transfer office fulfils several roles. If a university or IT is producing good research – with potential for commercialisation – they must bring out the academic inventor’s entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously seeking out appropriate industrial partnerships. On the flipside, industry representatives and entrepreneurs frequently go to transfer offices looking for solutions, often in areas where there might be a technology deficit.
It sounds straightforward, but priorities, timelines and the level of understanding of intellectual property (IP) rights differ considerably between various parties.
To provide background for his story, Mr Holden interviewed James O’Sullivan, Technology Transfer Manager in WIT along with TT managers in DIT, NUIG and Trinity College Dublin.
Extract from the Irish Times’ story
Transparency doesn’t resolve all potential conflicts between industry and academia. “There can occasionally be a lack of understanding among entrepreneurs as to how IP sharing works,” says James O’Sullivan, technology transfer manager at Waterford Institute of Technology.
“Some of the younger entrepreneurs who come to us won’t have enough money to get the project off the ground. But even though they may be in search of funding and/or expertise, there is a gap in their understanding of the role of the academic institution’s IP protocols.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to convince them that WIT isn’t trying to ‘steal’ their idea, but if we’re potentially funding 100 per cent of the investment, they must understand we’re entitled to take a portion of the IP. It is, after all, the public’s taxes that are paying for it.”
Expectations about priorities can also be at odds. “The industries who surround us come with specific problems that need to be addressed,” says O’Sullivan. “You could say that what we do isn’t necessarily research, per se, but problem solving, which leads to innovation and subsequent developments of new campus companies. It’s very important to have market pull for academic research.”
However, this approach can give rise to conflict. “There can be disagreement between what academics want to do – ie publish their research – versus industry’s desire to maintain IP confidentiality.”
Managing expectations about timeframes is also part of the technology transfer office’s remit.
“Industry and academia are structured very differently,” says O’Sullivan. “Research organisations like WIT have academics who might be working on three- to five-year timelines. Industry want solutions tomorrow.”
This issue can, to a certain extent, be overcome if researchers are on contract. “We have 200 dedicated research staff being paid through funds like Horizon 2020 and Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers, as well as a huge number of staff doing developmental work for research companies,” says O’Sullivan.
“With the tenured academics, they don’t necessarily need to do commercialised research. So it’s good to have the contract researchers, who don’t have security of tenure. It makes them hungrier to do the work.”
Not all academics want to go down the commercial route, despite the potential financial gains. “My goal is to convince our academics to work with industry as a validation of their research, “ O’Sullivan says. “If they reckon their stuff is so good, why aren’t industry partners working with them?”