Trinity College is Dublin’s most prestigious educational institution. Started over 400 years ago by Queen Elizabeth I, a number of the world’s best-known writers—Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, to name a few—are among its famous alumni.
But as with any university across the world, Trinity can’t just lean on its reputation if it expects to prosper. It’s got to take the research coming from within its walls and translate it—shepherd it across the valley of death, cut licensing deals, spin out companies, and commercialize its ideas.
“This is the third pillar, as they call it,” says Gordon Elliott, a former Novartis, Daiichi Chemical, and Biotrin Ltd. employee who’s now a case manager of translational sciences in Trinity’s technology transfer office. “The university itself is coming around to the idea that you can’t just survive on teaching.” (And basic research, as it were.)
Indeed, the old college in the heart of Dublin is, in many ways, reshaping itself. In recent years, it’s beefed up its tech transfer office, bringing in people like Elliott—with experience from industry in product development—to drive a more proactive approach. Various policy changes have significantly boosted the number of campus spinouts. Between 1995 and 2000, Trinity spun out a total of 12 companies; from 2010 to 2014, the number grew to 26. The majority of those spinouts are information-technology companies; Elliott says about 30 percent of them are life sciences startups.
This isn’t to say Trinity just woke up the other day and decided tech transfer was a good idea. Elliott notes, for instance, that Trinity’s tech transfer office was formed in the 1980s; one of its first deals was a licensing pact with Elan founder Donald Panoz for a transdermal patch delivery technology that turned into the world’s first nicotine patch. Rather, Trinity’s concerted push in innovation is more of a microcosm of the entrepreneurship movement in Ireland.
To those looking on from afar, Ireland isn’t known first and foremost for its homegrown innovation. It’s home to a slew of outlets for large tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter) and life sciences firms (Pfizer, Boston Scientific, Medtronic, BioMarin, among others), but those outposts primarily serve as either manufacturing hubs or launch points for multinational companies to distribute their products and work with customers across Europe.
In the U.S., there’s a lot of teeth-gnashing about large American companies using a stake in the ground in Ireland as tax shelters, even as they’re headquartered on U.S. soil. Those large company outposts create lots of jobs for Irish folks, but they’re not companies that trace their roots back to a homegrown idea. Forming startup companies in Ireland, and turning them into large corporations, has been much more difficult for several reasons. It’s hard to grow with limited capital resources (in life sciences, there are only two local VC firms in Dublin—Fountain Healthcare Partners, and Seroba Kernel), and it’s hard to get really big in a country with a population of only 4.6 million.
This challenge is particularly acute in life sciences, because biotech startups developing therapeutics require much more cash than tech startups do—and longer investment timelines. One of Dublin’s best-funded biotech startups, Opsona Therapeutics, for instance, is 10 years old, has raised more than 60 million euros, and is still a ways away from a commercially marketed product. If a biotech startup can’t convince either Fountain Healthcare or Seroba to invest, as Opsona has, it’s likely out of luck.
Still, various pieces of a startup ecosystem have come together to make things a little bit easier. The government agency Enterprise Ireland was formed in 1998 to help accelerate the development of Irish businesses. It often participates in seed rounds for startups and provides other kinds of support, like connecting entrepreneurs with experienced members of the business community. Science Foundation Ireland was started up in 2003 to invest in local science and engineering research. It’s helped fund a number of lab projects that have gone on to become companies (like bone and cartilage repair startup SurgaColl Technologies, for instance), as well as research centers such as Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research (AMBER).
The Irish government announced in July that a 245 million euro investment, coming from state and industry sources, would go towards the development of several research centers aimed at a “step-change in the reputation and performance of Ireland’s research system.” Ideally, the centers will also spur the creation of local startups and university spinouts.
It’s against this backdrop that Trinity is trying to evolve its tech transfer practices, and boost its own innovation culture. I spoke with Elliott about the effort. Below are some edited excerpts from our conversation.
Xconomy: How has the idea of tech transfer changed in Ireland over the years?
Gordon Elliott: Up until about 2007-2008, you’re really talking about very, very limited resources going into tech transfer and innovation in the Irish context. Although funding for basic research and research in general expanded massively in that period, there was a gap identified. So around 2007, Enterprise Ireland brought in this “Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative.” And that really was to boost the universities’ ability to … Next Page »