Aiming to Boost Innovation, Trinity Fine-Tunes Its Tech Transfer

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get involved in innovation, to be proactive, to put staff in place like myself that could go to the researchers and give them more of a focus on, I suppose, socioeconomic outputs. Really focusing on look, when you’re doing your research here, let’s make sure we capture any plans likely there. Let’s put capital behind anything that might have commercial potential. And let’s go and get money and try to develop these. Let’s do spinouts. Let’s go out there and try to license [some of] these [ideas] to companies.

X: What type of tech transfer policies and expectations had been in place when you came to Trinity?

GE: Initially when I joined here in 2008, there’d been a pretty [big focus] on licensing technologies. But when the [economic] crisis happened, then it became about jobs. We quickly shifted towards trying to do spinouts, because we were being driven in that direction by our funding agencies, Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland. So one week it was all about the licenses, get the licenses in. The next week it was all about jobs, get spinouts happening, we need to see people getting employed. We followed that route and we did quite well—we did spin out companies.

X: How was the oversight of these spinouts handled?

GE: We had a business and industry committee that was responsible for approving spinouts. And that was a committee that was a mixture of academics and some business people from the outside. We were doing, I think, just 0.75 spinouts per year, because the barrier was very high to be a Trinity spinout, and we were taking a 15 percent equity [stake in them] with a 5 percent anti-dilution provision.

X: Was there any hesitance among campus researchers to translate these ideas?

GE: Trinity has a history of attracting some of the highest performing research in Ireland. These [people] are interested in basic research, you know? So I suppose there’s a natural hesitancy to get distracted by applied research. I think it comes down to the paradigm between your curiosity-led research and your problem-led research. So I think there’s been a recognition that the two kind of go hand in hand—there needs to be a balance.

X: Given the mandate to boost the number of spinouts, how did Trinity react?

GE: Trinity went [down] to a 5 percent equity stake, no anti-dilution clause, and we also stopped using an industry committee. The approvals were done by myself, the case manager, or the director. Our philosophy was to let the markets decide if [the company] was viable or not. So we went from having like a 0.8 to 1 campus company per annum, to like, 6 to 10. One year we had 10. That has tailed off a little bit, because the people that are going to be involved in campus companies, there’s not an endless supply. They’re probably already tied up or they’ve failed, or they’ve been successful. Now we’re settling in around 4 to 6 spinouts per year.

X: Was the shift because of too little oversight, perhaps?

GE: I suppose some of the ones we’ve spun out over the last few years actually were not viable, and there’s a little bit of failure going on, there’s a little problem with that. We’re thinking now of maybe raising the bar a little, to get a little more quality. The feedback that we’re getting from partners in state agencies is that we might be letting them form companies a little bit too easily.

X: So what is Trinity trying to do to protect itself from those failures, while giving itself more opportunities?

GE: We’re trying to raise our activity of industry engagement. It’s not just about spinouts. Its not just about licensing of what you might call spoke technologies. It’s about having conversations with companies when they’re trying to license something and saying, well, you’re not interested in this technology, but is there anything else we can do together collaboratively? Because we see the university as being not just a supplier and source of opportunities, but a source of expertise and infrastructure. Do you have any problems or projects that you would really like to work on but you just don’t have the resources or bandwidth? We can do a project with you. If you’re a med tech making orthopedic devices, hip implants or whatever, you need access to an electron microscope, we can do that. If you need an MRI scanner for an animal or a human, we can get you access to really high-end MRI scanners. We’re trying to do more of that.

X: There’s a lot of competition for industry support. How does Trinity get the ear of, say, a large pharmaceutical company?

GE: We do our best to try to reach out, and IDA Ireland, [the foreign investment agency of the Irish government] is very good for bringing companies to us—we try to put the appropriate researchers in front of these people when they come to visit. But it’s not always easy to get a conversation with somebody. Our experience with pharma is they’re actually interested in the researchers themselves rather than the university they’re in. Everyone wants to talk to [professors] Luke O’Neill and Kingston Mills on the immunology side, so maybe we’ve got to [focus] a lot on individuals. We had a big wave of recruitment in the early 2000s when Science Foundation Ireland was set up originally. I think we need another wave.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rui Jarimba via Creative Commons

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