Ireland Notebook: A Look at National Labs and Research Centers

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technologies for smart grids and cities, connected health devices, and so on. Carlo Webster, who led the tour, says Tyndall has more than 200 active industry partnerships, including many with American companies such as Boston Scientific and Qualcomm.

Some things that stood out:

—One big area of growth is life sciences and medical devices. That’s because medtech is incorporating more and more electronics. “This is a huge opportunity for an institute like Tyndall to add value,” says Webster.

—Tyndall and UCC, which itself is home to at least three other national research centers, share a technology licensing office that is upping the ante on technology transfer and spinout companies (as is everyone, everywhere). Both have a long way to go by U.S. standards. Tyndall has spun out roughly one company a year for the past 10 years, according to Webster. UCC has been averaging 2-3 per year and is pushing to get that to 4-5 annually. “We need to be a lot more efficient and effective in getting our spinouts up and ready,” says Tim Roche, UCC’s director of technology transfer.

—One company, Grasp Wearable Technologies, spun out of Tyndall the very week I visited. It offers a platform for precision motion tracking, with the first applications for athletes.

The next morning, I visited the University of Limerick. The place brought back memories. (In 1989, I had played basketball there in the finale of a seven-game series against Irish all-stars. I was a bench player, and had scored just 19 points in the first six contests combined. At Limerick, I exploded for 25…but I digress.)

My first visit was to SSPC, which was funded as a national research center last year, marking its move from what was called a research cluster into a much bigger entity that now counts 35 principal investigators, 60 PhD students, and 34 post docs.

Its focus is the pharmaceutical industry. It has deep expertise in crystallization and addresses a wide range of pharmaceutical challenges, from drug formulation to improving the solubility of active ingredients, and more. For instance, changing a compound’s formulation could improve solubility so that it works better—enabling a drug that might never have seen the light of day to come to market, general manager O’Halloran says. “From our perspective the impact is jobs,” he says. “Jobs in the pharmaceutical sector.”

Also headquartered at the university is Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre. Lero was founded in 2005, but this October it joined the newest batch of national research centers, greatly increasing its funding and scope. It is part of Ireland’s attempt to build expertise in critical software arenas like cloud computing, analytics, big data, privacy and security, autonomous systems, and smart infrastructure. Lero currently has 40-plus academics, 38 researchers, and 70 PhD students, according to general manager Brendan O’Malley. It also has six spinouts and 26 patents to date, with another 20 patents pending, he says.

As with Tyndall, Lero sees the medical arena as a big growth opportunity. That’s because software can sometimes be a classified as a medical device in its own right, if it is used by physicians to make decisions about patients, says O’Malley. Lero works on frameworks to make such software compliant with medical regulations, for example.

The Rub

Focusing on core areas and not trying to do everything is essential for a small country (or organization) competing globally. Creating virtual research centers that bring more expertise to bear on these areas also makes great sense, as does the strategy of requiring corporate funding to ensure work is relevant to the business world. The selection committee structure, and the exclusion of anyone Irish from the selection panels, are extremely interesting to me, and make a lot of sense if they really are independent of political and other pressures. Ferguson told me he borrowed many aspects of the research center concept from around the world, but “the impact review panel is unique to us—that isn’t borrowed from anybody.”

One thing that jumped out at me, though, was the level of industry participation. In-kind donations usually involve equipment that companies don’t want anymore, and don’t signal real commitment. Ferguson was well aware of this. He said the current rule is that industry must contribute at least 30 percent of the center’s funding, with at least 10 percent in cash (in-kind contributions can be equipment, services, or people). His goal is to get industry’s cash contribution to 30 percent of the total. They aren’t there yet. So one key question will be whether industry really ponies up as time goes on: that could make a big difference in keeping these labs vital and growing.

Another question mark surrounds the strength of the government’s commitment. Time and time again, programs start off with a bang and fall out of favor due to changing times, changing leadership, or a new bright object to chase. Ireland has been unrelenting in maintaining its low corporate tax rate and other business incentives. Will the Irish government make the same unwavering commitment to efforts like research centers, whose payoffs can be harder to see and unfold over years, if not decades?

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