God only knows how much money our respective states pump into research institutions every year to promote and stimulate the growth of R&D and support the knowledge economy. We, as SMEs, are entitled to our share if we have fundable projects. Enterprise support agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Intertrade Ireland are key players in the R&D ecosystem and play a vital role in generating and nurturing innovation partnerships between Universities, research institutions and SMEs. Funding has always been available to support collaborations, especially for larger companies. And its now beginning to get interesting for smaller SMEs.
I’m writing, not as one of the founders of Smallbusinesscan, but as one of the founders of a new Science and Technology start up that over the past six months has benefited from key focused grants from the Irish State that has allowed the business to locate world class research in Cambridge University and in Cork Institute of Technology.
In this piece I’ll try and share some insights learned from our journey and, hopefully, it might help you if you go the route of trying to work with a large – and they’re all large – research institute.
A Typical Irish Story
First of all, the start of our company is a typically Irish story. We had 2 top physicists working in Cambridge, both Irish, meet for the first time on a new project and they said they’d go for a couple of pints! Over those few pints, the genesis of an idea was born. With their knowledge and skill sets in physics, photonics, fluidics, applied maths and machine learning software (yes they’re rocket scientists) combined with a something called spectroscopy and new developments in glass microchip design, they felt that realtime analysis of fluids was a probability and within reach. Anyone who knows anything about water testing, blood testing and even testing for pathogens in milk will know it’s a timely and costly endeavor with lots of expensive lab time need to grow, cultivate, slice and dice and shake samples to see what’s in the fluid being tested.
I got involved immediately because they rang me to see if the idea had legs. As someone that sold software into the water utility sector, I knew that finding ways to monitor and test water was big business. I also knew who to talk to, to see if the idea was a runner. It was.
Between the jigs and the reels we convinced Cambridge University’s Institute of Manufacturing that we had a very novel approach for the use of glass microchips and we’ve been working with them on producing smart chip designs.
My comfort zone is also Ireland Inc and I can navigate my way around the various supports available over here.
Local Enterprise Office
My first port of call was my Local Enterprise Office in Cork and after presenting a plan that we worked hard on, they agreed to match fund market research and proof of concept trials. We then sussed out all the various research institutes to see where we would carry out trials. Some were not as enthusiastic as I liked. Others engaged. A couple bent over backwards.
When I say we sussed them out, what I mean is that we did due diligence on them. We hit their websites (they could be better!), we asked around about other research collaborations, we met their heads of groups and their senior researchers, we had conference calls with 3 where we put them through their paces. To be honest we probably scared some off because to say the least we were pushy (possibly even arrogant). We tested them on their knowledge of the fields we were interested in and we challenged them on how much of their research had been spun out.
CIT Nimbus Centre
To cut a long story short we decided to carry out our first proof of concept in CIT. The guys in the CIT Nimbus centre (specialist group in embedded technologies) in particular were 1.) Hungry for our business and excited by what we were doing 2.) They had a dedicated water section with an advisory board of potential customers for our solution 3.)They had a new photonics lab with the equipment we needed and 4). Upstairs in the same lab they had a bio lab where we could grow our samples for testing.
Ok let’s pause here for some insights. The first few weeks with CIT were fraught. A big problem was the clash of cultures. I wanted our guys to get access to facilities over the weekends including Sundays. I wanted our guys to get access to equipment as and when they needed it, within reason and with notice. The guys in CIT could get us access on Saturdays – which involved their staff giving up one of their holidays over the weekend – but the buildings were just not available on Sundays. And free access was not on, even if our guys were world class scientists. CIT had insurance, public liability, equipment liability issues etc to deal with. As for long weekends…
But then things began to settle. People began to get to know people. Friendships began to develop. The team made up of our guys and CIT staff began to go the extra mile for each other. I, as a businessman, began to realize the potential of the CIT facilities that were available to our small start up – a photonics lab, a bio lab, a water institute, the Rubicon centre – all within 3-4 minutes walk of each other. We were inside the tent.
Our proof of concept worked beyond expectations…but where was the next pot of funding coming from?
Enter Enterprise Ireland. I had businesses that received Ei support in the past but we were revenue generating and exporting. I didn’t fully realize the supports that Ei were putting in place to support innovation. We were encouraged to look at the new Express Innovation Partnership which makes funding available to carry out specific research in a research institution.
We applied. After a pretty exhaustive due diligence, we got approval within 2 months. Now the process won’t suit all. 1.) We had to cough up some of our own money but then EI would match it 4 times over 2.) We had to do a full business plan because Ei had to understand the commercial possibilities before they made their decision 3.) We were put through our paces by a scientific evalulator and a commercial evaluator – who had their research done.
At this stage we were in bed with CIT but we also had to sort out IPR and commercial issues. If approved the funding would go to CIT to carry out research on our behalf. We had to make sure that our background IP was protected. CIT had to ensure that it got ROI for the state if any ip was generated by the project. So we agreed that our background ip was sacrosanct, that non severable ip generated by the project could be bought by our company and that severable ip could be used by both parties under pre agreed terms.
It all got sorted and we got approval for the grant. We are now sweating the CIT asset for all its worth. And perhaps they’re doing the same to us. We’re plugging into their network. We’re doing a H2020 bid together. We’re getting involved in a water cluster together. They’re getting access to other groups that we know in Cambridge and further afield and we’re providing contacts in big commercial organisations that CIT would hope to work for at some time in the future.
Now having said all that, if we’re here in another year we’ll have failed. We are not a research group. We are a commercial organization that is happening to do some research in CIT. And its my job as the commercial animal to leverage the CIT and other research groups relationships as much as possible and then get the hell out of Dodge into our own space asap.
I am happy to talk to anyone considering hooking up with a research institute. Send an email to smallbusinesscan and they’ll find me…hopefully not playing pool in the common room of CIT.
About the Author
Fionan Murray is co-founder Small Business Can. He was CEO of an international software business, which he led to global market leadership in operations management software. He completed the Leadership4Growth executive management course for Ireland’s high potential entrepreneurs at the Stanford Business School in California. He is a former Head of Marketing with KBC Bank and worked as a journalist in London specialising in finance and technology.