Commercialising the fruit of software research is a notoriously tricky business. Ian Campbell reports on a new initiative from the Irish Software Association, aimed at helping companies and research institutions work together more productively.
Perhaps it says something about the depth of the recession that arguments have broken out in the national media over research funding. In the pages of The Irish Times, critics have questioned the value of investing in blue sky projects and sought evidence of commercial outcomes from third level research. All of this makes a new initiative from the Irish Software Association even more welcome.
Enterprise Innovation Network
After two years of planning, the Enterprise Innovation Network (EIN) received funding from Enterprise Ireland, and, last summer, Michael Martin took up the role of innovation manager. Joining the dots The network has been established to improve the lines of communication between Ireland’s software firms, SMEs, entrepreneurs and the research community. The aim is set up a collaborative research and problemsolving ecosystem, with clusters of academics sitting down with companies to address problems posed by industry. The EIN will then direct these working groups to appropriate state funding, furthering research that will hopefully lead to commercialisation.
Describing himself as an “innovation matchmaker”, Martin has just completed a series of visits to Ireland’s universities and is now embarking on a tour of the Institutes of Technology. “I’m looking for a flavour of what everyone is working on so companies can come to me, and I’ll have a basis for finding the right match for them. I’m a facilitator and matchmaker,” he says. As well as establishing network events to bring the two sides together, a website is being developed to facilitate virtual introductions with detailed lists of the types of research that are underway.
There will also be a concerted attempt to decipher sometimes confusing information that has been a barrier between researchers and commercial opportunities in the past. “We’ll have a funding guide on the site that breaks down the different agencies, spelling out what’s available in terms of research grants. There are around 90 different funding bodies, so it does get complicated,” says Martin.
Another area of complexity is around IP (intellectual property). “Part of the network’s role will be to simplify the IP process and get generic agreements. We want to establish standards and guidelines that companies can understand.” People like Dr Sean Baker, the ISA chair, have expressed concern that universities were overprotective of their ideas and often overvalue IP rather than pursue business opportunities.
Martin is adamant that this can be changed. Positive signals There are also encouraging noises coming from members of the research community, like Brendan Cremen, director of the technology transfer unit in University College Cork. Working at the sharp end of third level R&D, it is the goal of the transfer office to engage with the outside world and hopefully facilitate commercialisation. Cremen believes academia has an increasingly altruistic view about IP.
“The end goal should be to get the IP out there, contributing to the national economy. Overvalue it and it will stall progress, but that’s more of a fear than a reality in my experience.” Having been part of a committee that discussed plans for EIN, he welcomed its launch: “Any kind of network that connects industry to research and gets IP into the economy has to be supported. It will be critical to the success of the government’s plans for a smart economy.”
Finding The Right Balance
A controversial part of the innovation discussion is finding the right balance between funding applied research, where there are more imminent commercial returns, and fundamental research, where outcomes are further down the track. “A lot of the discussions have been a bit simplistic. It’s an important debate, but even fundamental research will get towards commercialisation quicker with the right inputs,” says Cremen. “The critical thing is that a network like EIN allows industry to give researchers input and guidance at an early stage.” He makes the point that commercialising raw research is never easy, even for large companies who have more rigorous processes to turn it into product. And sometimes the problem is finding a fit for university research within industry.
“We often have technology that we believe is valuable but nobody buys it because there isn’t a capability within companies to absorb the idea. It’s nothing to do with evaluations,” says Cremen. He believes that most universities now recognise that focusing too much on evaluations is less important than priming the pump and getting the volume of deals flowing. “The name of the game is deal flow. Only when you get a quantity of industry using our research will you be able to get a better feel for evaluations on both sides of the equation. Right now, everybody’s feeling their way.”
As he navigates this tricky terrain, it help that Michael Martin has worked on both sides of the track, first in academia at the physics department in NUI Maynooth, and more recently in industry as the R&D manager with Trintech. “I know from experience at Trintech that it is hard to find a match with third level. Tech transfer offices package up the research from the university side, but there is nothing on the company side, no mechanism to go to researchers. That’s what EIN is hoping to change,” he says.
Storm Technology is an indigenous software solutions and services firm that has first-hand experience of working with university research. Company CEO Karl Flannery saw an opportunity to use funding support to explore ways of bringing more value to his business. “It’s a three-way thing between the customer, the academics, and ourselves, bringing all our levels up in how we think about knowledge and information,” he says. Having teamed up with the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) in Galway, engineers from Storm go on secondment to work alongside the researchers.
It’s a change for employees from being at the coalface of IT projects, while researchers gain real world insights from working so closely with a services company. There is potential for a culture clash, so both sides have to be flexible, according to Flannery. “You have to be prepared to change a lot of things within your own organisation when you engage with researchers; you have to understand where they are coming from and the way their work is measured. And it works both ways,” he says. “It’s important to meet as regularly as possible and work on the relationship.”
“Academics do things in a very different way that can seem out of context with industry, but it makes you look at things differently. From their side, they are delighted to get the chance to get access to a real customer’s content and use it in their research,” he adds. As a member of the ISA, he welcomes the EIN initiative but warns companies not to expect too much too soon. “There are no quick wins; you have to take a long term view. We have been working with DERI for two years and nothing has come out of it yet in terms of IP, but we’re confident we’ll have something within the next year.”