Interview with Owen Laverty Commercialisation Unit NUIM Maynooth
© Frank Hughes originally posted in pivotdublin website 2010
Spinout – A company started from university research
Commercialisation Office/ Technology Transfer Office
An office which bridges the gap between industry and the commercial world. It facilitates spinouts and licensing of universities research.
What are the specific roles of Commercialisation Units in third level colleges?
Although in existence in many Third Level institutes for some time many of the Commercialisation Offices (also called TTO’s) were initiated by funding through the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative (funded by Enterprise Ireland). The offices have annual targets against which they are judged namely; technology licensing and creating spinout companies (from the Institutes research efforts). Each office operates slightly differently which is a reflection of its size, research areas, skill sets and freedom to operate. In NUIM as well as our open innovation model (IVI, Hamilton, etc) we mostly focus on creating spin out companies as we believe the latter is often the best route for most IP (intellectual Property) developed at our University. The NUIM Commercialisation Office team acts as the early management, de-risking the opportunity (by focusing early on the market gap) prior to looking for investment. We have the degree of flexibility necessary to act quickly with researchers and get the technology market ready. This is an essential ingredient in the whole mix! A critical part of what we do is to support the researcher in winning funding from Enterprise Ireland and elsewhere to get the product/ service to a point where it can be demonstrated to potential clients. We have a database of partners in many markets whom we consult with to asses an opportunity using any feedback as a go/ no go decision or to further shape the opportunity. Other models exist where the TTO’s (Technology Transfer Office) focus on the identification and sale of the Universities IP.
How successful are Incubation Units? How has product / service development changed over the last 5 years?
We don’t have an incubation unit in NUIM as of yet, however there are some great examples of these units with DIT’s Hothouse (http://www.dit.ie/hothouse/ ) Programme being to the fore. The Hothouse provides training (which leads to a Postgraduate Diploma in New Business Development), support funding, use of equipment and some office support. While not all units provide these services they are all useful for networking and providing support for first time entrepreneurs. Invent http://www.dcu.ie/invent/ in DCU provides space and support also and is more typical of the level of offer, providing access to experts and mentors in addition to space. I am not aware that the model has changed much in recent times, space; support and funding are still the major offering of all Incubation spaces.
What in your opinion best illustrates the meaning of Innovation in the context of our economy? And how can it be encouraged?
The traditional meaning of Innovation for me has little value to add to our economy. Ideas are not hard to find it’s the effort to convert these ideas to something that people will pay for or can benefit from is the critical part. When we speak about Innovation it’s really only the start of the process and unless followed through with considerable effort and the required financial support will in itself reap little return to Ireland Inc. Great examples of delivering Innovation can be found in many Irish tech and service companies of which there are numerous examples. Encouragement I believe can be supported by the correct training, funding, technical support, delivering success stories and freeing up entrepreneurs to deliver both great product and customer service. I love the model being promoted by http://www.nucleusvp.com/ established by Alan Phelan in Galway. Alan’s company funds the ideas and provides the business infrastructure (accountancy, marketing etc) to support the entrepreneur and allow them to maintain a critical focus on the customer and product.
As Innovation is as much about delivering the end product a much needed change to further support entrepreneurial activities it would also be very timely to reduce the 12 year bankruptcy period.
On a positive note, while the current crisis is hugely disruptive to many, one of the positive outcomes will be more start-up businesses as many talented and well trained individuals are forced to look at ways of supporting themselves. An indication of this trend is the backlog in the registration of new companies in the Companies Registration Office. We have certainly come across an increasing number of people in such circumstances looking for help/ technology to start a new venture.
Finally, an initiative worth mentioning is NFTE http://www.nfte.ie/ who empower young people through entrepreneurship, sponsored by Chuck Feeney they have been in existence for 5 years demystifying the business for youth. What great opportunity!.
What are the key characteristics of entrepreneurs necessary to bring new products and services to a global market?
Ability, passion, strong focus, awareness, determination, stamina, a vision, networking skills, ability to lead and take advice!
5. What are the biggest challenges for Ireland to bring new products and services to a global market?
Firstly I would like to see more of a culture of building large indigenous companies rather than selling when the offer was right. In this way we could build the scale necessary for significant in house R&D and market intelligence activity which are essential for increasing our exports.
From a start-up perspective we are extremely lucky in Ireland in that there is great support for new companies from Enterprise Ireland (EI) and the Enterprise Boards in the form of mentoring and grants. EI also run an excellent service for companies wishing to get access to foreign markets and drive exports. That said finance is still very had to come by and is one of the biggest hurdles for all start-ups, with management skills being the second biggest hurdle. Investors always look at two things when considering the fate of their money; person and product. It has been said many times that a great product in the hands of the wrong person is a worse investment than a poor product backed by a strong management team. As a nation I believe our pool of entrepreneurs has increased in number and sophistication which can only be a good thing for the country.
Something that I got a lot of encouragement from recently was the Dublin web Summit run by Paddy Costello where it could safely be estimated over 1000 entrepreneurs gathered to hear the stories around the start up experiences of Tube, Twitter, Skype and many others. Unfortunately the best way to learn how to be an entrepreneurial is to be one (consequentially succeeding/ failing) or secondly listen to lots of people who have done it. The Web summit provides a great platform for the latter and hopefully gave some perspective to emerging entrepreneurs.
Which sectors in Ireland are most active in developing and marketing new products and services?
Typically its very difficult, time consuming and expensive to bring products in the life science sector to the marketplace (Pharmaceutical / medical devices etc). IT, consumer products and Industrial Technologies have less regulation and barriers to entry and are probably better represented in the mix.
Which sectors are most active in Third level and Industry collaborations? Why?
There are collaborations across all industry sectors and these largely depend on the research profile of the institutions. In NUIM our commercial strengths are in Biology, Chemistry, Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. We have had spin out companies from all these disciplines and interact with industry in many of these areas through various Competency Centers. The Competency Centers are a relatively new focus of EI. They were established to support industry in Ireland and provide academics with some industry insights/ exposure which could usefully direct research focus. It will be interesting to see what their tangible output will be considering these centers are a major recipient of EI’s funds.
Companies wishing to engage with Third Level Institutions can do so through a number of different schemes;
Most Third level institutions would actively encourage companies to approach them with their technology challenges.
What are the three priorities for Irish Industry at this point to successfully regenerate the economy?
Finance, this is essential to allow companies to maintain cash flow, expand into new territories and deliver new R&D.
Deliver innovations to increase their offering to the markets, keep ahead of competitors, and reduce their costs.
Excellent customer service which is essential for maintaining/ establishing customer loyalty.
What advice would you give to people who have a business idea and want to develop it?
Be honest about what you don’t know, ask people with a track record for help, critically evaluate the market to see if there is a gap and get someone who is qualified (and not related) to evaluate this for you under an NDA. Protect it if necessary (but not too early) and if the market stacks up do everything you need to do to create a demonstration and some strong commercial support for the idea. If the idea needs development investigate if your local Third Level Institute can be of help or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
When you are looking for finance it’s important to have de-risked the opportunity as much as you can to make it palatable for investors.
Any comments on the Smart Economy?
I have been struggling to understand what the smart economy means, in my mind a definition might be “The focus on supporting technological developments to deliver higher value adds product/ service to enable us to compete internationally”. If you were to agree with this, the Smart Economy is all about creating exports which is something we have been doing for years.
When is the science smart enough to be labelled Smart? Does there need to be any science at all? Can the business model be the smart bit? At NUIM we have established companies on good science but strong business models in addition to companies with very deep science such as www.beemune.com and www.blueboxsensors.com. Recently I heard about a company Mash Direct http://www.mashdirect.com/index.html started by a potato farmer who decided to add value to their product significantly increasing their farmed acreage. Now that’s smart!
The point here is if you have a business idea and the science isn’t that high brow don’t feel that you can’t approach a Third Level Institute for help in getting it developed.