Ireland’s ‘engineering ecosystem’ must support commercialisation of research
17 October 2016
L-r: Prof Eoin Casey, UCD; Dr Helen McBreen, Atlantic Bridge Investment; PJ Rudden, EGA President; Seán Kyne, Minister of State for Gaeltacht and Natural Resources; Prof Orla Feely, UCD; and Prof David FitzPatrick, Dean of Engineering UCD
A vibrant ‘engineering ecosystem’ is vital for nurturing innovation in research, which in turn leads to investment and jobs. This was the take-home message from this year’s UCD Engineering Graduates Association (EGA) Autumn Panel Discussion, entitled ‘Engineering Research, Innovation and Job Creation’, which took place in the university last week (6 October).
Speaking at the event, which was opened by Seán Kyne, Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs and Natural Resources, Prof Orla Feely outlined the current engineering research landscape in UCD. The university’s Vice President for Research, Innovation & Impact/Professor of Electrical Engineering stated that it was no longer meaningful to consider research in terms of ‘basic’ and ‘applied’.
“Basic and applied research are part of the same continuum,” she told the packed auditorium. “They’re part of a process to benefit both the economy and society.” She explained how UCD is playing its part in fostering what she called “the Irish technology ecosystem”, not only nurturing research talent, but also providing support at all stages of the commercialisation process.
In recent times, UCD has appointed two more world-class engineering academics to inspire and guide young researchers: Prof Robert Bogdan Staszewski to the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering and Prof Fengzhou Fang to its School of Mechanical & Materials Engineering.
In addition, NovaUCD is the university’s home for new ventures and entrepreneurs while NexusUCD is a new development offering office space and associated services to established innovation-led companies who are collaborating, or wish to collaborate, with UCD’s research base.
“Through our ideas and our graduates we support innovation success stories such as Enbio, BiancaMed, Dairymaster and APC Ltd. We also support innovation in multinationals through partnerships such as the two IBM-UCD ‘co-labs’ on our campus,” said Feely. “This is a new collaboration, allowing researchers from UCD and IBM to work closely together on technologies for the next generation of smart and sustainable cities.”
She looked back at the 1993 closure of Digital’s hardware manufacturing plant in Ballybrit, Co Galway, with the loss of 780 jobs. “We’re coming close to a situation now where the closure of a multinational would not be a ‘national disaster’ – our emerging engineering ecosystem means that we’re fostering our own startups and many of these are stemming from academic research.
“We’re also seeing evidence of multinationals investing in Irish research, such as the IBM co-lab and Intel Labs Europe’s Open Lab (Ireland), which is located in Leixlip and is home to two research hubs: the IoT [Internet of Things] Systems Research Lab and the Cloud Services Lab.”
She concluded by expressing her hope that UCD’s ambitious capital-development plan would yield many more engineering jobs in Ireland. “I believe that our research into areas like artificial intelligence, IoT and cybersecurity, to name but a few, can transform how we live,” she added.
Open Innovation 2.0
Dr Martin Curley, Professor of Innovation at National University of Ireland Maynooth and Former Vice President of Intel, echoed Prof Feely’s thoughts about the importance of the research ecosystem for nurturing innovation and growth.
“The collision of three megatrends – mass collaboration, sustainability and digital transformations – creates opportunities for open innovation in engineering,” he said. “It’s creating a unique opportunity to enable an explosive increase in shared value due to innovation.”
According to Moore’s law, integrated electronics will make electronic techniques more generally available throughout all of society, performing many functions that presently are done inadequately by other techniques, or not done at all. “Moore’s law is now colliding with almost every domain to create disruptive and positive change – digital affects everything,” said Curley.
He emphasised that industries that were established and shaped over the past century or more are now being transformed in just under one decade by those trends and the new business models they make possible.
He went on to explain the concept of Open Innovation 2.0, which encompasses intelligent, profitable and sustainable solutions. “It’s a new paradigm based on principles of integrated collaboration, co-created shared value, cultivated innovation ecosystems, unleashed exponential technologies and extraordinarily rapid adoption,” he said.
For this, innovation needs to move out of the laboratory and, to demonstrate this, Curley traced the history of innovation. “Closed innovation is centralised and inward looking, while open innovation is externally focused and collaborative. Open Innovation 2.0 is the next step: ecosystem-centric and cross-organisational.”
He outlined the Intel initiatives that adhere to the core patterns of Open Innovation 2.0. The aforementioned IoT Systems Research Lab in Leixlip, for instance, applies a ‘Living Lab’ approach for elements of its research by developing open-innovation ecosystems and partnerships to validate research through real-world deployments and test beds.
“Essentially, it’s experimentation in situ,” added Curley. “This allows for an agile way of working, with rapid testing, parallel leaps and high-velocity ‘sprints’ and ‘scrums’. The IoT facility in Leixlip has seen the fastest development processes in all of Intel’s European sites – the fastest ‘minimum viable platform’.
“When high ambition and disruptive technology intersect, we get ‘high expectation entrepreneurship’, which is when startups expect to employ at least 20 staff within five years. These companies create 80% of all jobs,” Curley continued.
“Engineers are the wealth creators in society and digital is colliding with all types of engineering. Digital technology is ready…are we?”
Commercialisation of university research
Prof Eoin Casey, co-founder of start-up company OxyMem and head of the UCD School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering, outlined the most important lessons he has learned about the commercialisation of university research towards job creation.
“When people like Prof Feely and Dr Curley speak about an ‘innovation ecosystem’, it’s not a cliché,” he stated. “It’s crucial for companies like our own to have support, from the laboratory all the way through the development process. The good news is that this innovation ecosystem is becoming more mature in Ireland, with the likes of angel investors, patent attorneys, etc.”
Casey said that a university can do the type of frontier/curiosity-driven research that industry does not typically do, does not want to do or simply cannot do. However, partnerships with industry are crucial and deliver enormous benefits for the economy. “Both options can lead to very successful outputs in terms of job creation,” he added.
There must be a sizeable market for a product, even if that market does not yet exist, he advised. “I’ve seen incredible innovations, but the apparent global market was too small to justify commercialisation. Sometimes, academics are not best placed to identify market opportunities and this is where the help of organisations like Enterprise Ireland is invaluable.
“The right team is also critical for success and it must be borne in mind that academics are not always cut out for the business end, even if they are company founders. This might sound a bit controversial. Some professors can become entrepreneurs, but only if they leave the university. Some can be successful chief technology officers or chief scientific officers, however.”
Casey went on to stress the importance of credibility in order for a spinout to raise money. Investors look for credibility in the team, market and product. “It’s also worth noting the timescales involved in developing a product – especially in capital-intensive technologies – and securing patents, which are a necessary evil in order for investors to take you seriously,” he said.
The Oxymem co-founder elaborated on the importance of getting the right support, from organisations like Enterprise Ireland and from the university. “Education drives innovation,” he concluded, “and we’re very grateful for all the support we received right from the beginning throughout the entire commercialisation process.”
From Ireland to the world stage
Dr Helen McBreen, investment director of Atlantic Bridge, spoke about how the global growth equity fund focuses on technology investments and helps Irish tech companies conquer international markets.
An engineer herself, McBreen explained how Atlantic Bridge has over $500 million assets under management across five Funds and has an international investment platform that has been applied to build global companies from Irish startups such as Movidius, Metaio, Swrve, 3DR Robotics and Fieldware.
“I manage and operate the most recent high-profile investment fund at Atlantic Bridge, which was just launched in July: the University Bridge Fund,” she explained. “This is a €60 million fund specifically for early-stage companies with global potential that are built from world-class research generated at UCD, Trinity and all third-level research universities and institutions.”
Over the next five years, she said, the University Bridge Fund will invest in high potential spin-outs and start-ups emerging from the third-level ecosystem to build global companies of scale across key growth sectors.
“Engineering research is a core part of the disruptive change that’s happening in key sectors and we want to put Irish engineers at the forefront of areas like life science and personalised medicine,” she concluded.
UCD Dean of Engineering, Prof David Fitzpatrick, wrapped up the evening’s presentations by extending his thanks to all the speakers. Special thanks went to event organiser PJ Rudden, the UCD EGA president, who is stepping down from the position in December after four years at the helm
During this time, he has championed women in engineering, kept a lively blog on the EGA’s activities and organised a schedule of exciting lectures, round-table discussions, invaluable mock interviews with final-year students and even ‘The ‘Engineers Picnic’, a garden party for all engineering graduates during the ‘Gathering 2013’. Rudden has also been a valued contributor to and supporter of EngineersJournal.ie.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/10/17/irelands-engineering-ecosystem-must-support-commercialisation-of-research/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/UCD-EGA.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/UCD-EGA-300x300.jpgMechdigital,funding,innovation,Intel Ireland,NexusUCD,NovaUCD,NUI Maynooth,research