Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A proposal for how to help transfer of Irish University R&D into local industry

The Irish government has generally been praised for its increased investment in R&D in recent years, most notably since the foundation of Science Foundation Ireland. However, a number of commentators have criticised the fact that relatively little of the technology developed by this research is now being used by Irish industry.

In general the researchers have explained the lack of commercial spin-offs by the long time that it takes for research to advance to a stage where a company can actually build a business based upon the newly developed technology. While I do accept this explanation I am still worried that there is no special incentive to encourage adoption of Irish University research by Irish companies.

In addition there may be unrealistic expectations from some universities about how much license revenue can be gained from licensing the patents that they get from their research projects. In the pharmaceutical business some people and organisations have made large fortunes from licensing patents to blockbuster drugs, but in the ICT sector it is more normal to make money from your intellectual property by partnering with the company exploiting it rather than by selling a license.

Since the research in Irish Universities is mainly funded by the Irish government with the aim of encouraging the health of the local high tech industry, why don't we consider offering a royalty free license to any technology developed by a government funded project to any company who intends to establish or grow a business in Ireland based upon using the technology. This would have the effect of helping businesses already established in Ireland as well as helping attract new multi-national companies to establish an Irish base.

While this might mean that the universities need to forego a potential revenue scheme, I don't think that the loss in revenue will substantially effect their budgets. In addition we could have some scheme whereby someone like the IDA could certify how many jobs had been created by means of these royalty free licenses and this could be used as one of the metrics used to justify the funding awarded to the university(ies) in question.


  1. From your lips to God's ears Brian! ;)

    Without massive scale Universities can't make significant returns off of IP (unfortunately most haven't figured this out yet!) So they can either consolidate or take the path of least resistance and equitably partner.


  2. Hi Brian,
    Interesting idea. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand as many would. I agree the Irish Universities aren't well setup to exploit IP generated on a mass-scale but they do have a few shining examples of spin outs (Iona, Changing Worlds) or licenses (Madcow test) and I'm sure it's not too far from their minds that if they were to let the IP flow freely they might miss out on the next Google or Nokia. North American Universities have a culture of endowments from Grads which helps bolster their finances that we don't have here.

    This fear will probably stop them doing anything as radical as you suggest.

    To break this tension Universities could pour *some* documented IP into an Irish pool and then get back some jobs based block grant to encourage it. This would work at a University level but I'm not sure how it would translate to incentives for the people at the coal face (grads/staff etc).

    It would also allow the University to retain specific pieces of what they consider valuable IP. The big bang of all the IP going into a "Irish pool" might too difficult to swallow.

    One alternate is a culture shift ie. Universities are not profit making enterprises and those who fund the work own the IP. Government pays my salary via block grant, they own the IP (and by extension the Irish people), IRCSET grant holders (government) etc.. etc. EU grants (EU owns it and can vest it back to Irish government). The problem with this is no other country (as far as I know does this) so Universities may loose staff or students etc.

    Some form of IP pool is worth looking at as I agree too many ideas stay inside the walls and never see industry interest.


  3. @Steve - From your lips to God's ears Brian! ;)
    I don't know if the man above reads blogs :-D

    @Aaron - I like your idea of only having a sub-set of the IP flowing into a shared Irish pool which would allow universities to hold back assets that they considered too valuable. This would also get around the fact that in some cases the university would not be free to donate the IP to the shared pool because one or more funding organisations are unwilling.

    >This would work at a University level but I'm
    >not sure how it would translate to incentives
    >for the people at the coal face (grads/staff etc).
    In my experience the people at the coal face are not the problem because they are thrilled to see their research being used (after all it is the ultimate proof that their work is worthwhile). It is often the senior leaders in the university who have their eyesight impeded by the dollar signs in their eyes

  4. Have you read "The Triple Helix: University-Industry-Government Innovation in Action" by Henry Etzkowitz?

  5. @Stephen - I haven't read it yet, but it looks interesting so I will soon.