Commercialising university research

Today I attended a meeting at which I was closely questioned by a businessman along the following lines. What, he wanted to know, had been the benefit to the country of the hundreds of millions invested in university research programmes? How many jobs had been created? How much taxation had been secured for the state? In fact, how much value (if any) was all this research generating? Not particularly waiting for my answers (which I think he felt could only be ‘nothing’ and ‘none’), he said the time had come for the government to stop funding this unaffordable luxury and give the money instead to the IDA (the foreign direct investment agency of the state) so that ‘real jobs’ could be created.

I suspect that this is a beguiling argument for some, but it needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. The problem is, many academic leaders will answer such questions by saying that investment in research is an investment fore the long term, that it cannot yield results quickly, that it creates the right mood for international investors, that product development arising from research in life sciences takes a generation, and so forth. All reasonable points, but they are argument losers in this setting.

Still, we need to make it clear in public debate that the old model of taxpayer investment in economic development is dead: building advance factories, filling them with relatively low level manufacturing, or more recently call centres, paying international companies grants and subsidies to make their investments here worthwhile – all these are yesterday’s game and won’t come back. It’s not that we won’t be able to create jobs any more, but rather that the methods have changed. In the past you could almost calculate that just so many Pounds (or Euros) would create an industrial job. Today we have no idea what the cost is, because it is not a direct process. Most of the high value jobs that we must create in the future will have been made a realistic prospect not by direct grants and subsidies (now more difficult anyway under EU laws and other regulations) but by the steady creation of a knowledge infrastructure that will allow the companies’ own investment to be a productive one.

I still believe that the announcement by Trinity College and UCD recently that their Innovation Alliance would create 30,000 jobs was a bad misjudgement, because it won’t. Even if wholly successful, their Alliance may not create 3,00o (or even 300) jobs. But this alliance, and other initiatives already long under way by other institutions or yet others still to come, may create conditions in which major investments by others will be attractive and will create significant employment.

The key issue in this is how we develop, protect and commercialise intellectual property arising out of research. Some research will not in any immediate sense produce IP that can or should be commercialised. But some will, and what this requires is an infrastructure of expertise and assistance that identifies the potential value of research early and puts in place the supports that will move it towards commercialisation, either through an appropriate spin-out corporate structure or the licensing of the IP. All universities and most other colleges now have incubator facilities that have this capacity, and these various facilities now require appropriate inter-institutional coordination (preferably initiated by the institutions themselves) to ensure that they create and maintain value and pool resources, particularly expertise.

We cannot go back to being the Ireland of 1995. That’s gone. We need to ensure that the Ireland of 2015 built on the successful commercialisation of knowledge and research. Without that it will not have recovered its prosperity. And unless businesspeople and politicians of all shades absolutely understand that and work with it we are doomed to long term decline.

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3 Comments on “Commercialising university research”

  1. Iain Says:

    In answer to such folk of course we shouldnt also forget the impact on the economy of universities even without major new research initiatives. In many cases the entire local economy is dependent on the local university so they creat jobs that dont make the headlines but make a real difference. In addition they are the training grounds for all teachers, nurses, doctors, accountants, future business leaders, etc. The focus just on new industries undermines the economic case, reducing it to a handful of high paying jobs only. let’s not forget this other dimension too.

  2. ultan Says:

    I think most Irish business people simply haven’t a clue about R&D, especially the kind we need to drive export-oriented tech innovation. they live in a world innovation means more chains of sandwich shops and ideas websites. they conflate R&D with enterprise. wrong.

    the reality of R&D is that it is a slow process; that it may not result in anything that converts to a product at all; and critically it does not lead to huge numbers of jobs. it’s more likely to create small numbers of jobs in small companies, none of which will take care of the hundreds of thousands of unskilled service and construction workers now laid off. the TCD/UCD announcement about 30k jobs is preposterous.

  3. Myles Rath Says:

    I broadly agree with F von P’s scepticism about the number of jobs that may arise from the Trinity College – UCD Innovation Alliance. In view of this could I ask for his opinion on the role that SFI is playing at present. How could its existence be justified if it is unlikely to lead to job creation? Is it just another expensive quango that may, in addition, be doing quite a lot of harm? Is it not cutting across and distorting the role of the HEA in coordinating the development of the university sector? What function should the SFI perform in view of the existence of the PRTLI programme of the HEA and the roles of Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the EPA etc in supporting research? Are the metrics which the SFI have set for itself the most appropriate ones for an agency charged with contributing to the development of the Irish economy?


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