Featured Article 29 May 2012

May 28th 2012
John Holden
The Irish Times

Although academia and business sit at opposite ends of the professional spectrum, in TCD’s CRANN, they are joining forces through many shared goals, not least the commercial potential of the many projects in development, writes JOHN HOLDEN

BLUE-SKY RESEARCH is what most academics do best. When time and financial pressures are brought to bear upon a research project, however, some differences in approach and attitude must apply.

Likewise, industry collaborators working with universities must adapt to a different kind of work ethic. The question is, how do people coming from such different backgrounds work in harmony?

The Trinity Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nano devices (CRANN) was formed “to harness the cross-disciplinary nanoscience research of individual principal investigators to deliver world-leading research outputs and to enable CRANN researchers to address key industry challenges”.

CRANN works with a mix of multinational and local firms and like many of the research centres across the country has recorded a steady stream of successful indigenous spin-outs.

“We are engaged in long-term research programmes, but a significant amount of our projects are 100 per cent funded and industry-directed,” explains Diarmuid O’Brien, the centre’s executive director.

“There’s probably a 50/50 split. A lot of blue-sky research is contextualised by an end-impact, though. It might be further away, but at the beginning of a project, there’s a sense of where that research is going.

“Having both kinds of work taking place under the same roof creates a general culture where researchers must contextualise their research within the framework of real commercial opportunities. The 12 full-time researchers working on the ground are in a cultural environment where they must think about commercialisation.”

At the same time, staff from industry partners also work out of CRANN. “Their work is reviewed and paid for by industry,” says Dr O’Brien. “Each company wants something different out of the engagement – with various outputs expected from specific research programmes – and they get rewarded financially for their success. They don’t behave like academics.”

Its principal investigator Prof Graham Cross, was central in the success of Adama Innovations – a diamond-based nanofabrication manufacturer. “Adama came from blue-sky research,” he says. “There was a discovery made, which was popularised through the normal academic channels. Then I and other CRANN executives realised how much the potential was to connect it commercially. With a little help from Enterprise Ireland, we talked to the investment community and finally put things together.

“This is my first business venture,” Cross adds. “I’m very much enjoying the process. It has been a vast learning experience or me. I have had to learn the language of entrepreneurship. That’s one of the biggest challenges – adjusting and finding ways to accommodate both ways of thinking. For me, it’s really been about moving over to the businessperson’s style of thinking: meeting the bottom line.

“It’s a challenging time in nano technology. It is quite analogous to the microelectronics industry in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s lots of interesting commercially viable research going on. Everyone knows it’s going to be important.

“ But bridging the gap is frustrating for many people. Some businesspeople are used to having a product out in the market in six months. The pay-offs in nano technology are potentially huge but the research takes a long time. You have to be a pioneer to be the one that crosses that divide between nano research and industry.”

Entrepreneur Declan O’Mahoney is one of those pioneers and sits on the industrial side of the fence. He is involved in early-stage research into company spin-outs, and is also chief executive of Firecomms, a UCC optical data transmission manufacturer spin-out which was sold last year.

“Since I left Firecomms, I’ve been spending time with universities, looking at their technologies and helping them to find commercial avenues,” he says. My aim is to garner interest from larger companies in Irish spin-out products and services.”

This can often be the difficult part for academics.

“Big companies might come back and say, this product is great but can you make it this size and this shape. Suddenly scientists are dealing with end customers who are looking for changes.

“Once those changes are made we might have a product that they want to buy. So dealing with costs is the next step. You have to ask the potential buyer, if they’re interested in the product, how many might they buy, can they help us with initial costs, etc. Big companies don’t want to deal with five engineers running a company in Ireland.”

TCD physics professor Igor Shvets would probably be seen as a serial entrepreneur in his world, having been involved in three spin-outs over his 21 years in academia. “I’ve always had an interest in commercialisation,” Shvets says.

“I came across some of my correspondence from 1990 recently and saw that I had an interest even then. I run a large research group of 20 people now in CRANN which is very active and publishes findings frequently in high-profile journals. In parallel, though, we also have an interest in commercialising our findings.

“Ireland has always been a good place to start your own company. There has always been plenty of soft support from the business infrastructures here, and in the past five years, that support has become the norm in universities. They all want spin-outs because there is a new understanding that innovation may come from good research labs.”

The culture is shifting. But there is still a long way to go. “Were getting to a point where the culture is shifting in the right direction,” says O’Brien.

“If you visit MIT or Stanford, the notion of having an industry context to your research is seen as a positive thing. Just 10 years ago, it was seen as a negative thing here. But the reality is that some of the challenges set by industry are scientifically interesting. And, contrary to what some think, industry investment is a validation of the research you do.”

Research centres are certainly a part of this new wave of commercially conscious science. “I see CRANN as a candy store. I can find a customer for this and that,” says O’Mahoney. “Plus Enterprise Ireland have a wonderful system in their Partners Programme which has [matched] people like me with scientists, almost like a speed dating service.”

Content supplied with the permission of The Irish Times Ltd. For more see www.irishtimes.com

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