Advanced researchers in Irish third level colleges can look ahead to 2021 with optimism, with their innovative output in the past year having bolstered their global reputation.
Alison Campbell, director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), says the past year has shown both the short and longer benefits of research and innovation, delivering new products and processes, creating and retaining jobs and contributing to the well-being of society.
KTI is the national office connecting businesses with publicly funded research. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, KTI cites researchers' healthcare innovations such as contact tracing to disinfecting buildings, mapping and tracking the spread of the disease and new ways of remote sharing of research.
Two research-based financial standouts during 2020 were TCD spin-out company Inflazome being acquired by Swiss healthcare company Roche for €380m and Precision Biotics, a spin-out from UCC, which was bought by a listed Danish firm for €80m. Precision Biotics and UCC also won the KTI Commercialisation Impact Award which included recognition of the healthcare products brought to market and the enduring relationship with the university.
Financial success was also seen for SiriusXT, a spin-out company from UCD that was awarded €4.5m in June by the European Innovation Council Accelerator programme. This is helping the company roll out its development of the world’s first laboratory soft x-ray microscope that will mean significant progress in the field of disease research and drug discovery.
“The pandemic has seen new levels and methods of R&D collaboration for companies with academic research,” said Alison Campbell. “The past year has demonstrated both the short and longer benefits of research and innovation, delivering new products and processes, creating and retaining jobs and contributing to the well-being of society.
“The coming year will present even greater challenges, with companies globally dialling up their research and development capabilities. Success will be dependent on how readily companies can adapt to changing circumstances. Innovation is a key route to competitive advantage.
"Leveraging research and development capacity in the third level, and associated funding is an effective way to access smart minds and new resources and to manage the risks.”
There have been many examples of innovation through research to help combat aspects of the pandemic during the year. At Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), experts at the SEAM research centre (part of the Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateway network) have been working on a prototype for full face masks with integrated humidity moisture for clinicians and frontline medical staff, which are sealed effectively and which don’t fog up.
Also at WIT, the TTSG research group recently won the People’s Choice Award at Knowledge Transfer Ireland Impact Awards for the development of the CoronaVRus app. Using a virtual reality (VR) approach, the technology helps children, specifically those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), to understand COVID-19 and the HSE safety guidelines.
“These WIT innovations are good examples of the kinds of work going in our technical universities,” said Ms Campbell. “We're seeing great industry-facing activities which are helping to solve processing problems for industry partners.”
Another good example of researchers partnering with industry are the Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateways, industries collaborating with Institutes of Technology and Technological University across Ireland. since 2008, more than 1,500 Irish companies have used the Technology Gateway Network, completing more than 2,750 innovation projects.
“The Gateway network has been a great resource for companies. We are also seeing very quick and innovative responses engaging with industry within our universities, which are deservedly recognised internationally for the quality of their research and their collaborative approach,” she said.
“Research teams at NUI Galway and University of Limerick worked together to develop a novel and versatile solution to sanitise public spaces called ‘UVC Drone’. Using drone technology, sterilising ultraviolet (UV) light radiation can be spread in a wide variety of public spaces including hospital wards, shopping centres and public transport.
“There had been a worry earlier in the year that enterprise engagement with the research base and commercialisation activity would decline. On the whole, this hasn’t been the case. Many companies seem to be taking the opportunity to push forward innovation recognising the importance it plays in developing a stronger competitive position in increasingly complex markets.
“There have been several successes for companies that have spun-out from higher education institutions based on novel technologies and expertise. The calibre of research in Irish higher education institutions and the range of research and innovation supports, such as those from Enterprise Ireland, that help new opportunities to mature certainly have a key role to play here as does the quality of management and investors,” she said.
The ability for companies to innovate, to work smarter and develop new products and services that differentiate them in competitive markets will be essential as Ireland works towards economic recovery. In Ireland, companies that collaborate on R&D have been shown to have exports twice as high and employment 1.5 times higher than those that do not.
To future-proof businesses, EU-wide studies have shown that organisations involved in R&D perform better than those without such activity. And R&D can lead to a valuable commercial asset, intellectual property rights (IPR). Compelling research has shown that SMEs that own IPR have 28% higher revenues per employee.
“Innovation from the higher education sector is going to be an important component as we look to re-igniting the economy in 2021. And at Knowledge Transfer Ireland our aim is to help companies to tap into the opportunities available to them throughout the research base and to make it simple to find the right partners and funding supports,” she said.
Visit Knowledgetransferireland.com for further insights on how KTI works with researchers and buiness partners to help drive innovation and partnership to benefit third level research, industries and the Irish economy.