The Higher Education Authority is to appoint an international expert to validate an internal review of processes within Waterford Institute of Technology, following a request by the president of the college.
The request came on Wednesday, ahead of a meeting of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday at which a number of concerns were raised about potential conflicts of interest around the development of a company that involved the current president of WIT, Prof Willie Donnelly, its intellectual property, and returns to the taxpayer when it was sold.
Questions from the PAC focused on how spin-out companies co-located within WIT were commercialised and in some cases sold off and what policies were in place within WIT.
Prof Donnelly was appointed acting president of WIT in May 2015 and was reappointed last January.
In 2008, when he was vice president of research in WIT, he was among a number of people who established FeedHenry, a software firm that was sold to Red Hat for €63.5m in 2014.
Prof Donnelly had already corrected the record regarding the fact that he had been a director of FeedHenry for a time, having previously told the PAC he had not been, which he said had been an honest mistake.
PAC members, and in particular Waterford TD David Cullinane, focused on potential conflicts of interest involving Feedhenry, those involved in it in various capacities, and WIT.
Mr Cullinane asked if there was “a matrix” of people linked to WIT with interests in different companies also co-located within the campus, and whether all of this fitted within policies that applied within the college.
He referred to the interaction between the industrial services manager, the commercialisation office, the technology transfer office and the office of the head of research and innovation, and separately, various business interests.
He said he was “concerned that people are possibly wearing multiple hats and not in a position to do the job that they are paid to do.
“No one on this committee is alleging wrongdoing but are concerned about policies,” he said.
When FeedHenry was sold, WIT received €1.5m regarding intellectual property that was transferred, but Prof Donnelly said: “It’s important to say that all academic researchers are entitled to exploit their IP.”
He said in areas where there were conflicts of interest “there are structures to manage them, and they were managed”.
“I have complied with everything,” he said.
Prof Donnelly said all processes had been transparent and that this had been shown in an internal review, but because of the “disquiet” he had now requested that the HEA hire an external expert to validate the process that had been undertaken within WIT.
Dr Graham Love of the HEA said he had received the request for the external review this week.
He said researchers were incentivised to benefit from their own IP, and that it was “not unusual” that the involvement of an Institute of Technology would be “diluted down” as other bodies and investors become involved.
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