“Being a university that values and promotes academic entrepreneurship and innovation is incredibly important, and we have that at Trinity”:
Dr Declan Weldon, Head of the Office of Corporate Partnership and Knowledge Exchange (OCPKE) at Trinity College Dublin, discusses opportunities for industry engagement
“OCPKE is an integrated team, between industry, consultancy, and knowledge transfer, a team that is professional and passionate.” Dr Declan Weldon leads this team, which develops and supports relationships between industry and Trinity academics. Declan was recently invited to feature on the Tech Transfer IP Forum podcast, which provides “in-depth analysis of intellectual property issues related to university and non-profit technology transfer.” The podcast is hosted by Lisa Mueller, a thought leader on life science patent law, and has previously featured primarily American speakers, with Declan being the first contributor from Ireland invited to join. The conversation illuminated the achievements of the OCPKE team at Trinity College Dublin over the past five years, and emphasises Ireland as key location for investors, with Trinity as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Technology transfer can be thought of as the movement of information, inventions, materials, or software from one organisation – in this case, a university, Trinity College Dublin – to another organisation, often a company working on a project or developing an idea. It is related to “knowledge transfer,” which encompasses the knowledge and scholarship from the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in a university, as well as science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. At Trinity, OCPKE puts the processes and structures in place to make such transference possible, with highly beneficial results for both the university and the organisations involved.
The team’s mission, according to Declan, is “to promote Trinity as the partner of choice for industry in business, to support access to Trinity intellectual property, and to provide services to companies based on the wealth of knowledge and expertise available at the university.” The team has in place a “world-class infrastructure for industry collaboration, whether that’s with global multinationals, like Johnson and Johnson, or with indigenous Irish companies, and small to medium enterprises looking for assistance.”
Trinity has, for example, the latest MRI imaging equipment to develop medical device technology, which many companies and organisations would find very valuable to access. Declan emphasises that, as well as the equipment, Trinity has “an academic community that is keen to work with industry, and sees the distinct benefits of doing so, and how that translates into more success in research funding and better teaching experiences for students.”
Declan has come “full circle” in returning to Trinity, having completed his PhD in Chemistry at Trinity in the 1990s, gone on to work for a company called Air Products & Chemicals in the U.S., Britain, China, and in Europe, before returning to Trinity for this new role in technology and knowledge transfer. His team, which are based within the larger team of Trinity Research and Innovation, contains a wealth of experience and expertise from academic perspectives and backgrounds and also from the perspective of business, industry engagement, the protection and commercialisation of intellectual property (IP), and the legal necessities required for protected and structured relationships between industry and a university.
There are four managers on the team with expertise in specific areas to help academics at Trinity apply their research and IP to work with companies, both in Ireland and internationally, on a wide variety of projects. Dr Gordon Elliott looks after health sciences. Emma O’Neill works with academics from Life Sciences, Biochemistry and Immunology. Dr Graham McMullin is responsible for Engineering, Physics, Chemistry and the Trinity centres AMBER and CONNECT. And Dr John Whelan works on Information and Communications Technology, as well as the ADAPT and CONNECT centres.
They all work alongside the Licensing Manager Dr Sam Williams, who is responsible for negotiating and finalising IP licence agreements across all disciplines, as well as with paralegal officers Kate Toner and Lyn O’Reilly, who look after legal agreements to cover confidential discussions and the sharing of data and materials. A key team member is Neil Gordon, the Start-up Development Manager, who is at the centre of relationship-building and advising Trinity academics who want to spin out their own company.
This team works together with the Industry Development Team, spearheaded by Dr Chris Keely, with the expertise of Audrey Crosbie and Dr Juan Valverde, and soon to be joined by Tony O’Callaghan who is moving from Operations Executive into a leading new role in data analytics. Aoife Tierney is also leading in a new and exciting role in IP Development Management, scoping out the IP landscape and identifying possibilities for progress.
Alongside this is the relatively newly-formed academic consultancy office, CONSULT Trinity, where Dr Joanne Conroy and Dr Kate Smyth support academics to apply their knowledge and expertise to various organisations, including charities and Government departments.
Declan states that the team “really believes that there's great value for investors at Trinity College Dublin. We make it easy for our academic community, industry partners, and public service to work together. Our mission is to make it as open as possible for everyone to collaborate.” He says that “in the previous five years, we've completed just over around 600 industry engagements with a wide variety of clients. One of our most important corporate relationships is with Intel, Ireland, who have repeatedly invested in fundamental research at Trinity, which in turn then adds to Intel’s research roadmap.” So it can be very much a mutually beneficial relationship.
This work is supported by Enterprise Ireland, which “offers a range of supports specifically aimed at developing research into commercialization potential at university. They are the primary source of funding for creating spin-outs from research in Ireland, and typically a commercialization fund would be between 400 to 800,000 Euros.” There is also European funding available from the European Research Council and from Horizon Europe, which is “very much a gold standard in Europe,” according to Declan. So, he states, “from the project in the lab to a commercialization stage, there's a very healthy ecosystem here in Ireland to do that.” He also mentions the University Bridge Fund, which was a fund “specifically aimed at spinouts from Irish universities.” It is a 60 million Euro fund, built collectively by Irish universities and managed by Atlantic Bridge. The 25 companies involved in the previous five years “have raised 120 million Euro in equity and non-equity funding, proving that the scheme is very successful.” Declan also mentions the support of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, and its leader Allison Campbell who, he says, “has really been responsible for an uplift in knowledge transfer performance.”
He mentions the value of CONSULT Trinity as academic consultancy projects are often the “very first engagement the client will have with the university.” It allows for relationship-building and also provides opportunities to branch outside of traditional STEM sectors. CONSULT Trinity is branching out to offer support to academics from the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) to work with various organisations, from SMEs to large multinationals, to charities to Government departments. “Consultancy is a fantastic window into those Schools in AHSS, to see what they're interested in doing and how they wish to work. And we're using that as a platform to expand activities into the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.”
In the course of the conversation, Declan discusses various new initiatives and activities that the team are working on and groups they’re collaborating with. One example is the Bush Institute in the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, with whom the team is working to improve methods of measuring success and efficiency. Another major initiative is the Licensing Executives Society International. OCPKE Licensing Manager Sam Williams is the Ambassador for Britain & Ireland for the Women in Licensing Association (WILA), whose mission is to advance the growth of women in leadership through education, mentoring and networking opportunities in the area of licensing. Improving gender equality in the field is a priority for the OCPKE team and for Trinity College Dublin more broadly, with initiatives such as ATHENA SWAN ongoing, which is “a recognition and reward system for positive gender practices in education.” Sam is a key leader in the successful licensing of IP and Declan states that “30% of our licensing repeat business, and that's people saying we got value the first time.”
In the podcast, Declan discusses significant successes in terms of Trinity campus companies, such as Inflazome from Professor Luke O’Neill – now highly-regarded by the Irish public for his advice and expertise in relation to COVID-19 – and Matt Cooper from the University of Queensland. Their company was sold to Roche in 2020 “for an upfront payment of 380 million Euro,” Declan states. This has significant benefits for the public, because the company is “developing drugs that treat a whole range of chronic diseases all caused by inflammation, so it’s really important that these drugs get to the market, because tens of millions of people will benefit.”
Declan’s team are now looking at a new round of funding from the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative through Knowledge Transfer Ireland, and are excited to see what possibilities lie ahead.