Talking Tech Transfer: Neil Gordon
Jul 28, 2023 • Podcast interview with Thierry Heles of Global University Venturing
Global University Venturing recently interviewed our Start Up Dev3lopment manager Neil Gordon:
"Ireland, despite its small size, is home to major global tech and pharma companies, and punches above its weight in terms of spinouts that tackle global challenges from sustainable agriculture to cancer vaccines to AI-driven language monitoring, Trinity College Dublin’s Neil Gordon tells us.
Gordon — who was the first startup development manager at an Irish university — also talks about the importance of overseas markets for spinouts, building a portfolio and ecosystem with strong gender diversity, and how a new €38m innovation hub called Portal will be a shop front for TCD’s innovative output.
He also talks about how family offices can play a key part, why Trinity College Dublin helped create the original University Bridge Fund (and returned for Fund II) and how state agency Enterprise Ireland has become one of the most important funders in the country."
Listen to the full podcast here:
And the full transcript courtesy of Global University Venturing is below.
Transcript ( via Global University Ventures)
Please note, the introduction and end credits have been omitted.
Thank you very much, Thierry. Nice to be here.
I look forward to our conversation. To start with, hopefully an easy one to set the scene a bit, can you give me an overview of Trinity Innovation and where you sit within the organisation?
Great. So, Trinity Innovation, we support Trinity staff and researchers to translate their world-class research into economic and societal impact. So we’re effectively responsible for the university’s commercialisation of the research. We work along a research development office that supports researchers to get access to research funding.
We work with the contracts office that looks after the legal contracts process. And I work with a group called OCPKE – a bit of a mouthful. It’s the Office of Corporate Partnership and Knowledge Exchange. And that’s a group of 18 people that… we’re effectively built on a hub-and-spoke model. And what we do is we have four tech transfer case managers. We have Gordon Elliott in health sciences. We have Emma O’Neill in life sciences. We have John Whelan in ICT software and Graham McMullin in physical sciences.
And then around that hub, we have specialists and domain experts in licensing, namely Sam Williams, myself in startup development. We have an IP development manager, Aoife Tierney, and we also have an industry engagement group and a consultancy group as well.
Okay. Quite a large team with 18 people. I know there’s probably a few listeners out there that are going to be envious of having big staff.
Yeah. Well, I suppose, I mean, we’re one of the biggest universities in Ireland, although relatively speaking, we’re quite small. We have a research expenditure of about €105m, which in UK university terms is very small. But I like to think, we give a lot of bang for the buck.
Yeah. You deal with both university startups and spin-ins. What are the different challenges between these and how do you tackle them?
Maybe just before I answer that question, I might just give a little bit of context in terms of what we’ve achieved, okay.
We obviously have a tech transfer system, which has matured a lot in the last few years. And in the last six years, Thierry, Trinity has delivered 30 spinouts across all sectors. These companies have raised over €260m and they’ve created over 500 jobs.
And remember, half of them are medical device, life sciences companies that are still in the throes of regulatory approvals. So they haven’t sold a product yet.
And I think the other interesting thing that’s happened is that in the last four years, we’ve had four exits. Two of those high profile exits, one of them would have been Inflazome, which is an inflammatory disease company. And they were acquired by Roche three years ago for €380m. And then two years ago, we had SilverCloud and they were acquired by Amwell for $270m. And they provide a sort of a digital health, mental health platform to help people with mental health issues.
So all of a sudden, we’re starting to see exits, we’re starting to see things happening. And it gives a lot of positivity around the place, like, and obviously we want to continue that.
But back to your question about the spin-ins and the university companies that we develop. We believe that to create spinouts, successful spinouts, we need three things. We need world-class research, world-class researchers, we need high quality and diverse teams, and finally, we need access to early-stage finance.
And to drive that number and quality of spinouts over the last number of years, the university has been very open and bringing in spin-in opportunities. And what that means is we encourage clever people with good ideas that need a research platform to develop their solution and bring their idea to a point that they can spin out, have an investable proposition and start to get commercial traction. And for this to work, we have to identify a PI, a principal investigator, within the university who wants to participate, who wants to engage, who wants to engage in the project, wants to join the team and go on that sort of exciting R&D, commercialisation and company creation journey.
In terms of the spin-ins, the benefits of spin-in projects is you’ve got people that understand the market already, they understand the competitive advantage of what they’re developing, they’re typically a bit more commercial and they get to a sales traction stage a little bit easier.
The negatives are that it can take a little time to identify a PI to base the project in. And to be honest, from Trinity’s perspective, if we don’t get full alignment between a researcher and a spin-in project, it’s not going to happen.
We’ve a significant amount of spin-in activity in the AI and medtech sectors. And then if we look at the classic research, the conventional research spinout, you typically have projects that are coming from an earlier stage in terms of technical validation and commercial validation. You’re looking at projects that take that little bit longer to put together a high-quality and investable team.
So we try to tackle those challenges. We flood the university with smart commercial leads and potential CEOs. We try and promote and emphasise the impact of our spinout activity. And we want to show the world outside, Thierry, that we have the resources, we have the expertise, we have the know-how to engage with them professionally and create win-win situations for all.
It’s quite interesting to hear that you do need the PI and if the PI can’t be found, then it’s a no-go.
Yeah. I’m not from an academic background, I just joined the university about six years ago. What I do understand is that PIs, researchers are unique people and they’re very wonderfully smart, clever, intelligent people. But you have to get buy-in. And if you don’t get buy-in in a university environment, it’s not going to happen.
When it does happen, Ireland has a framework for research commercialisation called the National IP Protocol. How important is this national strategy for Trinity College?
It’s very important. I know you’ve had Alison Campbell on in the past, so that’s good
I have, yeah.
So yeah, so the IP Protocol for people that don’t know, effectively sets out the Irish government’s policies to encourage industry to benefit from public research. And effectively what that means is that KTI provides guidelines, templates, databases, and advice on how to carry out collaborative research, licensing, and spinout formation. Very, very practical advice.
In fact, so practical and so good that other countries have copied it, which is very flattering.
There’s a few things that it delivers that’s made a massive difference to the system and made a massive difference to us. Firstly, Thierry, it removes ambiguity. So it sets out the expectations for the university and for the negotiating party. And the second thing it provides is consistency. So it means that a spinout, its investors and other key stakeholders can have a smoother and faster licensing process. And Trinity College has wholeheartedly adopted the use of it, and it has significantly contributed to the university’s ambition to deliver results.
That makes perfect sense. You mentioned Alison, how important is Knowledge Transfer Ireland for your startup operations?
Yeah, I mean, effectively KTI is the office responsible for policy, practice, and performance of the Irish commercialisation system. And obviously Alison was a driver and leading light for that to make that happen. And so therefore it’s critical for us in how we work.
It creates a focal point by which the world can engage with the Irish university system and its research outputs. It makes access to universities simple and accessible. And sometimes the speed and urgency in a private sector company environment is different to that of the university. And KTI helps to bridge that alignment gap.
Another thing that is quite interesting in Ireland that you’ve done together with the University College Dublin in 2016, you created the University Bridge Fund with Atlantic Bridge as well as the fund manager. For Fund II you were then joined by University College Cork and University of Galway. Why does this fund make sense for Trinity’s perspective? And do you hope more universities will join for future funds if and when they happen?
Great question. So probably what the fund does, it demonstrates that universities, Irish universities can collaborate to create a real impact from research. It enables all third-level institutions to maximise social and economic impact. You know, it results in higher education sector creating a greater number of higher quality spinout companies than ever before. It goes after that gap in accessing early-stage finance for university spinouts, which was always there.
And obviously, deep tech university spinouts are high risk by their very nature. So that’s why the University Bridge Fund was created.
And Helen McBreen and her team at Atlantic Bridge add massive value to projects even before they consider writing a term sheet. I mean, this was in context, the whole Irish third-level research expenditure is €640m, of which Trinity has about a sixth at €105m. So therefore, the whole Irish system is effectively the same as one large university in the UK.
Take for example, Cambridge. And I believe Diarmuid O’Brien was on with you last year as well. And Diarmuid obviously was ex-Trinity and he’s over with Cambridge now. And he was very eloquent about the importance of scale. And I totally agree.
And I suppose you don’t mind me, I know you’re Welsh, or no, you’re not Welsh, you’re Luxembourg. But in Wales, obviously, there’s Gaelic. So there’s a Gaelic Irish expression. Okay, if you don’t mind me speaking a little bit of Gaelic, okay.
Ah, go for it!
And the Gaelic is “ní neart go cur le chéile” in which that means is that we’re better and stronger together. So therefore, we want everybody included.
I like that. That’s a really beautiful saying.
How has the funding landscape changed in Ireland over these past few years? And has the University Bridge Fund led to more investors coming into the country or more local firms springing up?
Yeah, I think that the funding landscape’s changed significantly over the last number of years. And I think obviously, Enterprise Ireland has been an important agent for that. You know, we’ve more formalised networks of angel investors and HBAN syndicates, thanks to the work by Enterprise Ireland and Ireland’s business innovation centres. Enterprise Ireland continues to do its work as the funder of funds through its seed and venture capital scheme.
And then the Irish Strategic Investment Fund is further developing that funder of funds function to try and scale more of the startups in the system.
And I think there are more international VCs that are curious and looking at Ireland as a place to where there’s value, where there’s high-quality research and where there’s high-quality entrepreneurs.
I mean, as an example, we had seven of our biotech spinouts at BioEquity Europe last week. So, you know, seldom do you get the chance for the biotech investor community from around the world to gather in Dublin. And like all other Irish universities, we embrace every opportunity we can to engage the investor community. I think the other interesting element and component that’s developing is the non-equity funding sources from Europe. So we’ve got European Innovation Council, Pathfinder and Accelerator funding, which has become very valuable.
We’ve had a number of companies successful in obtaining EIC funding, including Akara Robotics, which develops UV disinfection robots, ProVerum, which develops a medical device to address BPH, which is a male bladder problem, and then OneProjects, which has developed a visioning system using machine learning and AI to improve patient outcomes in the treatment of atrial fibrillation.
So yeah, so it’s significantly changed.
Is Enterprise Ireland still important as a funder for your companies?
Well effectively Enterprise Ireland’s commercialisation funding, that’s the primary source of funding for creating spinouts. And typically a commercialisation fund would be between €400,000 and €600,000.
And then throughout the course of the Comm Fund project, which could be a year and a half to two years, the Trinity Innovation team works with the research group, introduces commercial leads, supports the development of the team, helps with the strategy and the business plan development, and introduces the impending spinout to a wider network of trial partners and investors.
The ultimate objective of Comm Funding is to convert as many of these Comm Funds to new spinsouts, with the key metric being their ability to attain Enterprise Ireland’s HPSU status. HPSU is a high potential startup, and it’s defined as startups that create more than 10 jobs, generate annual revenues of more than €1m, are export-orientated, and that all happens within three years.
So, Enterprise Ireland is a funder of seed funds, as I mentioned before, and it’s effectively one of the largest investors in Europe.
And then I suppose to add a few other things to the Enterprise Ireland also have a disruptive technology innovation fund, which is a €500m challenge-based fund, and our spinouts have had success in winning that funding. And EI is not resting on its laurels. I mean, they’ve recently launched a new €30m Innovators Initiative, which will develop a series of immersive needs-led innovation training programmes. They’re also including a €33m KT boost, which is a new four-year knowledge transfer funding program for the Irish universities and technological universities.
So for all those reasons, that’s why we feel privileged to work with EI, and as a state agency, they’re the envy of the world.
Is there a downside to having this much reliance on a state aid agency rather than a flourishing private market?
That’s a very interesting question, but in reality HPSUs require matching private investment to progress. So therefore, if the private investment’s not there, if the validation and the acknowledgement from the private investors is not there, Enterprise Ireland will not go. They can provide the earlier stage funding, they can go to a certain level, but ultimately it gets to a stage after the company spins out where they have to attract private investment if they want to get the traction they need to go and do what they have to do.
Okay, that makes sense. And then I guess the investor might be happier to invest because they know that there’ll be match funding and their money will stretch that much further.
That’s right, yep.
Is there a good mix of funding available between angels, VCs, or even corporate VCs?
I would say there’s never enough funding in the system, especially for early-stage university spinouts. You know, I’m currently at the minute, as we speak, helping about 15 of our spinouts of our portfolio companies to raise funding at seed and series A stages.
Now, we have a really good understanding of how the local angels and local VCs operate, but we want to engage more with international investors. We haven’t cracked how family offices work yet, and we’re always good to try and engage more corporates, either as project partners or corporate investors.
I mean, I would say that the access to finance has tightened up for early-stage companies in the last 12, 18 months, but we continue to aim to produce investable opportunities and cast our net wide and see what happens.
It’s quite interesting that you mentioned family offices, because I don’t think that’s something that often pops up in the conversations that I have. A lot of the times it is kind of focused on the angels and the VCs.
Well, I think the family offices, I mean, they’re obviously operating under the radar, and sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. You meet the right person who knows a family office, whether it’s at a bar or whether it’s at an event, and then something can happen.
Especially when you’re working with high-impact projects, you know, medtech medical devices, treatments for cancer. You know, if you meet the right people in the right family, you know, you just, something might happen then.
Yeah. It can be good strategic as well, rather than just the money.
On that note then, perhaps, what are some of the opportunities in Trinity’s ecosystem?
You know, we’ve done 30 spinouts in the last six years, which is very good and we’re very proud of, and they’ve delivered a lot of shots on goal.
But I think we’ve lots of opportunities to improve how we do things in the ecosystem. For example, you know, I believe that there’s a much larger cohort of researchers that we could help develop an interesting commercialisation of the research.
The onus is on us in Trinity Innovation to take away the fear factor of starting a company, to show them that there is a way and there’s a well-trodden path. You know, we want to engage the community with case studies, impact stories, and even making more explicit the financial and reputational benefits of being involved in a spinout. Atlantic Bridge and our network of TCD partners can certainly enhance that effort.
And secondly, I would say we need to get more peer engagement going across the community. I mean, sometimes we focus on metrics and getting results and we need to take a step back and see the big picture.
Spinouts and startups can learn from each other. They can learn what has worked and what hasn’t worked and what hasn’t and they can develop their expertise and know how across the spinout ecosystem.
We’re also going to extend our innovation prospecting across a wider net. You know, we’re going to look at alliances with local hospitals. We’re going to look at the local councils. We’re going to engage with the Enterprise Ireland’s Innovators Innovation programme to see what can happen there.
We want to improve our training approach with researchers and founding teams and sort of help them fill the gaps in their knowledge to be able to develop further.
Another couple of other initiatives as well, Thierry, is we have an open source programme office which we’re pioneering. My colleague John Whelan’s doing that.
And then Trinity’s kind of taking the lead in a knowledge transfer best practice through the Irish Knowledge Transfer Association. So this is a new organisation where effectively all the knowledge transfer professionals in Ireland are coming together. We had our inaugural annual conference two weeks ago.
And that was actually led by Gordon Elliott and Emma O’Neill in our office. And effectively, it was just great to see all these knowledge transfer people together in the one room, talking to each other, sharing experiences, looking at communities of practice and we hope to kind of leverage off that as much as we can so we can all learn together.
And actually, interestingly enough, this was an all-Ireland thing, our colleagues in the University in Ulster and Queens joined us as well, and I think by getting people together, we can learn a massive amount.
Yeah, there’s two other things as well, just to mention that we might be looking to go after. For example, sometimes arts, humanities and social sciences is a faculty that’s not really the focus of tech transfer, to be honest.
But interestingly enough, at the minute, we currently have a spinout that’s on the way through which is a training platform through games, which helps provide diversity and equality training. So, and this is coming from the School of Psychology.
So we need to think, are there other things and other ways that we could actually draw from that faculty? I mean, currently, AHSS, as we call it, is typically engaging commercialisation through consultancy. We have a dedicated consultancy office as well as part of our team, led by Joanne Conroy – and can we translate some of that consultancy work into startups and spinouts?
And then finally, I would like to just mention the research centres that are at Trinity College. We have AMBER, CONNECT and ADAPT, and they’re looking after biomedical research and materials, future networks, and then Adapt is more digital technologies.
They’re at a more fundamental research stage. But I think there’s an opportunity to try and drive that research up the TRL stages to spinout. So that’s effectively a tier where I think there might be opportunities for the university to do more.
That is actually really fascinating to hear. And it makes me want to come back to you in a couple of years’ time and see how it’s evolved.
Well, I thought you said you were going to come over and have a pint with me in Dublin.
I will. Yes. I really like Dublin, yeah, I’ll be there.
What makes Ireland different from its European peers then? What makes you stand out?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I don’t want to play the begorrah factor too much like, but I suppose we’d like to think that Ireland is unique. We’re obviously a very small country in the periphery of Europe, but we know how to get on with people.
We’re home to 14 of the top 15 medtech companies in the world. We’re home to 16 of the top 20 global tech companies and the top three enterprise software providers with several pharmas and biotechs based here in Ireland.
We’re a young, English-speaking, hardworking workforce. We’re very open to attracting migrant workers in Dublin and other cities and Ireland has become a real hotbed of diverse and different people. And from an entrepreneurship perspective, we also have a culture that knows how to tell a story. And that’s something that’s invaluable when we’re trying to raise investment and sell your product across the globe.
And when you think about it, you know, Ireland is only the size of Greater Manchester and one university in the UK is the size of the whole Irish HEI system, but we punch above our weight.
On a related note, then perhaps, what are the challenges that you face today?
I would say we’ve numerous challenges and we try and face them and mitigate them as much as we possibly can within our limits and constraints. For example, good talent’s hard to find, especially commercial leads and CEOs. You know, we’re taking every opportunity we can to network and show and tell people what we do and we want to open up our system, our ecosystem.
Trinity College’s walls are open. The question you got to ask yourself is how do you attract a person who’s on a well-paid job in a multinational to take a chance and go into a risky spinout?
The other problems that we have then is wet lab and incubator space. Although saying that Trinity’s next major investment in innovation will be an incubation place called Portal. This is a €38m investment and it’s being developed on the Trinity’s campus. It’s going to be about 5,500 square meters.
It’s in a location called the Silicon Docks, believe it or not, Silicon Docks. And there we’ve got Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn right beside us. The objective is to be able to house 80 companies, including spinouts. We want to create lots of vibrant events programming. We want to bring the place to life. We want it to be a portal between what the university does in terms of innovation capacity and industry needs, as well as a shop front for our innovative output.
Also continuing to do more work in terms of accelerators and virtual accelerators. We have a unit called Tangent, which is Trinity’s ideas workspace. And they have some of the European EIT Health, EIT Climate-KIC and EIT RawMaterials accelerators and we also have a circular economy accelerator as part of the circular European programme as well. So there’s a lot going on.
But there are gaps and we’re obviously trying to address them.
Yeah, exciting times, though. It sounds like you’re tackling them with a lot of optimism and a good vision.
Yeah, well, you have to be. And I think that you know, there’s a lot of good, innovative, smart people inside. And it’s a really good place to work. We’ve got about 20,000 students, 3,000 staff, 850, 900 researchers. So there’s a lot of things going on. And you know, the university has been there for about 430 years, thanks to Queen Elizabeth I, it’s going to be there for another 430 years, let’s try and make it a good place to be.
You mentioned global companies, you mentioned telling a good story overseas. How important are overseas markets for your companies? And how do you help them access those?
Yeah, that’s, again, another good question. Our overseas markets are critical and very important for our deep tech spinouts, because most of these spinouts are providing solutions to global problems. You know, many of our companies dovetail into an Enterprise Ireland high potential startup. And of course, EI has 70 sales offices worldwide, to support exporting and scaling companies.
One of the initiatives from ourselves over the last couple of years has been to work and engage with Trinity’s alumni. For example, a few weeks ago, we brought over three of our artificial intelligence spinouts to London to meet the alumni. So you’re talking about a Thursday evening, over 100 people in a room, all sorts of different backgrounds, investors, corporates and startup founders. And it worked really, really well. And there’s been a lot of positive engagement after it.
I mean, just by way of an example, Thierry, we actually did this three years ago, just before covid as well. We actually went out to New York. It was kind of a medtech emphasis on what we did. And one of the companies that we brought out there was a company called Head Diagnostics. Now, they’re really interesting company, and they’ve developed a medical device that can measure ocular microtremor. And this is a phenomenon which sends signals down to the brainstem. So effectively, you and I are at about 80 hertz, typically, give or take a couple of hertz, it’s a phenomenon called speckle. And it’s effectively a thermometer for the brain. And what they can do is they can apply a low powered laser to the white of the eye, and within three seconds, they can get a reading. So if you and I are playing rugby or are concussed, that goes down to about 70, give or take one or two, so it goes down about 10 hertz. So they can measure and they’re currently doing trials, they’re looking at detecting concussion, they’re looking at the early onset of Parkinson’s, the early onset of Alzheimer’s, and they can identify traumatic brain injury as well.
But back to the Trinity Tech series I was talking about. So we brought them over to New York. And again, the room had 130 people, 140 people into it. There’s a few glasses of wine. But what was interesting, the people that were there, there were some really intelligent, smart, relevant people there for Head Diagnostics. We had a doctor who worked for New York Giants, responsible for their concussion challenge. We had two legal people from different legal firms in New York that had responsibility for seven NFL franchises, again, on their concussion legal challenges. We had the CEO of US Rugby there. And they all wanted to speak with David Van Zuydam, the CEO of Head Diagnostics. Now, three years later, David is still in contact with these people, which is good.
And then this was the third thing that we also do is we also leverage industry connections and multinational networks to support our spinouts where we can as well. That’s all the things that we’re trying to do to sort of get them out.
They don’t have to be pushed out. They’re quite happy to get out there, like, you know, we want to accommodate that.
It’s almost part of the culture, I guess, to go overseas and talk to international clients or investors?
Yeah, I think it is. And I think it’s, they have to do that. The market in Ireland is not big enough. The market in Ireland, the UK is not big enough. Investors are not going to invest in it unless they see a big market. You know, so as long as there’s a kind of a clear plan and strategy in terms of how you’re getting to that market then these companies have a chance out there.
But what we want to do is we want to create that kind of serendipity, if you like, where something might happen at the right time, at the right place, in the right way. And it can result in a collaboration. It can result in a sale. It could result in a partnership. It could result in an investment. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
Amazing. How does your engagement fare in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion? Do you track any of those numbers?
We do track it. And it’s very, very important. Part of our funding comes from Enterprise Ireland. Part of our funding comes from the university central. It’s what we should be doing anyway, whether it’s mandated by the people that pay us or not.
I mean, just to give you a kind of an idea, Thierry, I mean, I mentioned the 30 spinouts in the last six years. Out of those 30 spinouts, nine of them were female-led. Our spinout founders come from all across the world, everywhere from Europe, across Europe, North America, Australia, South Africa. In terms of the university’s commitment to the principles of equality and diversity and inclusion, it’s core to everything that we do.
This commitment is actually articulated to the university’s strategic plan, 20 to 25. And, you know, we engage with equality charters, such as Athena Swan, where we can. And that sort of delivers upon our awards and action plans.
Just as an example, Trinity recently received recognition from the European Commission for the gender equality prize for sustained focus on gender equality. And then also just to echo that, you know, as part of Trinity’s commitment, we have a full-time college officer role of associate vice-provost for EDI. And that was founded in 2019. So OCPKE works very closely with this person and is fully committed and aligned with Trinity’s EDI strategies and policies.
And, you know, just to kind of round things off, we have a female provost, we have a female vice-provost, and we have a female dean of research as well.
Amazing. I was going to ask as well, how does your own office fare in terms of representation?
Well, it’s interesting you say that. We’ve been recently updating our strategies and reviewing our resourcing plans. And if you look at OCPKE, our team of 18 people, it’s made up of 50% female. If you look at our contracts office, it’s made up of 75% female.
Wow. Leading the way.
Leading the way, yeah. That’s it. Yeah, that’s the way it is. It wasn’t… I think it’s the best people get the job at the right time. And that’s the way it is.
Do you run any specific programmes aimed at attracting more women founders?
I think we’re always conscious of trying to do that and trying to make that happen. And I’m just going to give you a couple of examples of that, okay, if you don’t mind.
For example, one of the initiatives that we have is the Licensing Executive Society International, LESI, which is, and our OCPKE licensing manager, Sam Williams, she’s the ambassador for Britain and Ireland for the Women in Licensing Association. And their mission is to advance the growth of women in leadership through education, mentoring and networking opportunities in the area of licensing. So it’s all about improving gender equality in that field.
We have the Women Who Wow initiative, which is a mentorship programme aimed at female Trinity students who are interested in setting up their own businesses one day. We have the Athena Swan Charter, which is a framework that’s used across the globe to support and transform gender equality in higher education research. And this charter was launched in 2015 in Ireland, and it’s got a specific remit to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEMM, in science, technology, engineering, maths, and medicine. And they regularly run initiatives to attract female researchers into specific technology areas.
And then obviously, we’re very aligned with Enterprise Ireland’s numerous programmes to attract and encourage female founders. And we encourage our spinout founders to participate wherever they can in that.
Amazing. I think you mentioned already that you’ve been at Trinity for about six years now. You joined in 2017. You previously spent a decade offering consultancy to high-tech startups through CorkBIC. What got you interested in university innovation and what brought you to Trinity?
In my role at CorkBIC I worked with all sorts of startups and enterprises of all types. I had the opportunity to work with spinouts coming out of the universities in Limerick and Cork down in the south of Ireland. And what was interesting is that university spinouts are different.
There’s a deeper technology, there’s researchers that are experts in their research area. And then what was interesting was around 2017, I became aware that Trinity College and DublinBIC, which is now called Furthr VC, were considering an initiative to bringing in a dedicated startup development manager into the university to try and stimulate more spinout activity. So I went for it.
Now, the key thing is to have somebody who understands what investors want and can engage with them and other key stakeholders about what is coming through the university project pipeline honestly and effectively. And then that’s what I’ve been trying to do there.
And now that role has been replicated in two other larger universities in Ireland, UCD, University College Dublin and UCC, University College Cork. And there’s a strategy from Enterprise Ireland to introduce the startup development role across the whole third level, Irish third level system where possible.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t realised that you were the first.
Yeah, well, listen, I mean, it was just kind of the way it was. And obviously, we’ve got Simon and Michal now and the other universities doing great stuff and hopefully, we can get some more good people around the place to make things happen.
Yeah. What are some of the changes that you’ve seen over the course of your career, whether that is the last six years or even before that?
Yeah, again, it’s a very interesting question. Where to start when you’re so old, like, you know? I suppose the first thing I would say is that, you know, the whole research valorisation agenda, we got the European Union there with various research valorisation policies that are aiming to encourage commercialisation of research findings and promote innovation. I’m talking about €95bn Horizon Europe. I’m talking about the EIT, I’m talking about European Research Council, European Innovation Council, intellectual property rights policy framework for state aid for research and development innovation. All of a sudden, people are copping on to the fact that we’ve got to turn this research into something that’s valuable.
And then I suppose the other change that I would say in my more recent career is that how the culture of the tech transfer team has changed. And this all comes down to a team effort, our whole tech transfer team are asking the same questions now. Has the company spun out? Has it raised funding? Has it created jobs? What is the product doing? How many has it sold?
I mean, I’m only in tech transfer system six years, but I’d hazard a guess that those questions weren’t being asked 10, 15, 20 years ago, they may have been in the UK, but not in Ireland.
I don’t think they were asked everywhere in the UK if they were.
What is a noteworthy challenge that you’ve overcome?
Well, I don’t think we’ve overcome it yet. But I suppose what I would like to highlight is, again, I’m coming from the outside world into university environment into an academic environment. I think the greatest challenge coming into university environment is trying to address the needs of all the stakeholders within the university, each with different objectives, different agendas, and different metrics to deliver upon.
And so the questions that we’re constantly asking ourselves is, how can our unit work closer with the Trinity Business School? How can we work closer with the research centres? How can we work closer with Tangent, the Ideas workspace? How can we deliver better supports to our students and researchers? And obviously, present a united front to the outside world.
We haven’t overcome this yet, but we’re constantly working on it.
This might then also be the answer to my next question. But if you had a magic wand, what would you change about how tech transfer works at the moment?
Again, another interesting question. And I suppose what I would say is that, you mean our university is priming itself and is primed to try and deliver a greater number of high quality spinouts in the system into the world. And again, it’s like the three things that I spoke about earlier. It’s how do you try and find the best way to blend the key components that we need? World-class research, world-class researchers, high-quality and diverse teams, and finally, access to early-stage finance.
If I had this very magic wand that you’re talking about, I’d like those three things to come easier.
I think that is a good use and probably quite a lot of people would agree with that.
You’ve mentioned a few companies coming out of Trinity over the course of the conversation, but I want to give you another chance in case there were others that you wanted to get out there.
Yeah, and I know you asked that old cherry, which is your favorite child? I hope you’re not going to ask me that question…
That is how I used to phrase it…
… I could definitely not answer that one.
I mean, just to give you a new example, I suppose what I want to do is I want to illustrate how wide and diverse the sort of spinouts that we have are. I’ve mentioned a few companies already, but I might highlight one or two more, or three or three or four more.
Take, for example, CropBiome. Now, CropBiome is developing fungal endophyte technology to enhance crop growth, reduce the need for fertiliser and reduce the need for pesticide. They’ve got three years of field trials underway. They’ve already raised funding. They’re going to raise more funding. And effectively, it’s that whole sustainable agricultural thing that’s going on, how do you remove the need for fertilisers and pesticides? Fantastic, fascinating company, very excited, wonderful teams being brought together there. We’re gonna watch this space.
And then, you know, we go to something completely different. As you would say in Monty Python, Vzarii Therapeutics, okay, Vzarii Therapeutics, that’s a gene therapy addressing mitochondrial dysfunction. And they’re looking at forms of blindness to address that problem.
And then another interesting example of a company, a spin out is AilseVax. And this is actually a joint spin out between Trinity College and Queen’s University up in Belfast. So it’s using cancer vaccine technology from Belfast. It’s using adjuvant technology from Trinity College. It’s putting it together to hopefully get a better result.
Now, just one or two more, CaliberAI, for example, what that is doing is that’s an AI platform. And that’s a spellchecker for hate speech, for toxic language. So effectively, it can pick up when a newspaper or a social media outlet are saying things that are kind of on the borderline that they shouldn’t be saying and this effectively highlights it, it stops people getting fined, it stops people feeling bad about what they read. So it’s very, very valuable.
You’re looking at UN sustainability goals, you’re looking at sustainable agriculture, you’re looking at health to the masses, you’re looking at you’re looking at, CaliberAI, people feeling okay, there’s no there’s no negative things going on there.
One final company that I’d like to mention to you a company called CroíValve. And this is led by Lucy O’Keeffe. And in the in the course of four years, they’ve raised about €18m, they’re in the process of raising more money. They’ve created 35 jobs, they’ve got to first in human trials. And what they’re actually doing is they’ve created a heart valve for a tricuspid valve solution to help people with tricuspid valve problems.
So I hope that gives you a kind of a sense of the wide and varied things that are going on within Trinity.
Yeah, no, It really does from crop science to heart disease. Yeah, quite… that’s about as broad as you can get.
That’s amazing. That is pretty much all the questions that I had. Was there anything else that you wanted people to know about Trinity before we go?
If you if you can give me another minute.
Just a couple of things, Thierry. What I’d like to say firstly, is that, technology transfer people are very proud to be working with some of the brightest and most intelligent people on this planet.
Personally speaking, it sometimes doesn’t feel like a job at all. It feels like you’re, you’re doing you’re doing something you enjoy and you get paid for it, which is great.
Secondly, I’d like people to know that Trinity College Dublin is open for business. So if you’re a researcher and you want to come to an environment where your research and your entrepreneurial spirit is nurtured, come to Trinity. If you’re a commercial leader, a CEO looking for a new, exciting opportunity in deep tech, come and talk to us.
If you’re an investor and industry partner, and you want to engage with us on our portfolio of over 50 spinouts, or engage with us on new research projects coming through and deep tech to spin out over the next few years, please come and discuss with us.
And then the final thing I’d like to say is that Trinity Innovation has an experienced team that will engage you in a positive, efficient and pragmatic way to help you translate the university’s research output. And you know, we’re striving to make people’s lives better, easier, and in some cases a wee bit longer, and ultimately making the world a better place to be.
Amazing. I’ll make sure to put links in the show notes as well so people can easily find you.
Great, please do.
Amazing. Neil, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been a great pleasure.
Thank you very much, Thierry. Lovely talking to you.
(c) Global University Venturing 2023