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Biotechnology and national transformation: the role of Universities

Address at the National University of Rwanda (NUR), Butare, Rwanda

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Thank you Professor Musahara for your kind introduction.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It's a pleasure to be addressing you here today, on the fifth day of my ten-day tour of your beautiful country. I’ve already had the great experience of visiting several musuems and I look forward to visiting more in the next few days - for example the Nyungue Forest Reserve and Akagera National Park.

I've been the Head (or ‘Provost’ as we call it) of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest university, for a year now. And in the course of this year, I’ve paid visits to universities around the world, including Moscow and California, but these have been flying visits for a day or two.

This is my longest official visit, to date, to a university and to a country. It is, for me, the culmination of a long-expressed desire to learn more about Africa.

And to visit the National University of Rwanda, with which Trinity has such an important link through the Masters in Development Practice programme. I thank Dr Padraig Carmody and Professor Herman Musahara, and others who helped put the itinerary together. I would like to take this opportunity also to thank the Rector most warmly for his hospitality, and for this opportunity to address you today.

When I was standing for election as Provost in Trinity, I made a commitment to support Trinity’s partnerships with universities and institutes of higher education in Africa.

Developing such partnerships is a key element of Trinity’s new Global Relations Strategy, and of the Trinity International Development Initiative.

Last year our two universities signed a Memorandum of Understanding in the context of our joint Masters programme. This enables our postgrad students to undertake training programmes and field work here in Rwanda.

I know that our students - and 'our' in the sense of joint Trinity/UCD MDP students hosted by NUR - are currently doing their internships in, for example, Akagera National Park, Volcano National Park, the Gender Monitoring Organisation, and Mayange Mellenium Village. I hope that, in the coming years, we can deepen the teaching and research links between our two institutions. As I say, it’s a very great pleasure for me to be visiting now and observing how our partnership is developing.

The given title of today’s talk is ‘Biotechnology and national transformation: the role of Universities’. Biotechnology is, according to its dictionary definition: “The application of scientific and technical advances in life sciences to make commercial products”. As such it’s a key growth area for universities, but I want to slightly expand today’s talk because I don’t just want to talk about life sciences but about science and technology in general.

So my talk could have a broader title, something like “Science, Technology, Commercialisation and the Role of Universities”.

In short I want to address, as best I can, the very topical subject of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the nature of research and scholarship in a contemporary university - in universities, like both of ours, that are acting “in the public service” or “in Education and Service to the People” as NUR has in its motto.

Today, in universities around the world, staff and students are asked to think about using their research to serve society, whether it be through policy research or through directly contributing to economic growth. Academic staff, together with postgraduate students and post-docs, are forming campus companies, and even undergraduates are starting to think about applying ideas commercially. This level of engagement wasn’t happening when I was a student in the 1980’s. Universities then weren’t so linked in with the local or global economy; the biggest change since my student days is this emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. So it is a really important and dynamic area, and one we must consider alongside the core mission in education and research.


But first I should tell you a bit about myself, and about my country, Ireland, and about my university, Trinity.

* * * Ireland * * *

Ireland is a European island about three times larger than Rwanda. We’re unusual among European countries in that we were colonised - in fact we’re often known as Britain’s earliest colony - a “laboratory for the experiment of colonisation” as one of my historian colleagues has termed it. We are now approaching the centenary of independence, which was gained in 1921.

We were the first colony to leave the British Empire since the Americans in 1789, and this gained us a lot of attention on the world stage. Another reason why Ireland is well known is that the world is full of people of Irish descent.

There has been large-scale emigration from Ireland for two centuries and there are now huge Irish diasporas in Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada. This emigration started in earnest after the Great Famine of 1845-1848, a cataclysmic event in Irish history where more than a million people starved to death and another million emigrated.

On the eve of the Famine, in 1840, the population of the island of Ireland was at least 9 millon - it has never recovered to anything like that figure.

For a decade - from 1998 to 2008 - Ireland was also famous for having one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. This was the period when we were known as the Celtic Tiger. The world financial crash of 2008 hit Ireland hard, particularly the banking sector. Things haven’t been easy but I think we’re dealing with the crisis well and the mood in the country is broadly optimistic.

At the time of independence in 1921, Ireland had a predominantly agricultural economy. We now have a knowledge and service economy, although agricultural products still account for a sizeable proportion of our exports. Our national strategy is to develop into an economy where knowledge is turned into wealth through the intellectual capabilities and skills of our people. This knowledge can be scientific and technological, but it can also be cultural knowledge. Music, drama, film, literature, dance - these are all potentially important components of a knowledge economy. In the discussions I have had in the last few days I can see parallels with Rwanda.

Any country that wants to be a knowledge economy needs a very strong technological base and a globally-competitive education system. But such countries have to invest heavily in their universities.

***Funding Environment***

University funding is a potentially controversial issue, at least in Europe. Funding can come through different paths:

  • government direct subvention,
  • student fees, with perhaps different categories of students paying different fees based on country of origin,
  • research funding, won through funding agencies or industry,
  • private benefactors,
  • commercial activities.

People feel strongly about how universities are funded, and in Ireland, as in other countries, this can be an electoral issue, with some people opposed, for instance, to tuition fees for students. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons now. I will only say that any position on university financing must be pragmatic, not ideological, and the starting point must be quality of education.

Allowing our universities to decline through lack of funds is not an option and is destructive to the whole idea of a knowledge economy. Once that premise is accepted, we can, I hope, talk equably about how to find the necessary funding.

My personal position is that since a university education benefits the private individual in terms of career and life opportunities, and benefits the public good in terms of providing the doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs that society needs, then university funding should be both exchequer public and non-exchequer private - at least for universities with a mission to serve the public good.

Of course, all the players involved in funding universities - government, students and their families, industry, private benefactors - deserve an excellent return on their investment. This puts pressure on us, the academic staff and administrators of universities, but it’s pressure we welcome.

* * * Trinity College Dublin * * *

So, the university sector is crucial to Ireland and to its ambitions for the future. Ireland has about forty higher education institutes, including large multidisciplinary universities in the main cities.

Trinity is Ireland’s highest ranked university in the world rankings, and also the oldest by quite a few centuries. In fact it is not only Ireland’s, but one of the world’s premier universities, ranking in the top 50 until the recent economic downturn. It is also one of the most beautiful. It was founded over four hundred years ago when a group of influential Dublin citizens petitioned Queen Elizabeth the First.

When an institution has been around that long, it tends to build up an important history, and Trinity is no different. I don’t have time to go into all the things that make Trinity famous - I hope that many of you will get a chance to visit and walk round our campus to see the beautiful buildings for yourselves, and particularly the Old Library, which has some of the world’s most valuable books, including the 9th Century Book of Kells.

* * * Notable Trinity Alumni * * *

Text Box:  Over the four hundred years, Trinity has educated some great minds, who have left their mark on the world. Ireland is famous for writers and many of them went to Trinity. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, was a student here back in the seventeenth century.

In science and mathematics, we have Ernest Walton who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951 for his work, with John Cockroft, on splitting the atom - the Lithium atom. A century earlier William Rowan Hamilton made history with his Hamiltonian Mechanics and discovery of Quaternions.

In medicine we have Denis Burkitt, who is particularly significant in this continent, because of his research into cancer in children in equatorial Africa. He established a link between lymphoma and malaria. This was the first demonstration of a causal link between a virus and human cancer and it changed the direction of cancer research.

* * * Research and Scholarship * * *

You’ll gather from this brief roll-call of alumni, that Trinity has traditional strengths in the Arts and Sciences and Medicine. We’ve extended and diversified these strengths.

To take some recent examples of Trinity research that has made newspaper headlines: researchers at our Nanoscience Institute are developing technology to create the flattest screen ever, using a new material, transparent conducting oxide, that enables the creation of screens that are completely see-through.

Our department of civil engineering is looking at air-filtering technology that reduces maintenance and energy costs; and our Professor of Immunology is researching the potential of the rainforest for new therapies to combat inflammation.

Many of our research projects involve different departments, schools and faculties. We are a multidisciplinary university and we’re also interdisciplinary - we believe some of the most important research takes place at the interface of disciplines.

* * * Personal Context * * *

You will gather that I am very proud of my university - my pride is not only that of a staff member and university head; I’m also a graduate of Trinity. I arrived - from rural Ireland - to study engineering in 1983. I was one of the first in my family to attend university - neither my parents nor my uncles and aunts went to university, but many of their children did. I mention this because my story is typical in Ireland - since my generation, higher education has opened up opportunities for many, way beyond the experience of our parents or grandparents. I imagine this is something that Rwandans can relate to.

After doing post-doctoral research in Bologna in Italy and in the University of Nijmegan in the Netherlands, I returned to join the staff of Trinity in 1995, where I’ve been ever since. I’ve been fortunate, in my own research on medical devices, to be at the very heart of the science and technology revolution, and of developing university entrepreneurship and innovation, which is what I want to talk about now.


But let me first recap: Ireland is a small, open economy. Because of our desire to develop a knowledge economy, universities are hugely important, and Trinity as Ireland’s oldest and highest ranking university is particularly important.

Trinity is a long-established multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinarity institution, engaged on cutting-edge research. I want to look now at how such a university can play a role in the “national transformation of a country”, to reprise the words of the original title.

* * * The Innovation Ecosystem * * *

When we talk about developing a knowledge economy, we’re talking about a national strategy involving the public and private sectors. We’re talking about numerous players, including individual entrepreneurs, business enterprises, higher education institutions, venture capital, and governmental bodies interacting in the right regulatory environment to create jobs and open up opportunities.

I think it’s useful to employ the term ‘innovation ecosystem’ to characterise this ‘system’. The biological metaphor is apt: it gets across the idea of different players, or “organisms”, interacting to sustain a flourishing environment. And because the word “delicate” is often attached to “ecosystem”, it gets across how subtle this interaction is and how the balance has to be right for economic growth.

Job creation per se is not the responsibility of universities, but universities are key players in this innovation ecosystem, because they supply the research that constitutes the ‘knowledge’ in a knowledge economy, and they supply the talented graduates who drive the economy.

A university like Trinity helps grow the ecosystem through providing lynchpin companies with the skilled workforce they need. So, for instance, Trinity’s Nanoscience Institute educates PhD scientists and engineers, who are then recruited by global technology leaders, such as Intel.

Ireland is the European base for many global companies, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, and many leading pharmaceutical companies. Part of the reason why these multinationals locate to Ireland is our skilled workforce.

But of course a knowledge economy is built not only on well-established multinational companies, but also on smaller companies created locally. A flourishing knowledge economy is known by its start-up technology companies, and this is where university research is crucial.

* * * Commercialisation: Biotechnology * * *

I’ve been asked to describe how the biotechnology sector developed in Ireland and Trinity; I think it’s an interesting story, particularly since it starts in the 1980s, during a period of severe economic recession for Ireland. I wish to record my appreciation to our Dean of Engineering, Mathematics and Science, Professor Clive Williams, for the historical background here.

The story of biotechnology in Ireland shows that even during difficult periods, when there are not a lot of available funds, you never stop strategising for a better future.

Perhaps it is in these periods that the dice of success or failure are really cast.

In the late 1980s the Irish Government took a decision to enter into partnership with universities to invest in science and technology. There weren’t a lot of funds available but BioResearch Ireland was founded. It had five centres, one of them in Trinity. The aim of Trinity’s National Pharmaceutical Biotech Centre was to help academics develop a biotech portfolio of Intellectual Property (IP), licenses, company interactions or products.

The funding - only about 1 or 1.5 million Irish pounds - financed high-profile life scientists, and Trinity built a specific-purpose Biotechnology building to support their work.

Strategic recruitments, success in research funding rounds, and a strong biotech/pharma component in the innovation area and in Trinity’s publications output meant that by 1999, when the Celtic Tiger was kicking in and there was suddenly much more money available, Trinity was in a great position to leverage significant funds from government and private philanthropy. Today Trinity has world-class strengths in basic molecular and cell biology, and related chemistry and translational research, all revolving round biopharma and therapeutics.

* * * Campus Companies * * *

So, from a daring government initiative in the 1980s to put precious funds into a radical growth area like biotechnology, Trinity was in a great position to capitalise on the improved funding environment of the late 1990s and early 2000s to build up significant strength in this important sector, and crucially, to increase the number of campus companies. I would like to thank Margaret Woods from Trinity Research & Innovation for the information in this section.

Twenty years ago campus companies were few and far between in Ireland.

Text Box:  This slide shows the logos for the campus companies founded in the academic year 2009-2010. As examples:

- Biocroi’s PlateMinderTM technology represents a breakthrough in stabilising cell-based assays performed in micro volumes, used for rapid screening in the drug development industry;

- Trocht Ltd is developing a web-based system to monitor global events, using print, video and audio sources, and then applying sentiment analysis to Web 2.0 and self-learning systems to deliver a rapid decision support system for financial market predictions.

- Miravex specialises in imaging devices and its first product is targeted at skin imaging for the aesthetic medicine and dermatology markets.


Text Box:  Is the academic year just gone by, 2011-2012, there were 13 campus companies: PixilPuffin is a software company developing tools for the media post-production industry, and Synergy Flow Ltd’s lead product is ArtiStent, a cardiovascular device targeted specifically at the treatment of peripheral vascular disease in the superior femoral artery. Xcelerit develops algorithms to speed up financial services software.




Text Box:  How do we get such campus companies? Well, it’s hard work. One of the highlights of every year in Trinity is the “Innovation and Technology Showcase”. Here is a brochure from some previous years’ showcases - The front page of one of the brochures is shown here in the slide; I know the text is too small to read but it gets across the process. There are 36 ideas for commercialisation of research here; some fifteen on this first page.



Text Box:


The stage of development stage classified in the ‘funnel’ which appears on the brochures I’ve handed around, and is here on the slide, which I’ve expanded here in this slide to show we keep track of these, taking a strong interest to ensure as many as possible get investment and create jobs.



* * * Innovation Academy and the new breed of PhD * * *

Encouraging an innovative, entrepreneurial mindset in students is something to be proactive about, not something to leave to chance.

Text Box:  Some people are natural entrepreneurs; others, whose ideas may be just as good, aren’t used to thinking in terms of innovation. So a few years ago, we established an Innovation Academy.

We did this together with another university in Dublin, UCD, and together we are beginning to pioneer a new breed of PhD student - as the slide says “Study makes a scholar, action makes an entrepreneur”.

This new breed of PhD graduate will be expert in their discipline, with a thorough understanding of how innovation can convert knowledge and ideas into economic and social benefit.

It’s early days yet for the TCD/UCD Innovation Academy but so far it is proving as exciting and dynamic a hub as we could wish. One of the students on the PhD students doing research here in Rwanda, Caroline Ryan, is also a student in the Innovation Academy. She is currently based in the veterinary university in Umatara and is looking at human-livestock related interactions that can lead to poor health. Her project was short-listed for an award this February.


Playing our part in ensuring that research supports the innovation ecosystem is now an important activity for Trinity, as for other global universities. While I’m proud of our work in this area, I know that a great deal remains to be done. There could, for instance, be improvements within the regulatory framework in which technology-business develop, particularly in the way the labour market works. For example, it’s not as easy as in some countries for academics to take time out to concentrate on start-up companies.

One of the keys to improving commercialisation - and indeed improving university research in general - will come through extending global networks. Ensuring research is globally competitive is an absolute imperative which can easily be lost for local political reasons flying a flag under the guise of strategy.

This means that Trinity needs to develop its global outreach and link up with more universities round the world. Paradoxically perhaps, in order to bring about national transformation, we have to look beyond our national boundaries.


Text Box:  Our commitment to interdisciplinarity - which I’ve already mentioned - underpins our approach to inter-institutional collaboration: we know we have much to learn from, and much to teach, our peer institutions round the world.

This slide shows some of our international publications over the last four years.




*** Exchanges***

Student exchanges are important and something I’m particularly keen on because I, personally, have had such a great experience studying in Italy and the Netherlands. European countries are fortunate because exchanges are facilitated by an EU programme, Erasmus; however I’d like to see more of our students availing of the opportunity to study abroad. This is one of my goals. There is no educational substitute to immersing yourself in another culture.

And it’s not just student exchanges - I’d like to see more international students coming to study full-term in Trinity. An international campus, reflecting diversity in both the staff and student bodies is a feature of the contemporary leading university.

Academic staff exchanges are also crucial. Even in centuries past when communication was through the postal system and transport through horse-drawn carriages, academics managed to exchange ideas, using Latin as a common language. As that great academic traveller of Europe Erasmus himself said: Ego Mundi Civis Esse Cupio. I long to be a citizen of the world. And I agree with that.

And I’d like to see more institutional collaborations beyond the island of Ireland. The Masters in Development Practice between Trinity, UCD and the NUR is a great instance of such collaboration. It will, I hope, lead to more such programmes and more research projects between Ireland and Africa.

***Trinity’s Global Relations Strategy***

As with innovation, we know that encouraging global thinking is something we have to be proactive about. It requires strategising, prioritising and resources. To this end, Trinity has incorporated, within our new strategic plan, a ‘Global Relations Strategy’ and we have designated a Vice-Provost for Global Relations.

The aim is to increase and deepen all the linkages I’ve just been speaking of. This is an entirely new post, created with the express aim of improving our messaging abroad and focussing global interest on Trinity. By creating such a post we are seeking to coordinate our activities towards the core aim of opening Trinity to the wider world.

When I leave office, in 2021, I want this map (i.e. the collaborative slide) to have double, or treble, the number of links. That will signal to me that Trinity has helped transform Ireland as Ireand’s university on the world stage.


I’ve been concentrating, so far, on recent developments. I’ve been talking about the new initiatives we’ve taken and our strategies for the future. But I want to close by recalling Trinity’s core values, the age-old strengths behind our academic excellence.

If I had to say what Trinity’s greatest strength is, my answer would be: research-led education.

The essence of a ‘research-led education’ is that students are actively engaged in primary research in a common enterprise of discovery alongside their professors. They learn to see knowledge, not as ‘concreted-in and static’ but as dynamic and changing - and what is more that they themselves can change it, can rewrite the textbooks. In this mode of education there is no division or compartmentalisation between research and teaching. Students develop strengths in critical enquiry and learn the importance of evidence-based knowledge.

A research-led education is demanding of staff and it is expensive, but the pay-off is worth it. Everything I’ve been talking about - a knowledge economy, campus spin-outs, inter-institutional collaborations, an education hub - all of these are premised on research-based education.

Education is a huge, diverse sector and typically countries will have different types of higher education institutes. In Ireland, for instance, we have colleges, where students are trained for specific jobs rather than in primary research and critical enquiry. That’s fine. Diversity is to be encouraged and different skills are always needed. But in my view a knowledge economy will always have a number of universities which deliver a research-led education, because that’s where the cutting-edge knowledge comes from.

Research-led education is a core Trinity value, and it encompasses another core value, of maintaining - and I quote now from the policy itself:

Of maintaining “an environment for teaching and learning that values diversity of opinion, encouraging exchange of opinion between teacher and student as part of a robust educational process. Staff are not required to present as valid what they consider to be inaccurate or untrue, and students will be enabled to question that for which inadequate evidence is given. In all cases, the College will seek to develop the search for truth as a part of the experience of teaching and learning, relying not on the imposition of authority or acceptance of received knowledge but rather on the exercise of the critical faculties of the human mind.”

We have enshrined these principles in Trinity policy because we recognise that we must explicitly value that “common enterprise of discovery” between student and staff - and therefore, by extension, imbue common values that lead to societal regeneration and transformation.

We know that if we move too far from our ideals, then we no longer have open-ended research in a spirit of critical inquiry. This threatens not only the university, but the society and economy that the university serves.

As we recognise, this search may take us to unexpected places. But it’s the willingness and courage to follow truth wherever it leads that allows us to come up with new ideas - that allows us innovate, to transform the way we think about the world and our lives, and ultimately to transform the countries and societies where we live.

Thank you very much.


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