“Embedding Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the University”

University of Nairobi, Kenya

23 July 2019

Colleagues, Distinguished Guests,

Thank you for inviting me here today. It’s a pleasure to be here in this beautiful country and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you about what I consider to be one of the three essential missions of the 21st century university: Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

My university, Trinity College Dublin, has put huge focus on innovation and Entrepreneurship over the past ten or twelve years and with great success: Trinity is now recognised as one of Europe’s leading innovation universities.

I know that the University of Nairobi is also putting great focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. Indeed, I believe just last month you hosted ‘Innovation Week’ for start-ups, entrepreneurs, established companies, government agencies and academia to showcase their innovations, products, programmes and services. 1

In our time together this afternoon, I’d like to talk, first, about what I think are the best conditions for any university looking to develop innovation and entrepreneurship. And then I’ll focus in on Trinity and talk about the specific initiatives that we’ve put in place and what we’ve achieved.

But first, let me introduce myself.

***Personal Context***

I’m the President, or Provost as we call it, of Trinity College Dublin, which is Ireland’s leading university and one of Europe’s leading universities. I was elected to this position eight years ago by the staff of the university, following an election campaign, in which I set out my manifesto of how I intended to lead. Innovation and Entrepreneurship featured strongly in my manifesto and I’m proud that we have delivered, and more, on my priorities.

I’m a mechanical engineer by training and previous to taking on the presidency I was Professor of Bioengineering in Trinity. Bioengineering is of course a ‘compound discipline’ joining engineers and medical scientists. I was fortunate that it really began to take off in the 1990s when I was an Assistant Professor. I was there from the beginning and was decisively involved with the development of bioengineering in Irish universities and the growth of medtech in Ireland.

Bioengineering is responsible for a number of spin-outs in Trinity. It was great preparation for future policy-making around innovation to be involved with such a forward-looking field so early on.

Trinity is a multidisciplinary university with three faculties – arts, humanities and social sciences; engineering, science and mathematics; and health sciences. So much of what we achieve in the university, including innovation and entrepreneurship, comes from our dynamic multidisciplinarity.

My other interest is the environment - nature and cities. I grew up in a rural area of Ireland – and, probably because I’m an engineer, I’m particularly interested in man’s relationship with the environment and in how we could use our skills and technologies to live better in the planet.
My dream - which I hope to achieve when I’ve a little more time! - is to build an eco-house in the Irish countryside, which will l be carbon neutral, with zero emissions and encouraging of pollination and biodiversity.

Again, I think this interest worth mentioning because I think it’s increasingly the case that we should encourage both students and professors to challenge disciplinary boundaries. Immersion in your discipline is essential but to gain new ideas and perspectives– genuinely innovative ideas – it helps to think beyond a single discipline.

Now let me turn to what I think are the best conditions for innovation in a university.

***Best conditions for fostering Innovation***

I’ve identified seven conditions which I think universities should put in place if they want to excel at innovation. These are:

First, Research: In-depth research is the basis for university innovation. Your license and spin-outs are only as good as your research.

Universities that excel at research have excellent staff who are well-funded to pursue their research interests. There should be a balance between investigator-led research and strategic research in large research centres.

Universities that want to excel at innovation must, in the first instance, focus on investing in excellent staff and must find ways to fund their research.

The second condition is enabling Multi- and Interdisciplinarity research and education: Today, the most exciting research happens at the interface of disciplines. Bioengineering, which I’ve just mentioned, is a case in point. And innovation happens in all disciplines - it’s certainly not confined to science or health sciences.

A university with a particular focus on just a few disciplines can do good innovation but the radicalism that happens when disciplines knock against each other is certainly conducive to fresh ways of thinking.

The third condition is Global Relations – we are living in an ever more globalised world so that the term ‘global village’ isn’t just a soundbite. In this world, a university that is inward-looking and doesn’t take account of global developments or forge global collaborations, will not succeed at innovation.

When I talk about a university developing Global relations I mean:

  • One, having a global staff and student body, who come from all countries in the world, bringing their diverse skills and mindsets to the campus;
  • Two, doing collaborative research with partner universities round the world and organising global student exchange programmes, and
  • Three, putting a focus on the global in the curricula – encouraging students to think beyond the local and domestic.

The fourth condition is that the university should be supported by a strong regional innovation ecosystem. A good innovation ecosystem means: business-friendly government policies and access to industries that are interested in partnering to commercialise research. It involves access to venture capital and to a mentorship and support base.

The fifth condition is Technology-focus: technology keeps advancing all the time and universities have to advance in tandem. To be left behind technologically is to suffer relegation. Universities need dedicated departments and personnel to ensure that they are leveraging the opportunities of the latest technologies.

The sixth condition concerns the Student Experience outside the classroom, what is also called the extracurricular. In college, learning happens as much outside as inside the lab, lecture-room or tutorial. This has always been the case but when it comes to being innovative and entrepreneurial, the most successful graduates are disruptive in the best way – they are creative about fundraising, networking, and presenting their ideas.

It would be wrong to think that we can teach entrepreneurship through tutorials and lectures alone. We can’t because it’s about culture. We need to provide space for students to learn from each other and from participation in non-academic activities. Universities that succeed best at innovation make space for the extracurricular.

The seventh and final condition is to Create the right Innovation processes and pathways. Innovation doesn’t just happen. It needs to be facilitated. Universities that are good at innovation help staff to license and commercialise, they set up pipelines with industry. They establish student accelerator programmes. They have support staff dedicated to enabling innovation.

If these processes and pathways aren’t put in place, staff and students might still have great ideas – but they won’t be able to commercialise their ideas and innovate.

To recap: the seven conditions I’ve identified as essential for a university hoping to excel at innovation are:

  • Excellent Research
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Global relations
  • A strong regional ecosystem
  • Technology-focus
  • Focus on the Student Experience, or Extracurricular, and
  • Create the right innovation processes and pathways

Now let me turn to Trinity. How successful have we been at creating the right conditions in my university?

***Trinity: the Seven Conditions***

Let’s proceed through the seven conditions, one by one:

First, Research:

Research is the bedrock of everything we do in Trinity. A few years ago we were invited to join LERU, the League of European Research Universities. This is a powerful EU research and education policy group of just 23 prestigious members including the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Paris-Sud, Zurich and KU Leuven.

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Last year Trinity won €100.6 million in research funding. The significance of this figure isn’t just its size but the increase that it represents. In 2013 we won €74 million so we increased our research funding by a third, in five years.

How did we do this? We got very good at winning competitive EU grants. This slide demonstrates Trinity’s success nationally. As you see, Trinity has won half of all Irish European Research Council grants – even though we only have 17% of Ireland’s academic faculty.

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The foundation of our success in innovation is our remarkable research staff and excellent support staff who provide expertise when it comes to applying for and winning, EU research grants.

Second, Interdisciplinary

In Trinity we’ve organised our research into nineteen interdisciplinary research themes. Here they are.

All these themes involve multiple disciplines. For instance – Research into Ageing means looking at the whole life experience of ageing people. That involves epidemiology, geriatric medicine, demography, social policy, psychology, economics, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and technology-related sciences.

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We understand the importance of providing physical locations. We have five interdisciplinary research institutes – three of them housed in particularly wonderful buildings, I must say. Here they are:

This is Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute. This is the Trinity Long Room Hub and this is CRANN Institute for Nanoscience, the Trinity College Institute for Neuroscience and the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute. 

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We’ve also started embedding interdisciplinarity into the undergraduate curricula. Starting this September, all undergraduates will take an elective module outside their core course of study. We’re encouraging them to take a course outside their faculty – so science students might take, for instance ‘Cultures and Societies of the Middle East and North Africa’. And humanities students might take ‘Cancer, the Patient Journey’ or ‘Vaccines, Friend or Foe’.

By encouraging them to go outside their discipline, we are challenging them to move out of familiar, comfortable ways of thinking and seeing. This helps open their minds – it makes them more ‘innovation-ready’.

I should emphasize however, that as with many universities, interdisciplinarity is something we need to continue to get better at in Trinity. The way the university model has developed over hundreds of years is around single disciplines and departments. Breaking out of our silos isn’t easy.

Third, Global Relations

This is an area which Trinity has put a huge amount of work in over the past decade and I’m very proud of our results.

When I became President of Trinity I could see the opportunity afforded by globalisation for our students to go very far afield, further than Europe, and to spend meaningful periods abroad, not just a semester. And in turn, for Trinity to get global students whose experience would enrich the campus. And for our staff to develop international collaborations all around the world.

So with my team I started to put in place a global relations strategy. We set up research partnerships and student exchange programmes with global universities around the world. Trinity now collaborates with 3,304 global institutions, including 85 here in Africa.

As you see, we’ve seen steady growth of non-EU students coming to campus – it has almost trebled in eight years. And we’ve seen similar strong growth in non-EU research collaborations.

Our campus today has staff and students from all over the world and our curricula are international in focus. We have a Centre of Asian Studies and a Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, and we have the Trinity International Development Initiative (TIDI).

Our research themes include Smart and Sustainable Environments, and Nature PLUS research Centre. Part of the work of that centre is Dr Matt Saunders work – Matt is here this delegation - he collaborates with the International Livestock Research Institute here in Nairobi.

We are an Irish university and proud of what we contribute to Ireland and the Dublin region, but our outlook is absolutely global.

The fourth condition is a strong regional ecosystem.

We are lucky in Trinity. Ireland is an English-speaking nation, with a highly-developed open economy, and deep historic links to the United States and Canada. Successive governments have been highly business-focused and our country is an important ‘gateway’ state for multinational companies wishing to trade with the European Union.

Today Ireland is European headquarters to nine of the top ten global software companies, and nine of the top ten US technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And also headquarters to Medcare giants, Pfizer and Merck. The World Bank lists Dublin as one of the top 10 places in the world to do business.

Trinity is located in the heart of Dublin city. We are ten minutes’ walk from the tech area where the tech giants have their headquarters. About six minutes’ walk from government buildings. Right beside museums, art galleries, restaurants, retail. Our location is a gift. This map shows the clusters around us.

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Ireland’s innovation ecosystem and our unbeatable location within it has certainly been instrumental in our success with innovation.

I’ll now discuss our €60 million euro University Bridge Fund.

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Fifth, Technology focus

Technology increasingly underpins every one of our university activities – from student ID cards to ordering books in the library to booking sports facilities to launching campus campaigns. We’re synergising our activities through technology platforms.

We have made a commitment to all students that they will graduate as ‘effective communicators’ – that includes of course not just the traditional sense of communication - face-to-face and meetings, speeches and presentations - but also communicating online and through technology.

In Trinity, all our students do a piece of original research. Traditionally this was handed in as a written dissertation, but we’re changing this - it may now take the form of a performance, a composition, a film, a piece of software or a product.

We cannot tie our students to old ways of doing things when new, exciting ways have opened up.

Students are early adopters and drivers of technology – so it can be a question of us trying to keep up with them, rather than teaching them!

I should say that keeping ahead of technology is no easy feat and there is room for improvement in Trinity. For instance, we have yet to fully exploit the potential of online education. We’ve developed a number of fully online postgraduate courses as well as MOOCs or Massive Online Open Courses, but this is an area where we can do more.

Sixth is the Student Experience or Extracurricular.

This is another area where Trinity enjoys an historic advantage. We have always put focus on the student experience.

Today we have over 150 student societies and sports clubs – including every type of sport and societies that are political, religious, linguistic, cultural, charitable - you name it! If their interests aren’t represented by an existing club, students go ahead and create a new club.

Participation in clubs and societies involves students in fundraising, volunteering, leadership, strategizing, team management – all skills which are essential for entrepreneurship.

We try not to overload our students with coursework and to leave space on the timetable free for extracurricular. They won’t develop fully if they don’t get to explore outside the classroom.

The biggest growing field of student extracurricular is around innovation. This is because of the student accelerators we have put in place, which I will talk about now.

The seventh and final condition, Create Innovation processes and pathways.

I’m very conscious of the importance of having the right
processes and pathways to facilitate innovation because the situation in Trinity ‘before’ and ‘after’ we did this was dramatic. Trinity went from creating less than one campus company a year between 1986 and 2008, to creating seven a year campus companies a year for the next five years. This booklet describes the transformation.

What changed? The impetus was a revision in our Technology Transfer Office’s procedures for the approval of campus company formation.

Today in Trinity we have 98 campus companies, which have raised €200 million in investment and revenue €1.2 billion in exports and created 3,000 plus jobs.

This success is thanks to our office, Trinity Research & Innovation, which supports commercialisation of research at every stage of the process. They help with:

  • IP management
  • Developing a Business model
  • Identifying customers
  • Building a Team and
  • Engaging with investors.

It’s this hands-on, targeted, methodical support that has ensured success for our researchers looking to commercialise their research.

Spin-out companies are headed up by professors in departments and might involve postgrads. About six years ago we started thinking about undergraduates. How could we release their innovation and entrepreneurial capacity? How could we get them to start thinking about scaling up and funding and marketing their business ideas? We were sure they had wonderful ideas – we had to find a framework for them to work in.

And so LaunchBox was born. LaunchBox is an initiative to encourage student innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s open to all students in every discipline.

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Just like with our revised campus formation procedure, LaunchBox has been a remarkable success. Putting in place the right processes and pathways to support innovation has proved as transformative with students as with staff.

Within a year of being rolled out, LaunchBox was assessed by the international University Business Incubator Index as a ‘Top Challenger’ and placed just outside the world’s ‘Top 25’, from 800 student incubators assessed.

Since its inception in 2013, LaunchBox has enabled the creation of 50 startups that have gone on to raise over €6 million euro. Remember, these are purely student-run companies.

Typically, the companies represent a mix of disciplines and a mix between hardware, software, and physical products. The college supports the student teams with office, or rather ideas space and with mentoring and access to investors.

Every year more than 50 student teams vie for a place on the programme. The process is highly competitive – this year the highest ever number – 12 – got through to the judging panel. Here are some of them:

These teams will have a hard act to follow because some previous LaunchBox teams have been hugely successful.

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To take two examples: FoodCloud is among the most famous student start-ups in the world. It featured in time magazine. It was established with the aim of using technology to bridge the gap between food want and food waste. It links up retailers and restaurants to charities.

Established in 2013, today it employs over 30 people and works with over 9000 charitable organisations in Ireland and the UK. It has supplied over 50 million meals with food that would otherwise have been wasted.

Supermarkets and restaurants love the FoodCloud app! They get the marketing upside of not getting a reputation for destroying otherwise edible food AND FoodCloud’s price to take it away is cheaper than conventional disposal, so there is also a financial benefit.

And Artomatix is taking digital art creation to the next level. It’s a "deep tech" company in the AI space, at the forefront of complex computing. Founded in 2013, it received over €3m in innovation funding in 2018, and recently closed a €2.7m funding round. It employs 10 people in Dublin.

*** Success***

To summarise, we’ve focussed strongly on all seven ‘conditions for innovation’ in Trinity.

What has this meant for the university? How successful have we been?

This begs the question, what does success look like? How can we measure how well a university succeeds at innovation and entrepreneurship?

It’s important not to measure too narrowly. There are a number of metrics to consider.

The first metric is of course, commercialisation of research.

I’ve already established Trinity’s success in this domain: 98 campus companies raising €200 million in investment, 50 student companies raising €6 million.

And between 2014 and 2018, we agreed 112 licence agreements, 91 patents, 286 Invention disclosures, and over 450 collaborative agreements with Industry.

For a faculty of 3000, these figures are excellent, I believe.

Let’s turn to the next metric:

When it comes to innovation, then at least as important as how well your staff are commercialising research, is what your graduates are doing? Are they entrepreneurial and innovative? Are they out there creating successful companies and being creative about their ideas?

As it happens, the entrepreneurial success of Trinity graduates has been measured – not by us, but by international research firm, Pitchbook, who for the past four years have made an evaluation of undergraduate alumni who go on to create companies that secure first round venture capital funding. And guess what? Trinity has been rated the number one university in Europe for educating entrepreneurs, every year for the past four years. Trinity is the only European university in PitchBook’s global Top 50.

Our graduates are the most entrepreneurial in Europe, which speaks for itself.

Let’s turn to the third metric, which is about embedding innovation and entrepreneurship into the university’s mission. The question to ask yourselves is: Has innovation and entrepreneurship changed the way that we educate and research?

I believe that in Trinity it has. Our focus on innovation and entrepreneurship has translated into a new 21st century approach to research and education. To illustrate, let me close with three initiatives, one that we’ve just completed, and two that we will deliver in a few years’ time:

A few months ago we opened the new purpose-build Trinity Business School on campus. Here it is.

It’s a really wonderful building – with the largest auditorium on campus. It’s near zero-energy, with solar panels, green walls, recycled water and fresh air flow. It’s co-located with an innovation and entrepreneurship hub – or what we call simply an Ideas Space, which provides an interface between Trinity and the vibrant innovation ecosystem on our doorstep.

This ideas space, Tangent, is where our student accelerator, LaunchBox, that I’ve just mentioned, is located.
The Trinity Business School raises our game in terms of business education and research. And as we made clear from the outset, the new School isn’t just for business staff and students. It’s for the whole university.
Co-locating the Business School with the Ideas Space gets across that innovation and entrepreneurship is a skill that all students should develop. 

The second initiative I’d like to mention is our new Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies Institute, or E3 as we call it. Work has started on this and it will be built in two phases over the next few years.

E3 will harness new methods of learning and research at the frontiers of disciplines to educate new kinds of engineers and scientists prepared for the challenges of the 21st century workplace. It will partner with industry and NGOs to help meet emerging opportunities in energy and engineering design, while sustaining the earth’s natural capital.

E3 will showcase a new approach to STEM education. It will be transformative both in terms of content – with more focus on the challenges of sustaining the earth’s resources – and in terms of methods and teaching techniques.

Students of engineering, natural sciences and computer science will learn from each other to develop innovative solutions towards, for instance, renewable energy, personalised data, water, connectivity and sustainable manufacturing.

E3 is a hugely ambitious initiative. We would not have had the confidence and the inspiration to launch this were it not for our great success with the ‘seven conditions for innovation’.

Being research-focussed, interdisciplinary and global; prioritising the student experience and technology usage; being part of a strong regional innovation ecosystem and putting in place the right pathways and processes – all this has changed the way we think about our mission. It has raised our ambition.

When the E3 research Institute is built it will be located in a new Trinity tech campus, ten minutes’ walk from our main campus. This will be the lynchpin of the new Grand Canal Innovation District, which we’re planning in Dublin.

An Innovation District is a new kind of urban centre where universities, high growth companies and tech and creative start-ups are embedded in an amenity-rich residential and commercial environment. Over the past decade the development of these districts in cities such as London, Barcelona, Toronto and Boston have enabled both rapid innovation and economic growth.

 

Innovation districts work by bringing together a critical mass of talent, finance, innovation and enterprise. They are located in a concentrated urban environment and provide the proximity, density and scale of activities that are essential for international competitiveness.

A new innovation district, with a new university campus at its heart, is a vital step in enabling Dublin to be ranked as a top 20 global city for innovation. Trinity has already signed an agreement with government and other Dublin universities and business stakeholders to develop this.

With a second Trinity campus at the Grand Canal Innovation District, we will be further enriching the ecosystem and increasing the synergy between the university and the city.

The Grand Canal Innovation District will play a crucial role for Dublin and for all Ireland, connecting to global networks and promoting all types of innovation.

***Conclusion***

Of these initiatives, the Trinity Business School and E3 have been enabled by alumni. We reached out to our graduates asking them to support these ground-breaking projects which would be game-changers for Trinity and Ireland and for global education and research. Our graduates were responsive. They were hugely generous. Without them, we could not have built the new Business School and we would not have started work designing and building E3.

This makes the Business School and E3 community initiatives in the truest sense. They are enabled by the global Trinity community of high-achieving graduates.

And that is the message I would like to end on: the importance of community, the difference graduates can make. Perhaps I should make this the eighth condition for innovation and entrepreneurship: create a community around your university, keep your graduates connected in, keep telling inspiring stories of what your staff, students and graduates achieve, and the difference your research makes.

Great things happen when people come together. We cannot innovate alone; it takes an ecosystem. A university that is performing at its highest level and embedded in its city and region and involving its whole global community of graduates creates an ecosystem around it. That is when discovery happens.

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Thank you.

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