Tom Flanagan of NovaUCD: Bringing Ideas from Research to Industry

An interview with Tom Flanagan, Director of Enterprise and Commercialisation at University College Dublin

Tom Flanagan is  Director of Enterprise and Commercialisation at University College Dublin. He leads NovaUCD, one of Ireland’s premier start-up incubators.  NovaUCD supports research collaborations and knowledge transfer between cutting-edge research and industry, and  entrepreneurs to launch and scale high-tech businesses.

How does NovaUCD connect academic researchers with industry?

NovaUCD is part of University College Dublin (UCD), the largest university in Ireland. The university has around 35,000 students and receives over €120 million in research funding in any year. NovaUCD is UCD’s start-up incubator, where we encourage entrepreneurs to network, develop new propositions and help them to connect with investors in Ireland and globally.

Our key teams nurture companies and early-stage ventures with:

●   knowledge transfer from the early stages of an invention right up to licensing and start-up development

●   securing investments and nurturing growth for start-ups

●   immediate access to consulting expertise

Our focus is on high-growth opportunities and research collaborations that can be a win-win for everybody, researchers, entrepreneurs and the companies who support them. In particular, we are getting great traction with ‘spin-ins’, existing companies that locate on our campus. This gives them access to our researchers, technologies, and student internship programmes full of fresh talent.

Why do universities need assistance to commercialise their ideas?

Universities receive lots of funding for research, which then creates inventions or new ways of doing things. Each piece of technology can have multiple applications. You might start off trying to solve one problem but you typically end up solving a number of problems. This leads to many possible applications. So for each application you have to figure out who would be interested in bringing it to market.

Sometimes there isn’t a relevant company already in place to take a technology forward and it makes more sense to build a company around the new technology from scratch. So we work on bringing together a team of researchers and experienced business people  to develop an early-stage start-up and transform it into an investable company.

Do researchers have to become entrepreneurs, or are there other options?

I always explain to researchers that they will need three different skill sets: development, sales and finances. You won’t often find all three skill sets in the same person. We therefore advise our researchers, and the student entrepreneurs who we support,  to form teams, and to identify their own key skill set, and those of their team members, which ensures the team can put forward the strongest proposition.

A minority of researchers do decide to become entrepreneurs. It can work, because researchers are good at experimentation and entrepreneurs need to experiment with lots of different business models until they find one that will succeed.

More often, researchers will come to us to find somebody with expertise in the domain, commercial experience, the right connections and networks, and possibly financial resources too. This person can focus on the business aspect of the project.

Knowledge transfer and commercialisation is still an embryonic industry. We’re still refining our process, and we’re continuing to come up with new initiatives and trying new things. But if there is a formula, it is to bring together the idea, the money and a CEO. For example, we’re developing a mentor partner programme to bring in more expertise and more exposure to experienced CEOs.  We also take the proposition and experiment with it until we get it right.

I always explain to researchers that they will need three different skill sets: development, sales and finances. You won’t often find all three skill sets in the same person. A minority of researchers do decide to become entrepreneurs. It can work, because researchers are good at experimentation and entrepreneurs need to experiment with lots of different business models until they find one that will succeed.

Many students probably don’t see their project as a commercial proposition from the start. Do you scout out research ideas with potential?

Much research is discovery-led. Researchers are trying to further the extent of their knowledge, and in the process they will come up with interesting ideas. They may not realise that they have found something of value, or they may think that it has value in one area and not another.

We therefore have a Knowledge Transfer Team to examine the research. There’s quite a bit of creativity involved in evaluating all its possible applications. How else might we use it? Who would be interested in it?

We also engage with researchers to come up with new research projects that solve a particular problem. When our industry partners encounter challenges, we can develop a bespoke research project, designed for a specific company or consortium.Corlytics, for example, focuses on regulatory compliance in the banking industry. Our researchers partnered with them and have recently been awarded €2 million through the disruptive technologies innovation  fund to work together on a two-year project to develop state-of-the-art AI technology. We’ll then license the results to Corlytics.

In the UK, we seem to be good at coming up with wonderful ideas, which somehow end up being developed elsewhere, often in the US. What can we do about that?

It’s true – and here in Ireland, too. Stripe was founded by a couple of undergraduates in Ireland who went to the US and turned it into a multi-million dollar business.

Great businesses will always go where the money is.  As they grow, they need additional capital to scale up. And the availability of funds in the US is several orders of magnitude larger than Europe.

The European Innovation Council is trying to address this by launching a five-year scheme to make venture funds available to European start-up companies.

The US also offers a ready market: Over 320 million people ready to adopt your technology. Market traction may be stronger in the US than in Europe, too.

What tech ideas are exciting to you at the moment?

Quantum computing is the next step on the computing ladder. Equal1, the first quantum computing company in Ireland is working with us and IBM on a combination research project. Their work is improving the operating temperature range needed to make quantum chips work. This will make quantum computing much more viable.

AI is a huge opportunity and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. There’s a great disparity between what you see from AI in the movies and what we can actually achieve today, but there are still plenty of marketable propositions.

Another major sector is agritech and food. Israel produces more start-ups in this space than we do, even though we are research leaders, so at NovaUCD we’re trying to close the gap by helping accelerate the development of agritech ventures by getting them in front of the right people at the right time.

We have success stories in all sorts of interesting sectors based at NovaUCD:

●        Manna is a drone delivery company who spun in with us a year and a half ago. They are developing drones that can fly takeaway food to the customer. During the COVID-19 pandemic they’ve been trialing their technology by delivering pharmaceuticals and medicines to local residents in the village of Moneygall in Co. Offaly.  

●       Output Sports, a UCD spin-out, was established last year and has raised  €1.3 million of investment. They work with professional athletes, using sensors track their motion and analyse the athletes’ performance. They’re already working with NBA basketball teams in the US and Premier League football teams in the UK.

●       Latch Medical, another UCD spin-out, was founded here, and they’ve achieved substantial funding to build out their microneedle technology. These microneedles can be used as a catheter anchor without having to rely on bandages. Further applications of the technology could include injecting anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics.

And looking forward? You must constantly be looking for partnerships…

My key consideration is: how can we branch out from what we’re currently doing into something new? To do that, we look for technologies and partnership opportunities. Last year, 5G was a key emerging technology. To run a 5G accelerator programme, we would need to identify companies that are beginning to see 5G as a good foundation on which to further develop their businesses. The result was an accelerator programme in conjunction with Ericsson and Vodafone.

Repeating the process, in agritech we’ve got funding to build a new incubator. And so we’ve started a new project in partnership with AIB (Allied Irish Bank) to run a national programme to attract companies in agritech. Our incubator will be built on a real farm, to allow companies to do their testing in situ.

Much research is discovery-led. Researchers are trying to further the extent of knowledge, and in the process they will come up with interesting ideas. They may not realise that they have found something of value, or they may think that it has value in one area and not another.

You have a growing alumni group. Do they come back to help out?

We have a mentor network of about 70 people, and we’ll reach out to anybody with commercial expertise and an interest in developing new propositions.  Our mentors provide anything from feasibility and market analysis, all the way up to working with the team to develop their proposition, including becoming the CEO.

The entrepreneur Dr Conor Hanley, for example, is one of our alumni. He was involved in the start-up behind BiancaMed, a UCD spin-out  (successfully acquired by ResMed). He’s come back to us and is now developing FIRE1, a business focused on the remote monitoring of heart conditions. Conor is very involved in our engineering group, supporting different students as they develop their projects.

Has COVID changed your world?

The vast majority of our companies are doing well. Some are thriving because their businesses have greater potential in a post-COVID environment – they have an online project or they already got started on clinical trials.

Others have received investment and are just starting to use it.

There have, of course, been some challenges as well. Like everyone at this time, some of our companies were on the brink of getting investment and have seen it pulled.

We’ve learned to change with the times. We now deliver our accelerator programme online rather than face-to-face; and that works just as well. In some ways it works better as we can take on more projects.

We’re changing as the world changes around us, and we’re trying to figure out what the next big thing is at the same time.

How do you work with the rest of Ireland’s venture ecosystem?

NovaUCD is an investor in the Atlantic Bridge Bridge Fund. That’s €60 million supporting our early-stage start-ups  and others across Ireland, backed by professional investors including the European Investment Fund, AIB, Bank of Ireland and Enterprise Ireland.

With our research projects, we’re partnered up with every other university in Ireland, plus many more across Europe. Our Knowledge Transfer Offices are engaged in collaborating on new spin-outs that might combine research from multiple universities, and we have research centres that cut across multiple universities too.

Our country is a small place, and we’re pretty well connected. We don’t have six degrees of separation in Ireland. It’s often two degrees and sometimes only one!