Anton Bartolo is the director for corporate research and knowledge transfer at the University of Malta, where he built the Knowledge Transfer Office from scratch in 2009 (with help from Oxentia, Oxford’s consultancy arm).

He tells us how the challenges of being the only university in a small island nation have led to an offering that isn’t actually all that dissimilar to that of institutions in larger countries — including tech transfer internships, an incubator open to all, TAKEOFF, and a master’s in entrepreneurship.

Malta has historically had a very low proportion of its GDP going to research and development, and many companies are subsidiaries that leave the research to their overseas parent, and Bartolo ponders how this is affecting his work and what can be done to remedy it.

And finally, Bartolo talks about why two of Malta’s three spinouts thus far were set up in other countries and, of course, he follows Talking Tech Transfer tradition and reveals his magic wand wish.



Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Anton, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you. I’m very happy to be here today.

I look forward to learning more about Malta. To start with, perhaps, can you give me an overview of your office with some headline figures, if you have those?

So first of all, we’re based at the University of Malta, which is the only university in Malta. So it’s a broad based university where we teach most subjects. We have about 12,000 students. So that gives you an order of magnitude of how big the university is.

We’re quite a small office. There’s six of us in all and two interns. So that’s eight. And we tackle two things primarily. One is the tech transfer, where we’re looking at the research commercialisation process. And the other is where we tackle the collaboration with industry. So obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. But yeah, we have different people, mostly, managing the two streams.

That makes sense. There’s one thing in there that we’ll come back to as well, the internships, which I find quite interesting. But let’s perhaps go back a little bit in time. You established the office from scratch in 2009. What was the reality you found when you came to the university and how much work was it to set up an office from scratch?

Yeah, so first of all, we need to look at the context. Okay, Malta is a small island, on the peripheral of Europe, not very well connected. So we do have obviously connections to universities, but I mean, they’re not very strong. And this whole technology transfer, intellectual property thing was quite new.

So I remember the first day after… so the first day I started when I sat down in my office, and I said, okay, now what? Because there was basically, there was very little infrastructure and very little knowledge about this field around. So I mean, the first thing we did, which is something I already found the legal office we were working on was an intellectual property policy for the university. So that’s where we started. And basically, we built from there.

We were lucky because at the time, there was an ESF — a European Structural Fund — grant open. And we applied for that, in order to get support from another foreign established technology transfer office to support us to set up. It was really the beginning of kind of where we really got going. So there was a call issued, the University of Oxford had the Isis Innovation, which is now called Oxentia, I believe.

Oxford University Innovation, yeah.

Yeah, so Oxford University Innovation as well. So Oxentia, I think is the company that is the consultancy. So they came on board, and we got a lot of training from them. And obviously that helped. But it’s a challenge when you’re starting something from scratch. And one of the main challenges is that since we’re the only university, we can’t look at other universities close to us. So you necessarily need to look at universities abroad.

And again, there are always differences in cultures and sizes and challenges. So it was an interesting experience looking back.

Are there any aspects of what Oxentia learned in the UK that you took over or that you perhaps specifically ignored because it didn’t work in Malta?

We took a lot over actually. So I mean, that’s an interesting concept in itself that there’s so much in common, even though they’re two different countries, maybe one much more developed than the other in the sense, a university that’s, I mean, world class, whereas we’re a much smaller university, much, much less funding. But I mean, you still have very good research going on. You still have academics who are not necessarily good entrepreneurs. So many of the challenges that you need to face and the processes that you need to go through are very similar, I think, irrespective of which part of the globe you are really.

Yeah. Has the culture shifted at all towards being more entrepreneurial at the university or is it still a struggle?

It goes in waves.


So it depends a lot on how much the government is pushing, how much the university management is pushing. But I would say that over the past, I mean, since I joined, it’s definitely grown a lot. We have a funding body called MCST — Malta Council for Science and Technology — who give out grants. And in a way they’re criticised sometimes because they favour exclusively applied research and research that could lead to commercialisation. So obviously the academics and researchers who are looking at earlier stage research feel that it’s very difficult for them to get grants.

But on the other hand, for us, it works very well because the grant itself pushes the academics, the researchers to apply for patents, to consider commercialisation from the very beginning. And that has grown the culture. I mean, it has forced in a way many of the academics to look at commercialisation.And in a way it helps us because they already have kind of the right mindset.

That makes sense. I think you said in the introduction as well that you handle corporate research, research collaborations. What are the challenges around this in a country like Malta or the opportunities?

Yeah. So I would say more challenges than opportunities really. Malta is unique in a way because a lot of the large companies we have are subsidiaries of larger companies that are headquartered abroad. So going back, Malta was a low-cost jurisdiction and we attracted industry by offering qualified people who got paid less basically than their counterparts abroad. And this brought a lot of manufacturing companies to a low-cost base. It’s no longer like that so much anymore. So they’ve upskilled, they’ve grown.

One example is STMicroelectronics, where they produce some of the most advanced MEMS chips in the world. But the companies still are reluctant to do research in Malta. So most of the research gets done at the headquarters. So this in a way is difficult to work with the larger companies.

And then you have always, when you work with the smaller companies, they have fewer resources, fewer money for research, etc. So this is kind of the reality that we work with.

Of course, there are exceptions. So we hope to be licensing our first licence to a third party like non-university company very soon. It’s a company that actually works very closely with the university because their chairman is also an academic at the university. And when you have this kind of setup, you’re forcing the company into this collaboration. And that’s for example, one example where this tech transfer and this collaboration really works.

On the other side of the scale of the big corporations, you’ve got startups and you’ve built the TAKEOFF incubator as well, which is one of the things that you created. Can you tell me a little bit about this programme?

Yeah. So again, when we started off, when I started off in 2009, there was very little around. So there was very little entrepreneurship. There weren’t many startups. There wasn’t really a startup ecosystem. So we realised that if we wanted to have this culture of entrepreneurship, we needed also to invest in a business incubator local to the university.

And again, we knew that we wouldn’t have a large enough pipeline of spinouts from the university to fill the incubator. So we took the decision to open an incubator and have it open to anybody who is interested in starting up a company. And simultaneously with that, and this also was part of the grant that supported us to get support from Oxford, we set up a Centre for Entrepreneurship and business incubator. So it’s an academic entity and they set up a master’s in entrepreneurship, again, to train people in entrepreneurship.

So the incubator and the Center for Entrepreneurship were kind of part of the setting up of kind of the ecosystem that was required. The Centre for Entrepreneurship, CEBI, they have their main programme is a master’s programme in entrepreneurship, which is very hands-on. It accepts as students anybody with any degree. So we get people with law degrees, we get people with engineering degrees. So anyone who wants to start up a company is invited to join.

It’s also an interesting programme because it’s taught over four one week batches. So you get two modules in the first week, two modules in the second week, and that happens in one year. Then in the next year, you have two other weeks where you have sort of a total of eight modules. Then you have the final year project, which is actually a business plan. And when you’re defending it, you’re pitching to a committee. It’s kind of a cross between a master’s, a traditional master’s, but with all this kind of entrepreneurship in it. And it works very well. I mean, we always have a cohort of at least 20 students who are following that. And so over the years — it’s been running for, I mean, I think since something like 2010, 2011, something like that — so we’ve had a number of cohorts and again, so these entrepreneurs tend to hang around, they join, take off, they take opportunities up. And again, our hope is that we will have a group of potential entrepreneurs who can also get involved in our spinouts.

Yeah. Feeding back in Did you — I’m not entirely sure if I caught it properly — did you say four weeks or did you say four terms as in semesters?

So it’s four weeks. So yeah.

Okay. Okay. One month.

Four weeks. So two in one semester and two in another semester.


And the idea is in between, they basically go away and work on their business plans. Yeah. And yeah, every module has its own assignments, which then you go and you carry those out during the interval. So it’s actually quite a lot of work. It’s just that the taught component is concentrated in these single weeks. And the idea there was that if you’re employed, you could take your two weeks off in one year and another two weeks off in another year and you can complete the course while you’re still employed.

Okay. That makes perfect sense. That’s a really good idea. And I kind of wish more MA programmes worked like that.

It’s quite interesting to hear as well that you have an MA programme in entrepreneurship because I think it’s something that a lot of universities are kind of coming up with now around the world, even the bigger ones with more established startup cultures. So it’s fascinating to hear that even someone like University of Malta that is slightly earlier on in their journey is already laying that foundation as well. It makes complete sense.

Yeah, we realised that, yeah, it was an important… I mean, again, when you’re building from zero, I mean, you need to put all the right building blocks in place in order to be able to succeed. And I think that was an important one to have.

Perhaps on a slightly bigger note then, what are generally the opportunities in Malta? Are there specific sectors where you excel?

Again, looking at Malta, we don’t have many resources, many natural resources. So it’s mostly humans, mostly people who are educated, basically, professionals. So that in a way leads itself to a lot of IT-related activity, which in a way takes care of itself. So we at the university don’t see many IT companies coming through because it tends to be something which can easily be done without the support of a knowledge transfer office.

So if you look at Malta as a country, many of our companies, many of the startups are relating to IT and obviously the various verticals that you can get out of IT. And because of certain legislation that the country adopted, we also have a strong iGaming component to startups. But again, not at the university.

So at the university, what we do tend to have is more the engineering and life sciences. Maybe it’s the traditional areas that tech transfer offices deal with. And again, because very often they’re built on tangible IP where you have a patent or you have protected intellectual property, and then it becomes a bit more complex and you need the technology transfer office kind of to guide you through setting up the spinout.

Yeah, that makes complete sense. Much more established routes to market as well and easy enough with help of a knowledge transfer office to follow patent filing and all those kinds of things.

We again, we’d like to have more activity in the IT area, but I guess it’s not happening yet. Maybe if we had more resources and somebody who could be a bit more proactive, maybe more of that would happen.

One noteworthy organisation in Malta that I think you worked for before you came to the university as well is Malta Enterprise. Can you tell me a little bit about what they do and how it helps you?

Malta Enterprise is the regional development agency. So I mean, the equivalent of Enterprise Ireland, I believe it’s called and I mean, every country has one of these. So basically it helps industry with grants and schemes that support various things.

So amongst the schemes Malta Enterprise has are a number that support startups. So there’s a startup scheme which is pretty generous where if you can raise €200,000, they would supplement that with a loan of €800,000, which is a nice sum of money to spin off a company, to start up a company.

And they also have an R&D scheme where if your company is research-oriented and I mean, technology-based, then that can help as well with the initial phases of the company.

So we do work closely with Malta Enterprise on this. And we also know that if we have a spinout that’s ready to go, then we can use the scheme to kind of get the initial funding for it.

Picking up on your mention of R&D there, Malta has historically had a relatively low percentage of GDP going to R&D and you’ve already mentioned it – you have subsidiaries of overseas companies and the research doesn’t happen there. Is it something that you see changing or has it started to change?

That is a very big challenge for us, the fact that there’s very little investment in R&D nationwide basically. So obviously that reduces a lot, for example, the number of postdocs we have employed at the university, the number of PhD students who are going, because obviously if you can’t support them, it’s going to be very difficult to attract these kinds of people.

The government has a target of going up to 2%. They’ve had this target for quite a while. It doesn’t seem to be happening somehow. So I mean, realistically, unfortunately, we haven’t had a government in the past, I don’t know, couple of decades or forever really that appreciates the value of investing in R&D.

So as long as you keep seeing R&D as a cost, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to raise the amount of money you put into it. It’s only once you really understand that it’s an investment and that eventually it will come back as economic growth that you would start investing in R&D.

So yeah, I mean, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much movement in the right direction over there.

Yeah. Does that mean that you look overseas quite a lot when you look for research collaborations or are you still mostly focused on Maltese companies?

So there is a healthy exchange with foreign universities and it’s necessary again, because we’re the only university, as I said, so I mean, we need to collaborate in some way or another. So when it comes to research, there’s a lot of collaboration. Again, the research funding also pushes academics to rely more on Horizon and European programmes, so where obviously you need to form a consortium and those are all international collaborations.

So from the research side, there is a lot of collaboration abroad.

With tech transfer, as you know, it’s a bit challenging because investors and companies licensing technology tend to like to work with universities that are more proximate. Now, having said that, we still understand that we can’t rely solely on Malta.

So for example, the first spinout we created, we decided to set up in Delft in the Netherlands because it’s a spinout relating to offshore energy storage. So we’re speaking about large infrastructure offshore and we need it to be somewhere where there’s a network of people who understand offshore, who understand oil and gas, offshore wind and Delft is probably one of the main centres in Europe for that. So we realised that setting up, spinning out the company in Malta would have been very difficult to network and we moved over there.

So the second spinout is a Maltese company, but then the third one, and we also decided to collaborate with an entity called NLC. They call themselves a healthcare venture builder and their model is to work with universities primarily with technologies that come out of university. So they look at the technology, they vet it, they see if it has commercial potential and then they take it on board. So they sign a licence agreement, you can get also a small equity in the company, but then they take it over, they find their own CEO and they set that up themselves. So the third startup is actually in the UK because I mean, the CEO happened to be there and again, you set up your company, your spinout in the place where it’s most likely to succeed, right? Because ultimately that’s the main goal.

Yeah. Which is quite interesting because I think if you look at, in America for example, if you look at the AUTM surveys, quite a large percentage of spinouts tend to stay around universities. Because often I guess there’s still a back and forth with the research labs that they came out of, especially in the early days. So it’s quite interesting to hear that two out of three of your spinouts, you immediately went overseas.

We still do maintain a very strong relationship with them. So the first spinout, and this again is maybe because part of the reason, because we’re so small and there isn’t much of an ecosystem to support. So we’re still very much involved with the spinout in the Netherlands, even though it’s not in Malta. So we do still maintain a very strong support and back and forth. So we have a collaboration agreement, we still do certain research, which we know would benefit Flasc eventually. So there still is that.

I do want to come back to the interns that you mentioned in your introduction as well, because I think that’s quite interesting. Because again, it’s something that a lot of universities are only slowly coming to now. Is that because it’s still quite difficult to find staff that have expertise in tech transfer in Malta? Were there many when you started or did you hire overseas?

No, we actually hired locally. Again, it’s not easy to attract somebody to a university like Malta. So initially, there were three of us who went through the training from Oxford Innovation. And then obviously we trained others. We’re also very active in ASTP, the European body for technology transfer professionals. And more recently, even in AUTM; in fact, two of my colleagues just came back from the conference they had over there. And yeah, so we find that it’s important, this networking with other TTOs abroad is important.

But going back to the interns, what my wish would be is that we’re employing more people at the lower levels, because we need to train them and we all know how long it takes to train somebody to do tech transfer. So ideally, we would have liked to employ junior tech transfer officers, but we don’t have a budget for that. So the other thing we can do is get interns. And again, the hope is that they get interested in the field and maybe then remain with us.

But even if they don’t, I mean, you’re still kind of teaching more people about what tech transfer is and what we do, and hopefully that gets spread around so that the understanding of tech transfer is increased amongst our stakeholders.

Yeah, no, that makes complete sense. It’s a good thing, whether they turn into staff or they go on and possibly, I don’t know, join a startup or work elsewhere, work in an incubator.

How difficult is it to find staff or management for spinouts or startups? Was that easy considering you set them up overseas because there was more talent there?

So it’s really a case by case that we have to operate with. So with the first spinout, with Flasc, there was a postdoc employed and he was willing to move to the Netherlands and be kind of the CEO over there, which is why we could do it.

In the case of the Maltese company, that’s a biotech company, it needs wet labs. Unfortunately, we don’t have business incubators which have wet labs that they could move to, so they needed to remain at the university. So again, necessarily we needed to establish in Malta for that.

And with the third spinout, I mean, basically we didn’t have the resources ourselves, we didn’t have a CEO, we couldn’t find a CEO to take that over. It tends to be challenging. Now, if you’re lucky, somebody crops up at the right time and you recruit them, but I mean, there aren’t many of them around.

Is there money locally? Is there maybe angel investors or I’m guessing not so much corporate venture capital?

So there are very few, but again, it’s a chicken and egg situation where unless you’re producing the spinouts that are investable, there is nothing to invest in. So one thing I’d like to do really is to get an alumni business angel network going. I think that is something which could potentially work.

Again, it’s something that we need to grow from the ground up as well because the culture isn’t to invest in startups, again, primarily because there aren’t many startups to invest in.

Have you learned any lessons from setting up companies overseas that you might apply to future spinouts that are perhaps based in Malta?

Yes. I don’t know if it’s necessarily because we set them up overseas, but obviously you learn a lot from your first spinout and your second.

That’s true. Yes.

And your third. So I guess, yes, the fact that Flasc is in the Netherlands, I guess you do learn other things as well that you wouldn’t otherwise have learned if you set it up over here.

Yes. I mean, going back to what we discussed about what they do in Oxford and what we do here, I mean, ultimately the processes are the same, right? I mean, you have the technology, it’s patented, you need to somehow get investors for it. So it tends to be a bit more challenging here and you have to be a bit more creative because maybe you don’t have the support infrastructure, but ultimately somehow or other a spinout goes through the same steps for it to grow and succeed. We’ve touched a little bit on your career as well. I think I mentioned that you worked with Malta Enterprise just before you came to the university.

Before that, you were a postdoc in the US, you came back to Malta in 2001, first joined Synergene Biotechnology Group and then Malta Enterprise, where you led the effort to create the Euro-Mediterranean Initiative for Technology and Innovation, which is quite interesting as well.

How did you come to university? What attracted you to university innovation?

Actually this question set me thinking really. And when you look back at your career, I mean, in hindsight basically, it’s funny how kind of everything led to me joining a university. So my PhD and my postdoc in the US, it was a very applied project. So I studied at the Ohio State University, but my project was with the Cleveland Clinic and there was a team over there who were commercialising their academic… it was an epilepsy software. So they were looking towards commercialising it, they were incorporating sleep in it and I got involved in that. So there was always this kind of commercialisation of research theme wherever I was. Again, at Synergene, again, the idea was to try to look at technologies that were at the university and commercialise them.

Again, I got into that in a way because my wife was recruited and I came with the package. I mean, this is Malta, so there aren’t many opportunities. So she said, okay, if I come, you need to find a place. But again, I mean, the fact that I got in there and I was looking at this commercialisation, again, without really understanding much of it because it was very, very early days then.

Then again, I moved to Malta Enterprise and that’s where I learned a lot about how industry works and these grants and how to support industry. So it’s a very strange way of finding yourself at the university, but I think I used a lot of what I learned throughout the career then to be able to kind of adapt and set up the Knowledge Transfer Office.

Yeah. I don’t know, listening to you talk through your career, it sounds quite a lot like others and it also makes more sense than some of the other stories that I have heard from people. You seem to have quite a nice trajectory into nowledge transfer. It all kind of fits together.

Again, I mean, it’s also a matter of being in the right place at the right time and being available for the job. So again, I mean, the rector back then, he wanted to start this kind of more entrepreneurial activity. I don’t even know whether we understood what knowledge transfer was back then. It’s just this understanding that we needed to do something.

Yeah. I have a feeling in 2009, you were not the only ones who hadn’t quite figured out yet what that meant. And still today, I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out what it means.

Is there a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career that you’ve learned from or that others might learn from perhaps as well?

The setting up of the Knowledge Transfer Office itself is something which, I mean, looking back, I mean, it was quite a challenge starting from nothing and now being in a position where we’re a group of professionals who have the ability to spin out companies and sign licence agreements. I mean, back in 2009, you wouldn’t have dreamt of being there.

Really, the challenge is if you can get something going, get something working positively in somewhere like Malta, I guess you can do it everywhere as long as you have the right conditions.

There’s hope for everyone.

Yeah, as long as there’s the right support, again, because I did have a rector who was fully behind setting up the company. I think that’s very important. Again, there wasn’t the need for metrics and to show that you’re kind of earning money and fairly results oriented.

I think you need to be patient and you need to have the time to build up and understand what you need to do and set up the right systems around you. Because otherwise, it would be extremely challenging.

If you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about knowledge transfer, about how it’s done or something that’s nagging you?

I think the biggest challenge, I don’t think it’s only us, I think it’s worldwide that we face is making people understand why we’re so important. So if I had a magic wand, I would use it to get people to appreciate that there’s research and there’s industry and there’s a big gap in the middle. And unless you have people who understand that gap and who can support the translation, then things aren’t going to happen.

It’s not a matter of piling money on an academic and expecting them to come up with a spinout. It’s much more than that. And you need… I think we’re a very specialised breed of people who kind of understand both sides and understand the process that needs to happen to go from one to the other. I’d wave that magic wand and have people understand that. And it would be very useful for us.

Is the idea that a knowledge transfer office is needed, is that something that’s more established within the university now? Is the leadership behind you? I know I’m putting you a little bit on the spot here.

At the moment, it is a bit challenging. So I’ll be honest about that. So there was a change in rectorship in the meantime. This rector is more academic oriented, believes a lot in teaching and in research. But as we know, not every academic has the mindset to understand entrepreneurship. And of course, he’s supportive. We have support. But unless you really grasp what technology transfer is about, I think it’s very difficult to really believe in it. And then obviously everything else kind of is a bit influenced by that.

I guess that’s the chicken and egg problem again, as well, because you are still so early on in your journey, you don’t have the big success stories that would convince…

Yeah, yeah. And success stories take time.

They do. Yes.

And they take time, even if you have the right, everything is ready to go. So if you have to set up everything from scratch, they take even longer. We’re waiting for our mega success story.

I’m sure it will come. That’s pretty much all the questions that I had. Is there anything else that you want people to know about Malta before we go?

No. Well, I mean, generally for this podcast, I mean, just to encourage people who are at universities like ours, which are maybe not that well resourced, it’s possible to have a small number… I mean, we don’t have many spinouts, we don’t have a huge pipeline, but there are always kind of the low hanging fruit and the academics who understand the entrepreneurial process.

Maybe if you’re lucky, there’s a postdoc or two who are ready to jump in. And I guess it’s possible.

Amazing. I certainly look forward to keeping a closer eye on Malta in future. Anton, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been a great pleasure learning more about your office and Malta more broadly.

Yeah, thank you for the invitation. It’s been a pleasure.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).