He joins us on Talking Tech Transfer to reveal what attracted him to Cambridge Enterprise and what differences he sees between Ireland and the UK.
He discusses his ambitious vision for Cambridge Enterprise to play a more active role in the regional cluster and ponders why Cambridge is doing better at having female founders than the national average (spoiler: it helps that the investment team consists almost entirely of women).
O’Brien also examines the changes he has seen over the nearly two decades he has worked in tech transfer and considers what role TTOs will play in the years to come.
Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.
Diarmuid, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks, Thierry. Great to be here. Appreciate being invited.
To start with, can you give me an overview of Cambridge Enterprise with your latest figures?
Cambridge Enterprise plays in many ways the traditional role of a tech transfer office. So, it is translating the research activity in the university to create economic and social impact. We set the business up in three units. We have our classic TT piece, which looks at invention disclosures and patenting and licensing. For a £600m spend within the university on research, we do about 150 invention disclosures a year, file about 60 patents, and have about a couple of thousand patents in our patents under management and our patent portfolio and we do about 130 licences a year. So, that is that TT piece.
We then have a consultancy business unit, which is a really important part of what we do because actually that connects more of our faculty with outside industry, government agencies. We do about £8m per year in consultancy activity and then we have a seed funds unit, which is a little bit different than many other tech transfer offices.
So, we actually have our own venture investment arm within the business. We make about 25 to 30 investments a year and probably about 15 of those in new spinout companies. We would have about 130 companies in our portfolio, assets under management of about £107m or something like that and our spinout companies have generated about £3bn of investment, syndicated investment, since we set the seed funds up. So, a huge validation of what comes out of Cambridge, the quality of the research here and the global nature of the companies that we found. That hopefully gives a quick overview of what goes on within the office.
Yes, it does. You are fairly new to Cambridge still. You joined from Trinity College Dublin in August last year. What prompted your move?
In some ways the attraction is simple and quite self-evident, the idea of being able to play a leadership role in one of the world’s leading universities and have access to one of the world’s leading innovation ecosystems was just too much of an attraction for me. I was previously based in Trinity College in Dublin where I was the chief innovation and enterprise officer for the university. Ireland is doing very well in tech transfer.
In fact, you had Alison Campbell on your show who described what was happening within the country. I think in tech transfer, one thing that really does matter is scale, and if you look at Cambridge, the research spend at Cambridge is probably equivalent to what the research spend would be across the entire higher education system within Ireland.
So, in one institution you have £600, £650 million pounds of spend a year happening, and I think in tech transfer scale really matters. You know, if you are trying to attract investment or attract talent or build global businesses, having scale really can make a difference. I think that is what Cambridge brings, a broad scale. But to me, this idea of having a role in a place where you have got access to that scale, access to the world class research and the ecosystem. It was just a chance in a lifetime. So, thrilled to be here.
That sounds fantastic. What was your impression of Cambridge Enterprise? Did you have much of an idea of what it would be like before you joined the place?
Obviously, I did my research before applying for the job. I remember actually an email that Tony Raven had sent out telling people that he was going to be leaving and he said somewhere in the email that it was the best job in the world. I remember reading that thinking, hmm, that is an interesting way for someone to describe a job. I think we all want that job.
So, when I looked at Cambridge Enterprise to me, as I said, when I was describing at the beginning, it does the classic role of many TT offices. That was very clear. I must admit I was very excited by a seed funds piece and having access to our own venture to invest in businesses.
I had previously been involved in setting up venture capital activities in Ireland, and just having that locally within the business, I think was really important. But really what got me excited above all that and I suppose the impression was the idea of the bigger Cambridge cluster and how we could, as a university, connect into that, and as a business in Cambridge Enterprise, how we could leverage that for the business.
So, to me, that was the impression I had that there was a huge opportunity around that if we could build on what Tony had been doing over the last decade or so.
I assume the fund that you refer to was the University Bridge Fund that you helped build.
That is right. I think you have talked to Helen McBreen about that in the past. But to me that was a huge transformational project in the Irish ecosystem because it was the first time we had dedicated capital, exclusively focused on commercializing research from universities. So, Trinity College in partnership with University College Dublin had set up that fund and it has been a huge success. You know, we put in a very little cornerstone piece.
Between us we put in €5m and that €5m has subsequently leveraged about €400mof third-party capital that has gone into the university system. I think the latest numbers are just somewhere between 40 and 45 companies that have come out of that piece. That comes back to this point of scale that I mentioned earlier, to make that work in Ireland we needed to have a fund that could invest across the entire country.
Trinity and University College Dublin set it up, but we even realized that we did not have enough deal flow between us to drive a value proposition there and so we made it an all-Ireland fund, a national fund. But at Cambridge, we can run a fund of similar size and have plenty of deal flow within our own institution of real quality to drive returns. I think that is the difference between the top universities globally and what you see in Ireland, which has all of the right ingredients, but does not have quite the scale.
That makes sense. Has your view changed of Cambridge Enterprise over these past nine months from that first impression that you had?
No. It has not really. I am still very positive nine months in. I still have a huge sense that there are new opportunities that we can do things in. I am particularly focused on this idea of building the linkages with the ecosystem. Tony Raven, who was my predecessor, will be the first to admit that in the tech transfer space, nothing stays still. So, there are always new opportunities about how we can do things better and at bigger scale and drive things in a new direction. So, nine months in, I really feel that there is huge opportunity around that, and I have been very fortu
nate to get support from within the university here, around some of the ideas that I want to bring to bear, to deliver on. My view is the same, that Cambridge, really outside of the US, has all of the ingredients to be the number one institution around innovation and obviously that is what we want to do.
Speaking of opportunities, future plans in your annual review, which I think still covered Tony’s period, so it was not quite your numbers yet. You said Cambridge Enterprise wanted to play a more active role in the Cambridge cluster. What do you hope that will look like?
The Cambridge cluster, it is worth just spending 30 seconds describing what that is, So, the first science and technology park, I think in Europe, but certainly in the UK, was established in Cambridge about 50 years ago and if you take that as the starting point since then was something like five and a half thousand knowledge-intensive companies now surrounding Cambridge.
There are 30 science and technology parks. The overall turnover of those businesses is about £50bn a year, and there are about a hundred thousand people employed across those businesses in research and innovation driven roles. So, you have this really unique enterprise base that surrounds Cambridge and the university.
Cambridge University plays a huge role in that. Cambridge associated companies, which would be spinout companies or companies from recent graduates, employ about 25,000 people and have a turnover of about £8.5bn in that area. Indeed, in the last 12 months, those companies have had investment in excess of £2bn. So, you have this incredible environment where you have this university that is globally leading, and then you have this innovation ecosystem that is globally leading, and obviously, the key for me is for Cambridge Enterprise to act as that bridge between these two hugely important elements of the ecosystem.
Cambridge Enterprise has that job anyway. It is our role to be talking to industry, angel investors, venture capitalists, partnering with accelerators or incubators, looking at science parks and the infrastructure. While we are doing that for our business, we need to be thinking about how we can leverage that for the overall benefit of the university and so that to me is a focus about where I would like Cambridge Enterprise to be, is that integrator of opportunity between the university and the ecosystem.
Are there any programmes that you ran at Trinity that you would like to adapt for Cambridge?
Well, I think there were a few things that we were doing at Trinity that I suppose I carry with me as learnings that I bring to things. What happens in locations like Ireland, tech transfer has been evolving as a space or a sector area over the last couple of decades. I think it is fair to say the UK will be leading in that in terms of the history that is here. I talked about the science and technology part in Cambridge 50 years ago.
Ireland has really only begun to focus on this over the last 15 years or so with real focus, and I think what happens in ecosystems like Ireland is that you almost have to work harder to demonstrate the value proposition of what this can mean at an institutional level or to industry or to government, because it is a new area and so you have to persuade people of its merits and where it is coming from. That energy about how you persuade people of the merits is something that I think you bring with you all the time.
I think that is useful in a place like Cambridge, even though there is huge support for it, because as you try to build that kind of relationships with different stakeholders, to be able to be clear about what value Cambridge Enterprise can bring and what the university brings is really helpful. The other thing that I had been doing in Dublin was I was leading out on a project to develop an innovation district for Dublin, which involved a huge amount of engagement across government, across industry, the venture community, the entrepreneurship community.
As we look to build that relationship between Cambridge Enterprise and the Cambridge cluster, or at least build on the relationship to be more precise, the learnings about how you build those consortia, that vested group of stakeholders who are all aligned with a common ambition for where Cambridge can be over the next decade, I think is really powerful. So, that is a kind of experience I also bring with me into this role that I think can be very useful.
But there are so many innovative things already happening in Cambridge, and there are so many initiatives that are happening within the environment here that they are not short of ideas in Cambridge, and they are not short of passion for this area, so it is really about finding ways to convene and organize that is the trick I think.
We have talked a lot about the idea of scale, Cambridge having the scale of all of Ireland. Are there any other factors that differentiate Ireland and the UK in terms of tech transfer?
Well, scale as we described it was around this issue of the amount of deal flow and the amount of activity, but obviously the other scale issue that is relevant in Ireland is that the country is just geographically much smaller.
So, you end up with a greater density of industry and multinationals in particular in the Irish context where you would have nearly all of the leading global multinationals’ presence within the country. So, that immediate and quick access to industry is different I think in Cambridge, and different in the UK as a whole, where you have just got a slightly bigger geographical footprint, which just means that all businesses’ local mentality is not as true here.
So, I think there are some differences between how things would have operated in Ireland in that context versus within the UK, but actually the philosophies at a sector level, the kind of aspirations across the higher education institutions, the aspirations from government to invest in research with the hope that there is going to be a subsequent impact return, ideally an economic impact return, they are very common across both jurisdictions. So, actually it is broadly the same I think in approach.
One of the things that is very in fashion is social enterprises, spinouts from non-STEM research areas. I think you call them AHSS at Cambridge, arts, humanities, and social sciences. What is your view of those types of companies?
They have a huge role to play. I think this comes back to defining a little bit what the impact agenda really means. So, in the Cambridge context, it is about economic and social impact. We are very, very keen that we create room within the impact agenda for those social impact companies and organizations. Tony would have set this up in his time here, but we hugely support it at the moment.
We have put in place a tech transfer function for arts, humanities, and social sciences and I think you have to remember that that probably encapsulates 50% of the faculty across the university. So, it is a huge part of what the organization is. Over the last couple of years, since that has been established, we have seen about 250 inquiries, maybe a hundred invention disclosures coming from an area that before we really would have had very limited engagement with and now we are working with the university around things like innovation accelerator programs in this space.
We are running events around Creative Cambridge, thinking about how we can connect the creative arts with the university and what we want to do in this space. So, I think it is really important. From my perspective, I would say that I know you often ask people about their favourite spinout or their favourite company.
That would have been a future question, yes.
I was coloured early in my career in this space by a company that was founded in Trinity College Dublin. It was a student company that came out of one of our accelerators called LaunchBox. It was a company called FoodCloud and it was this really simple business concept that was driven by a mission, which was no good food should go to waste.
It was two students who were really committed to this idea that there is a lot of food waste happening at a local level from restaurants or supermarkets and what they did is they created a digital app to connect that food waste with local charities. So, what started out as a very simple idea of connecting those with food need with those with excess food that was being was being wasted has just turned over the last decade into this huge organization now that has over the last 10 years distributed a hundred million meals from food waste to those in food need.
They now partner with all the major supermarket chains, they partner with all the major retail hubs, distributors. This idea of social impact is huge because there is a concept where technology was used of course to support the business, but it was a socially driven business. The mission of the business was uber clear. It was around dealing with food need and food waste.
So, that is a company that came out as a student business from the university less than 10 years ago and has now got operations in many countries around the world, and has, as I said, transferred a hundred million meals from those with food excess to food needs. So, that is how the social agenda can really be served by the right kind of support within the university system.
Do you find at Cambridge that entrepreneurial culture is already there in arts, humanities and social sciences researchers? Do they still need to be nudged more than perhaps life science researchers where that is more common?
I think all researchers are quite entrepreneurial. What I mean by that is, most researchers are acting almost as sole traders within a university setting. They are writing their own research grants, they are bringing in funding, they are hiring their own research teams, they are really thinking about how they can grow and create impact from their activity set, which is their research. So, to be a good researcher requires you in my mind to be quite entrepreneurial.
The challenge for some researchers is that they do not have the passion to take that entrepreneurial capability they have clearly demonstrated in building up the research group and applying that in a more commercial way. That is fine. Every researcher cannot be driven or motivated to go in that direction because then we would lose that fundamental research capability that we need to drive the university. So, I think there is lots of entrepreneurial capability.
Our job is to try and encourage those researchers with that to think a little bit more about maybe can they take that one or two steps further along the journey of doing the research and thinking about what the impact might be and thinking about how that impact can go to the next level and that is what we try to do. We have a great team now in the arts, humanities and social sciences who work hand in glove with that community, trying to help them understand what that next phase of their research impact could be.
It is not that they are entrepreneurial or not is the challenge, it is about what motivates them in terms of where they want to go with their own careers and what they want to achieve. You will only get a small percentage, and that is true across life sciences and physical sciences also, who want to do that through company formation. So, I think that is the same in arts, humanities and social sciences. I do not think it is too different.
That makes sense. Another topic that is at the top of everyone’s mind at the moment for all the right reasons, or the wrong reasons depending on how you look at it, is equality, diversity and inclusion.
As we are recording this, I think it was this week, a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report that said 92.3% of UK spinouts only have male directors and 86.4% have all male founders. Just under 2.4% have an all-female founding team.
How do those nationwide numbers compare to what you have at Cambridge Enterprise?
I am glad to say we do better than those numbers here, but that does not say that we still do not have challenges in this space. So, when we looked at that based on the data that came out from the Royal Academy of Engineering, we see about 27% of our companies in the last five years have a female co-founder, so we are looking at give or take one in three companies have a female co-founder. We have wonderful co-founders. I am thinking about Clare Gray at Nyobolt that have produced incredible battery technology, or Hannah Sore, who is the CEO of PharmEnable that does drug discovery using AI. So, we have great role models there.
I think that is probably the trick with this is to really find a way to promote those role models to promote those success stories and help to create the perception that this is a pathway that is equally viable for female entrepreneurs as well as male entrepreneurs and I think that is something we are very keen to do. That involves making sure that those female founders are given a stage and given a platform through which they can then tell their story.
The other piece on this, which is interesting, when we were thinking about this area is that we actually have a predominantly female investment team within Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds. Out of our five investment managers, four of them are female. I think this is quite interesting, because not only are they then looking at companies and making investment decisions, which I hope will make it easier for female founder to engage with us as an investor, what also happens is that those investment partners in seed funds, then sit on the boards of those early-stage companies when they are getting started.
So, you already have that female leadership going, not just from the investment piece, but into the overall governance of the business and can sit on the board. You end up having these knock-on impacts of having that female led investment capability. I think that is something we are keen to promote a little bit more too, and I think that is perhaps a reason why we are seeing that we are a little bit better than where the national average is, but it is certainly something that we would like to do more on and are really committed to.
I think there was another report from the working group at AUTM that looked at why there were so few female founders and one of the reasons they found was a lack of female tech transfer professionals, and female faculty often felt misunderstood or pushed aside by their male colleagues. Whether that is actually true or not, but that was their feeling.
So, having an almost all female investment team, I can see how that would help. Do you think there are any other aspects that are currently holding female researchers back at Cambridge?
Well, there is no question that we still have a situation where a significant amount of say childminding responsibility or family responsibility often falls on the female partner within those relationships. I think there is no question that creates a challenge around work-life balance, and aspiration. So, we need to do a much better job to find ways to support our female faculty in relation to those challenges.
That is done at lots of levels. A societal level where obviously the workload needs to be shared more across everybody and at an institutional level where we need to think about things like childcare and we need to think about things that recognize that there can be different challenges for different people at different points of their career and finding ways to balance that.
There is definitely more that we can be doing in that space. It is great that the conversation is happening. It is great that this topic has been given a platform because there is no question that there is an entrepreneurial black hole that is associated with not being able to unlock the potential of all of the female faculty and all of the female research community that sit within universities, or indeed more broader than that, that sit within society.
When we think about challenges like productivity and how we increase it, or we think about challenges about how we innovate around the big issues of our day, be it climate or health, obviously, the ways that we do that is to maximize how we can unlock the potential that sits across different groups. I think at the moment, what we are beginning to understand, and probably people have understood for a long time, is that there is a certain proportion of society that are being challenged to have their capability unlocked and that is what we need to be doing. So, we are really committed to that.
Is there anything that you think there should be on a UK policy level to improve female researchers becoming more entrepreneurial?
You could look at this from a range of different perspectives. You have been talking about trying to find ways to have positive reinforcement of females in those roles, be that quotas on boards or quotas on interview panels and really making sure that there is a requirement for organizations to think before they begin to appoint and act.
I think really we should be encouraging a more equitable split of those responsibility sets, because what that does is it creates role models. It creates experience and exposure. It demystifies what is involved. I would be very supportive of finding ways to encourage proactively a rebalancing of that piece. You know? That is the obvious place to start from my perspective, because when you get that balance dealt with in a way where you have that female leadership within businesses and within organizations, then I think the pathway just becomes a little bit more demystified.
Do you ask your spinout portfolio companies to have female representation on their boards if it is not there?
The companies make their own decisions about their board and who are on it, but we would absolutely encourage them to think about that. As I say, when we put people on the boards as an investor in the company, many times it is a female investment manager that goes on the board. We often can lead by example.
There we have got a voice that should be used to promote that viewpoint, and I would like to think we use that. But in the end, that decision rests with companies, and this is why you need to have a bottom-up approach that embraces this and indeed a top-down government policy approach that both encourage and to some extent incentivises it. I think that time is coming really at this point.
Fingers crossed. You worked for a range of startups yourself, NTera, Xoliox, Deerac Fluidics, before you became executive director of CRANN Research Institute linked to Trinity, in 2005. What prompted you to pursue a career in tech transfer?
That is a great question. I did my PhD in an area of display technology, organic light emitting diodes, and I postdoc’d in Princeton for a while back in the late nineties and developed some really interesting technology there that eventually went into a company called Universal Display Corporation, which is a billion-dollar company on Nasdaq and the number one supplier of these OLED solutions to large display companies.
So, right from my early days as a researcher, I understood the pathway of innovation or research breakthroughs into a patenting approach and eventually into a company via licensing. Like a lot of people who I hear on your podcast, I think I also made the decision relatively early in my career that I could be better at managing that interface between research and industry than just being a researcher. To me, what I have been doing ever since I finished up within the lab is trying to find that way to bridge those two worlds.
Originally that was in startup companies. All of them were actually companies that had been spun out of universities using university IP. So, I really got a sense in those companies of the value of that partnership agenda, the university community with the researchers within universities. The research institute I ran was called CRANN, it was a nanoscience nanotechnology research Institute and that was really driven by these large centre grants, which are focused on industry partnership and collaboration, and of course the success of which is measured, not just by high quality research publications, although that is critical, but also on the licensing and the spinout agenda about, are we translating the research from the centre to create real societal impact?
So again, that gave me that real sense of the connectivity between research and that commercialization agenda. From the very early days, it has been about that, but I have never actually been what I would call a tech transfer professional in the sense that I have never done the hard yards of invention, disclosures and licensing, and doing the work that our technology transfer managers do, or the investment managers do.
I have always been in a more university leadership role trying to manage that interface between the research agenda that sits within the university and the commercialization impact investment agenda that sits just outside it and how we connect those two and how we make sure that the university is best aligned to deliver that value proposition. To me, that has been where I have walked over the last 20 years in that space.
Interesting that you are one of those people who avoided doing the hard work.
I have a huge amount of respect for that group of people because it is such a tough job to be this generalist that deals with faculty across so much different research domain space and is able to add value to so many of those conversations and identify that little piece of innovation nugget that is going to potentially change the world. It is a very rewarding job. I see that from the people that work here and the people I have worked with before, but it is also a challenging job. They do a great role.
Certainly. How has tech transfer changed over the past not quite two decades that you have been in the job?
Well, I think it has evolved a lot. I mean, I would say it is changed from being a nice-to-have to a must-have for universities during that window. This impact agenda has become the third pillar of most universities, and I do not think that was necessarily a given if you roll the clock back 20 or 30 years. So, I think that has been a huge positive evolution.
I think there is a real question being asked now, which is, what is the role of a university in a 21st century economy? What are they expected to do and what are they expected to deliver?
I think that is a hugely interesting and challenging role to help define that in different institutions because for different institutions the answer will be different. I think when we look at Cambridge and we look at the world class research that takes place here and then this leading innovation ecosystem that is adjacent to it, the university has a huge opportunity to shape the broader Cambridge area, and indeed I think the UK as a whole, in terms of its innovation agenda.
That is a huge opportunity, but also responsibility for the university. That articulation I am not sure would have been there 20 years ago as an expectation about what the university can do for the broader area in the country, and I think it has also got much more complicated. I think it is clear if you roll the clock back 20 years, that people were thinking about things about patenting and licensing, but now it has become much more nuanced.
You have to think about industry partnerships, or you have to think about translational funding or proof of concept funding. You have now got to think about seed investment and venture investment and how you scale up. A lot of tech transfer offices have become not just licensing of technology, but they have become company builders and now many tech transfer offices have responsibility, not just for the university, but for the broader ecosystem in which the university operates.
You talked about social entrepreneurship and innovation earlier, and then there is student entrepreneurship, which is a huge part of what universities can do. All universities are expected to inform and influence kind of government policy. There is a kind of public affairs component now to what you need to do within your role.
So, it has got much more varied in terms of what is expected now from different offices. That has made the role more interesting, more complicated, but more interesting. I certainly embrace that kind of breadth because I think it really allows you to make a difference in lots of different ways, which I think most people are motivated to try and do.
What do you hope this will look like another decade, or two even maybe?
From a Cambridge perspective for me, the vision over the next while is to do what we are doing, but a little bit more and a little bit better. I think there is a lot going on here at the moment. So, we want to continue to be driving the consultancy and the licenses and the seed funds andarts, humanities and social sciences piece. So that is there.
I think universities, and we are certainly taking this view at Cambridge, will need to become more programmatic in how they approach tech transfer. I think we are already seeing that that is not necessarily a radical concept, but how you structure the engagement with the tech transfer offices across the university is going to become important.
What I mean by that is things like establishing things like accelerators, coworking spaces, incubation spaces, looking at thematic initiatives that you can support the university, driving the obvious ones at the moment, being around things like rapid carbonization or climate. I think there is going to be a more programmatic approach needed, and I do think that universities will be expected to do more to bridge themselves with the ecosystems in which they operate in.
I think a huge opportunity is to think what role a university can play in shaping the environment in which industry works in the surrounding area. So, that is about the day-to-day things, about the licenses and the research partnerships, but it is also about recognising how a university can be a talent magnet for an area, how a university can provide mission stability for an area.
The good thing about universities is that they operate typically over very long timeframes where their mission does not change or alter. So, if you want to build a credible innovation ecosystem within the surrounds of the university, the university has a huge role to play as an anchor in stabilizing that and providing the kind of long-term patience that is needed to drive that development. So, that is why many innovation districts around the world are anchored by world leading universities, and I think that is going to become more and more important.
I think that is the direction to travel. It is not going to get less complicated. I think the mandate in this space is going to get bigger because as we build the culture and build the confidence within institutions that they can do a good job in this space, then the next role is to see, can you use that confidence to build the broader ecosystem that surrounds the university and really begin to drive that at a regional level and I think that is going to be very exciting journey.
That makes me think of, I cannot remember who it was now, when I spoke to someone who argued that every university will eventually have a chief innovation officer because it will be such a crucial part of what they do, that they will need to allocate resources at the executive level to it really.
You see that, I was playing that role in Trinity college in Dublin before I came to Cambridge and at Cambridge, we have Prof Andy Neely who leads on the senior management team at the university that innovation and enterprise space. I do think more and more institutions realize that this is something that needs an academic champion or needs a senior leader within the organization to drive and I think that is healthy, because if it is not, your priorities are judged by where you put your resources and where you act, and I think as institutions create this role, these kind of roles, it speaks about where the priorities of the institution are moving towards.
I think the key here within universities, and I think it is true in general, is that this does not have to be an if/or/and situation. Universities can still be engines of world class research and do a wonderful job around impacting commercialization and one does not need to undermine the other in any way, these things can work in synergy in ways that actually raise the overall opportunity set for institutions.
I think that has often been the challenge over the last while that there has been this almost false argument set up across the university sector that if we begin to focus on this, it undermines our commitment to the research agenda and having academic freedom and giving our faculty the choice to research what they want to research. I do not see it like that at all. I see these things as been hugely coherent, and I think that is going to be a big step forward if we can keep that coherency while continuing to amplify the importance of the impact agenda.
I think you are right there. What lessons have you learned in your career to date?
Around the tech transfer space, what I would say to somebody who is leading one of those offices or trying to play a role is, Do not wait for an innovation vision or mission to be handed to you by the organization. Universities are very complex organizations and people tend to be incredibly busy in the leadership team. So, if you want to drive an innovation ambition for the organization as a tech transfer leader, you need to shape that and sell that vision and ambition into the organization and win people over to that.
It is unusual for an organisation to be handing that to people. So, I think that is a really important lesson to learn. The other piece is really, it is all about stories. You have to make the time to tell the impact stories, to convince people through the stories that you tell about the importance of tech transfer and the role it plays. Data is great and data is needed for evidence building and for policy making, and for ensuring that decisions are made with the right focus, but you do not tend to energize and excite people with data.
It is often the stories that do that. I think that is the piece that in tech transfer, I think it is really important that people begin to communicate the stories with the passion and energy they deserve to get people motivated and energized about this area.
As a journalist, yes, stories are important. Although I also quite like hearing data, but I think you are right. The stories play an important part in moving the culture and getting more people interested in this field.
Absolutely. You do need the data, business cases do not work on stories alone, but often without the stories, you just cannot get the attention of people around what the opportunity is. So, I think the stories are critical.
Much like that student startup that you mentioned that has fed a lot of people.
Yes, that is right. When you can communicate a business proposition in about 10 words, connecting food waste with food, everybody can get their head around that very quickly. There is a lot to be learned from that for sure.
If you had a magic wand and, considering you just joined Cambridge you might be in a good position for this, what would you change about tech transfer either at the institution or if you could more broadly?
Well, the big thing for me about this area is changing people’s perception that tech transfer are the patent people to tech transfer are the impact people. This remains one of the big challenges I think in the area, that people see the offices as the place to go when I want to patent technology. But speaking for Cambridge Enterprise, patenting is just one tool in our kit box that we use to support researchers to create impact.
We do a huge amount of work around identifying opportunities, market intelligence, supporting researchers getting translational funding, doing proof of concept funding. We now have our own pre-seed funding that we have put in. We help build companies, attract in executives. We help syndicate investment. Patenting is just one part of that journey. But somehow in many institutions, it defines how the office is perceived. I think that becomes limiting on what the potential of tech transfer can be for a university or the broader ecosystem.
So yes, if I had that magic wand, it would be trying to persuade people more quickly that that is the wrong way to be thinking about this activity and they should be thinking about it not as a patenting activity, but as an impact activity. I think that would quickly accelerate the importance and relevance of what tech transfer is across institutions.
I have a feeling a lot of your peers would share that wish. We are almost out of time. Is there anything else we have not covered that you want people to know?
No, I do not think so, Thierry. I have greatly enjoyed the chance to chat with you. Maybe one thing I should say actually now I think about it is, one thing we do at Cambridge in partnership with others is the TenU organisation, which I think maybe others have mentioned I am not so sure.
But, TenU is a partnership between six UK universities — Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh, UCL, and Imperial, but also brings in Stanford, Columbia, and MIT in the US, and KU Leuven in Europe. So, ten really mature thought leaders in the area of tech transfer and commercialisation and that is a group that has really come together to share best practice and try to think about how we can input into the policy debate and evolution around tech transfer and commercialization more broadly.
I think that is something we are really keen to promote and very keen to connect, not just to those ten organizations, but to use the learnings from those organizations coming together to inform offices all around the world and to provide the learnings about best practice. So, that is a really interesting initiative that I am delighted to be involved at Cambridge and I think can do a lot of good for the sector as a whole over the next number of years.
Certainly. I think I have had everyone but Andrew from Manchester on the podcast so far. I still need to get him to complete the TenU.
We will help twist his arm for you.
I did interview him for a separate feature article, and I did not want to ask him for more time again in a quite short period of time, but yes, maybe the time has come now.
Well, there are lots of exciting things happening around the Manchester area and the north, and there plans for a large venture fund. So now might be just the right time.
Diarmuid, thank you so much for joining me. It has been a real pleasure to get to know you and get to know more about Cambridge.
Thanks Thierry, likewise. Thank you.