cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Tom Flanagan

University College Dublin has racked up a number of firsts, including creating Ireland’s first spinout unicorn, Wayflyer. Tom Flanagan, director of enterprise and commercialisation at the university’s innovation office NovaUCD gives us the insider view on how the ecommerce company was born.

UCD also established the first Irish quantum spinout, Equal1 (read our in-depth profile here), and was one of the founding limited partners — together with Trinity College Dublin and Atlantic Bridge — of the University Bridge Fund in 2016. And it continues to set the pace:  earlier this year, Flanagan’s team welcomed an expert in international innovation through a French embassy programme that looks to increase collaboration across borders — this, too, is a first in Ireland.

UCD is also leaning into a unique advantage in agtech: it’s the only university in Ireland — and one of only a few in Europe — that owns a farm, where it runs a programme for pre-seed startups to develop their products. We asked Flanagan what prompted him to create the programme and what he’s learned from it thus far.



Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Tom, welcome to the show.

Thanks very much, appreciate it.

To start with, something to set the scene, can you give me an overview of NovaUCD and its different parts, because there’s quite a few?

Sure. UCD is Ireland’s largest university and within that, NovaUCD is the innovation arm and we’re celebrating 20 years this year.


So it’s been around for a while. We support innovation, so we have a team that looks at all of the innovations that are happening all across campus, all the research and look for inventions. Then we license out those technologies to companies or we develop new startup companies on that basis. And then we also attract in spin-in companies, as we call them, and they would partner with us on various research projects. So that’s the Nova part.

We have a Nexus part as well. So NexusUCD, that’s where we have industry partnerships. So that’s for larger companies. That’s for our scale-up companies and also again, they will be partnering on research.

And then we have AgtechUCD. That’s something new that we have launched, but we have a new building that we’re building on the Lyons farm in Kildare.

And lastly, we have ConsultUCD. So we are engaged in managed consultancy services for our academics.

There’s a few things there that I want to come back to. To start with, perhaps because it’s the newest one, can you tell me a little bit more about AgtechUCD, why that was created? Was there a historic strength in Agtech at UCD?

Yeah. So there’s a lot of world-class research in ag and food at UCD. We’re the only university in Ireland that has a farm.

Oh wow.

Yeah, we have a farm. So that’s a substantial investment and it’s a working farm, but it’s also a research farm and it’s a teaching farm. So all of the vets would go there. There’s research in crops, there’s research in animals and so on. So it has both the research and the teaching. So when I went and looked at it, I thought like what is missing is really innovation or the opportunity to put companies on the farm as well. And while we were collaborating on research with some of the larger companies, startup companies weren’t making it in there.

So I wanted to build a new unit, build a new facility there that would allow startup companies to develop their new products, their new services on the farm. So they’re right there. There’s a lot of new products and they get developed outside the farm and the farm is quite a harsh environment really for new products. So it’s worthwhile to develop them on the farm. It’s something new.

So we’ve been running agcelerators. We call them agcelerators, so focused on agtech for the last two years. We’d one last year and one this year. And that’s to attract in companies that are pre-seed and support them as they move towards getting seed investment. And that’s working quite well. We do a number of other events as well to identify opportunities, to identify new opportunities and to see how we can support those new opportunities to convert them into startup companies.

That’s really interesting. I don’t think anyone else I’ve had on the podcast — and there’s been 94 people or so so far — I don’t think anyone else has mentioned a working farm that belongs to the university.


Maybe they have one and they just haven’t mentioned it. It feels like it would be the first thing that I would tell someone if it was me.

Yeah, no, it’s quite unique. And there are other instances across Europe. So Wageningen, and we partner with Wageningen in the Netherlands, they have a very large facility, they have a university and a research institute and a whole large farm area. So we’re partnering with them on programmes as well. But they would kind of be the mecca across Europe in this kind of space.

I’ll have to reach out to them as well. Does this differ from the Venture Launch Accelerator programme then, or is it complementary? Or do you funnel all the agtech companies straight into the agcelerator?

It’s quite a different thing. So there’s all sorts of accelerators and we have a number of accelerators and they’re all quite different. They sound the same, but they’re quite different.

So the Venture Launch Accelerator is the final stage of a number of programmes that we have. So we have a bootcamp programme that helps academics, you know, the researchers discover what the opportunity is, how to convert their research into a business. Over the summer period, we would have interns work with them to do some customer discovery. So quite a bit of work to engage, do trials and market tests for companies to get feedback as to what it is that customers really want. And then the Venture Launch part is the last part. Once they’ve figured the kind of business proposition out, it’s to get them investor ready.

So we help them with developing their pitch to investors and clarify their thought processes to how they’re going to get to market. That’s a programme that we run towards the end of the year. And typically we’d have about six spinouts a year coming through that, coming out and presenting and we have kind of a showcase event for them with VCs. But that’s different from the agtech. The agtech is more about a national call to attract in companies to focus them on the agtech and then support them over their journey, which very often is further advanced, you know, than the Venture Launch, because they may already have customers, they may already be, you know, engaged and they may have some investment.

Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. You’ve mentioned spinouts, spin-ins and startups a few times. So I kind of want to ask you a question about that as well. Why do you have the setup targeting all three and what are the opportunities or challenges around working with those three types?

Yeah, so we define spinouts as companies that are developed from university research. So there’s challenges there to figure out based on the research what the market opportunities are for it. So that’s one aspect. Spin-in companies or companies where you have an entrepreneur already has figured out that there’s potentially a market opportunity and then they’re going about wanting to develop product and going about trying to get investment. So they have those two challenges as well. And then startups are kind of a general term for all of the above for both spinouts and spin-ins.

Do you have different units that deal with the different or is it mostly the same team that deals with the three companies?

Different people, so different teams focusing on different aspects. We have a knowledge transfer team and they’re focusing on trying to identify the best inventions, be involved in the patenting of them, then figure out whether it’s licensed to a company that exists or whether it’s a spinout company. Then I have a team as well that’s looking at the research, figuring out the pipeline and what are the potential opportunities to develop spinouts and then support those that bring in investors, bring in a CEO to lead on some of those propositions and take them through. So there’s two teams that we have.

And then separately from that, then I have another team that deals with the incubation facility that we have. And then I have a team that deals with the engagement. So dealing with running different events and so forth to create the community and to make the community engage with one another and find opportunities to network and so on.

How big is your team? Because it sounds like there’s quite a lot of people involved in NovaUCD.

Well we have about 16 people in that team.


So it’s not a big team.

No, it’s not. They do a lot of work for 16 people from the sounds of it.

Yeah, yeah.

Ireland has a framework for research commercialisation, the National IP Protocol. You were a project leader for the 2014-15 review of that. How important is having such a national strategy for NovaUCD and what kind of impact have you seen since it was introduced?

Yeah, Ireland is unique in having a National IP Protocol. It’s been around for a while. There’s been several iterations. I was involved at one stage to do a review and to make recommendations around it.

It’s an interesting challenge because fundamentally what you’re trying to do is come up with some guidelines for industry-academia engagement. And you want the guidelines to be somewhat fair, but actually you want them a little bit slanted towards moving research to industry. And so there’s lots of different questions to be addressed in that in terms of collaborative research and what the inputs are and what the outputs are. One is the guidelines.

The other thing that we’ve created in that is different template agreements. So actually translate those guidelines into templates that you might use or collaborative research agreements, something that allows industry and academia to agree that these will be the basic terms. And then of course there’s a little bit of negotiation, but less negotiation on finding a contract there.

So I think it’s worked really well. We typically use those templates. We might modify them a little bit, depending upon what the requirements are for a particular industry, but mostly use those templates. And they’re particularly good for companies who have never worked with a university before. It’s great for them to look at the templates and go, well, this is what everybody else is doing. So it can be too far off. And there’s differences between the typical kind of licence that would happen between companies versus a licence from a university. We’re a lot more risk averse. We don’t provide a lot of warranties and so on. Whereas if you were company-to-company transfer, you would be looking for all sorts of warranties and shared liability and so on.

So it’s very helpful. Yeah. And I know a number of other countries, the Netherlands and Denmark as well, have been looking to see whether or not they should implement something similar.

And of course in the UK, they’ve had Lambert agreements for a long time as well, and they’re continue to be used. And I think even in the EU, the DESCA Consortium Agreement is widely used as well.

It’s quite interesting just how comprehensive it is in Ireland though. Like you seem to be a few steps ahead of quite a few peers.

We’re doing a lot of innovative things and we’re trying out new things. So it’s quite interesting. Yeah.

Staying on a national level for a moment. How important is Knowledge Transfer Ireland for your operations?

So Knowledge Transfer Ireland is the entity that in the first instance, it funds us. It funds the tech transfer offices in the universities and in the institutes as well. So it’s important they pull together the statistics and the annual KT survey. So you can see the performance of the universities and the IoT sector. And then they have in the past developed these different guidelines and developed these templates. So it’s good to have that kind of expertise in the central location.

But still it’s different from in France and elsewhere. It’s different in that they’re not active in any particular engagement, that they’re not involved in oversight of any particular licence opportunity or spinout opportunity. So it’s policy more than the practice.

Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. Not like a SATT that would actually negotiate licences. Yeah.


Sort of national level, sort of UCD — you initiated the University Bridge Fund with Trinity College Dublin and Atlantic Bridge in 2016.


What motivated you to create this fund?

It’s always the case that there’s always a need for seed funding. And at the time, there was a real need to get some seed funding focused on the more challenging but potentially greater value companies that come out of universities because there tend to be very deep tech. They tend to require additional supports to find the entrepreneur, find the market and begin to get the investment.

So for all those reasons, it was important to build a fund and for the universities as well to put some money into the fund and have some say in the strategy of the fund. So for all those reasons, we, together with Trinity, invested initially in the first fund and then subsequently that did well for us. And so what we’ve done is we’ve invested again in a second university fund.

With Galway and Cork this time.

Yeah, with two additional partners joining in. Yeah.

How important was it to grow that network of university partners in the fund? Do you think others will join for a Fund 3 or maybe even Fund 2 if you’re still raising for that?

Yeah, we’re still raising for Fund 2. We’re over €60m now, but the target was initially €80m. In terms of adding additional ones, it’s not so important, I think, at this stage to add in the other universities. I think the investments that have been made by the university fund have been across the entire spectrum, whether the university’s invested in the fund or not. And that’s a good thing. I think it’s important that they make the best investments.

So I’m not sure that there’s a real motivation for the other universities to invest. We’re happy enough that we’ve invested, but I think it could be challenging. You know, most universities aren’t into speculation game, so it’s not their first thought to invest in venture funds.

Yeah, that makes sense. And I guess quite a lot of universities are much smaller than UCD would be as well. So it’s a financial question.

Yeah, exactly.

I’m guessing the funding landscape has changed in Ireland since 2016. Are there more other investors that have come in following the fund, now that there’s more opportunities, maybe?

Yeah, there are. So there has been. So Enterprise Ireland consistently invests in and is one of the largest investors in startups across Europe. But in addition to that, they also invest in through funds. And so there’s been a number of seed funds, two a year, that have come in — two or so — that are coming in. So we have quite a portfolio. We had an event at the end of last year, an investor day, and we had 27 of our companies present, we broke them into three streams, the pre-seed, the seed and the series A companies. And we had 50 investors there. So a lot from different venture funds. And yeah, actually, they’re all from venture funds. We didn’t have any angel investors in for that particular meeting. So there’s a lot of interest.

And there’s interest abroad as well. International funds are looking at Ireland and the startups that are in Ireland, because they can seek some great value. There is a differential in the valuation of companies in Ireland versus in the US, for example. And there’s good investments to be had.

Yeah, still more equity for your money. Is there generally a good mix of funding available in Ireland then, whether it’s angel VCs or even corporates that invest in startups?

I think at this point, there is a good broad range of investment. The investment landscape has improved. I think more recently, of course, there’s been a bit of a downturn in the investment ambitions.

Yeah, everywhere.

Everywhere, everywhere. And we’re seeing that as well. But I think in terms of the number of investors, we’re in pretty good shape compared to what we were. But there’s always there’s plenty of opportunity. There’s more opportunity really than investors.

Good. On that note, then perhaps, what are the opportunities in UCD’s ecosystem, other than perhaps the agtech that we talked about quite a bit already?

Oh, yeah. So, well, in terms of the kind of companies and the sectors that we have, so we have some great companies that are firsts. So, like you look at Equal1. Equal1 is one of our companies. It’s building CMOS quantum computing. So it’s the first quantum computing company in Ireland. And it’s doing some great work. It’s very early stage, but a great investment opportunity.

We have another company, Output Sports. They’re in the data analytics space. So they provide a service or a device that allows coaches for professional athletes to manage their training for them. And they’ve got major players already signed up, and they’re already setting up an office in Boston. So, there’s a number of different opportunities.

In terms of sectors, I suppose, we do have the usual ICT type companies. We have Manna is one of our companies as well. So they’re in the drone delivery business.

Supernode is another one. So they’re doing the superconducting regenerators that would bring in the energy from the offshore wind farms. And that’s a longer play.

We have a number of life science companies as well. We have medtech companies. So we’re a broad church, you know, because it comes out of the research and the research cuts across all the different sectors.

Yeah. And you mentioned Boston there. Is the US still a big focus for your companies? Is it still necessary to expand quite quickly?

Yeah, no, absolutely. And it’s interesting. One of our companies, Wayflyer, that came out of Nexus, it came out of another spin-in company that we had, Conjura, and that we have still. That’s a good example. So Conjura was looking at data analytics for various sectors and providing kind of consultancy service. But they were smart enough to spin out a company called Wayflyer, which is basically bringing in the funding necessary to implement whatever the recommendations were. So they provide the back office really to ecommerce companies so they can tell which inventory is selling and so on. And therefore, here’s what you need to buy, and then they can go ahead and buy it. And this is what it’ll cost you to buy it. So they provide that full backend service.

So they took off in the pandemic, so in 2020, and now they’re Ireland’s sixth unicorn. And I like to say our first, because I’m very hopeful. But it’s a good example where a company spots real opportunity, kind of a hidden market, but nevertheless, a very valuable and high growth market.

They were there at the right time. But they were very quick. And the thing that they learned very quick, Aidan Corbett and Jack Pierse, the thing that they learned very quick is at the beginning of the pandemic particularly, everybody’s calendar went blank for a week or two. And everybody was more willing to pick up the phone and take a call from whoever. So they jumped on that opportunity.

And instead of what might’ve been a model, which is to kind of develop, get local investors and then go maybe to the UK and then go to the US, they just went straight to the US and looked for investment there and really worked out for them. So that’s a message that we’re giving to all our companies. And a number of our companies are looking at investors in the US and looking at launching offices in the US. So that’s a big thing for us at the moment.

That is really cool. What makes Ireland different from its European peers then? Why does Ireland work as an ecosystem?

I think it’s a combination of different things. I think Enterprise Ireland has been kind of fundamental to our success and the IDA as well. So the IDA is the foreign direct investment, attracted in a number of different multinationals. And so there’s the development of the expertise and there’s the development of the talent in the foreign direct investment companies. So that’s developing our own talent here.

There’s ambition that we’re beginning to create more and more of as we highlight the kind of spinout companies that can grow and can succeed. And so it’s a combination of those things.

There’s a lot of support. There’s an interesting diaspora as well. So a lot of Irish people, myself included, would have gone abroad at some point and worked abroad. And then you bring that kind of experience back somehow. It’s kind of nice to get back to Ireland. You see a lot of that.

It’s a beautiful country.

Yeah, yeah. So you see a lot of that where people will have all that international experience, but then they’ll be happy to settle back for family reasons, maybe in Ireland and grow it from there.

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I’m an emigrant/immigrant, so I can definitely see the appeal of moving back home at some point.


Whether that will happen or not, different question, but I can totally see how that would happen.


You recently, and I think as we’re recording this, it was either yesterday or today that he started, created the position of an international technical expert role. You hired Jean-Michel Portefaix for that. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that was created and what the rationale is?

So Emmanuel Macron, when he visited from France, I think a year ago, he and our taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the time both thought that there was something in the ecosystems that we have in innovation that it would be worth building on the relationship and expanding it further.

So French embassies around the world, they’ve created five of these positions already. So there’s, I think one in Israel, one in the US, and I’m not sure where the others are. But they thought Ireland should be the next one that they should create. So they’ve invested in creating this role. So the person has just started, Jean-Michel just started yesterday, and we’re looking forward to working with him. He’ll be reporting into Enterprise Ireland and Enterprise Ireland is looking at the opportunity to increase the collaboration both on research and on innovation startups between France and Ireland.

And we have a number of, you know, relationships already with various universities. We have a number of relationships with incubators, but it’ll be great to have a person that’s really focused on that and increasing the engagement.

Amazing. I look forward to seeing more of his work.


Are there any big challenges that remain in either UCDs or maybe Ireland’s ecosystem more broadly?

Big challenges… There’s lots of big challenges that occur. So in the area of knowledge transfer, like one of the more recent challenges that there are is that there’s increasing compliance requirements for compliance. So GDPR and Nagoya and state aid compliance. So these are all challenges that some regulation does… very required and needed, but it does add to the challenge of moving technology from academia to industry, export controls as well and so on. That’s one challenge.

There’s the ongoing challenge of trying to find great CEOs. And that’s something that we have for ourselves. We have a network of, you know, over 150 people who have signed up to our network to potentially become CEOs. And we’re trying to match them against the opportunities that we have, but it’s a real needle in a haystack kind of matching, you know, it’s quite challenging to try and find the right personalities with the right experience, with the right ambition.

But that’s the challenge is trying to find those people. Because I think I always said that there’s three things you need for a startup. One, you need a great idea and there’s plenty of them. You need some money and there is a good level of investment, but the big one you need is really somebody to drive it. And the CEO makes all the difference there because they can shape the idea, they can attract the money. It’s the key, pivotal role that we look to attract people into.

Yeah, I’ve worked for quite a lot of small companies. When I joined this company, it was very much a startup and just being able to watch our CEO build the company to, you know, multi-million pound business, it’s been quite interesting. So yeah, I can definitely see how having the right person at the top really makes the difference between a success or a failure.

Yeah, they have to have the ambition, they have to be willing to try lots of different things. They have to be very capable of persuading lots of people because there’s lots of people to be persuaded. It’s a unique combination of talents and there are lots of people that fit that category.

There’s a lot of people that fit that category that don’t know that they fit the category and you would like them to be inspired. So part of what’s needed is to create that kind of, make it an obvious career choice. There’s some new programmes that Enterprise Ireland has just brought out and we’ve put proposals into along the BioInnovate line.

So in Stanford, they had a bio-design programmee that allowed people to come onto it and try and figure out what the unmet needs were and out of that, then you could develop a spinout and BioInnovate extended that into medtech space for a year, a year long program and University of Galway. And now various universities, including ourselves, have proposals into Enterprise Ireland for what they’re calling the Innovators Initiative. And that’ll be for different sectors, again, to attract in people that want to be a CEO, have a year to spend to look at the unmet needs and quantify them. So they might come out with like 500 different ideas and then narrow them down into one or two that would really progress. That’s a very attractive programme.

That sounds fascinating, actually. How does your engagement fare in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion? Do you track any of those numbers?

Probably by exception. We don’t have enough female founders, you know, I think if we look at our listing, we probably have somewhere between 10 and 20 over the years. So a lot of them in the last couple of years. So we’ve gotten much better. So like if you go back over the 20 years, you know, we might have had one every several years at the beginning. But last year we had 50/50. We had six founders, half of them were female founders. And you know, we’re delighted to see that and want to progress that more.

Our approach to this is that we are trying to use them as exemplars to get them to stimulate the ambition, stimulate the confidence in younger academics to consider being a founder in a startup. We’re also looking to attract in more female potential CEOs from our business network. Yeah, we want to improve that balance for sure. But I know internationally it’s still quite low, you know, even the best I think are still below 25%.

It’s a huge struggle everywhere still, sadly.

Sadly, yeah.

How does your own team itself fare in terms of diversity, those 16 people?

Oh, yeah, we’re pretty good, actually, in my management team, it’s 50/50. I’m happy with that. And then within each of their teams, I’d say it’s about 50/50 as well. Amazing. So yeah, it helps us to think about things, you know, broadly.

Having worked in teams that have been more or less diverse than others, the more diverse teams tend to be the more intellectually stimulating ones.

Yeah, well, I think it’s great is, you know, for me, like that it’s been business, I was in corporate America for a long time before I came into this area, it would have been a blind spot to not see that. But now you kind of notice it when you find yourself in a room and it’s all men, you kind of go, “Oh, there’s something wrong here.”

You know, so I think that’s a real improvement that you’re paying more attention to it. Yeah, you know, yeah.

You touched on your earlier career, you joined UCD in 2017. After that you created and ran DIT Hothouse, which is an innovation and knowledge transfer centre at TU Dublin. You were three years as head of innovation at TU Dublin as well. What brought you from the corporate world into the university world? Was it coming back home to Ireland and needing a job?

Well, kind of. So I started my career and I went to UCD and graduated from UCD. Then I went to the UK, worked there for a while. And then I worked in Canada and then into the US. And I kind of moved from engineering, from product design, through system design, and then into marketing, technical marketing, and then into sales and then into consultancy and so on. So I’d kind of risen up the ladder of corporate America. So I was the vice-president for sales and marketing at one point for Canada and for the central part of the US. And then the dotcom bubble burst and like everybody else began to have an impact. I could have stayed on, but it was good timing family wise to move back to Ireland at that same time.

So then I came back and then I started working with various startups to help them based on the experience that I had and found myself finding an interesting role in Technological University Dublin, setting up its first tech transfer office. So that was interesting to set it up from scratch. That’s how I got into this kind of area. And I found it really interesting. And it’s a bit addictive because, you know, you’re very lucky to be there with a team. You’re seeing inventions for the very first time, you know, and you’re getting to shape them. You’re getting to evaluate them, but also shape them in terms of what are the market opportunities that they could address. And then you get to find partners to bring around to build out the team if you’re building the spinout. And then you’re looking to gear them up for getting investment and support them and getting investment. So it’s very fulfilling. There’s a lot of variety in the role and it’s very fulfilling to see the progress that you can make.

I like that you managed to collect quite a few of the essential experiences and then went straight to creating a tech transfer office from scratch.

Yeah, yeah. It was quite fun. And actually, it was interesting at the time, I went to lots of different conferences to try and understand what is a tech transfer office and what does it do. And at the time, this was back in 2006, 2007, I had a real feeling that, you know, a lot of tech transfer offices at the time, they were kind of like the thought police, you know, they had a lot of IP focus and they were focusing on patenting this and patenting that and less of a focus on actually licensing or developing spinouts. So it was quite interesting to see the transition from that.

And my thought was, well, I don’t want to do any of that. I don’t want to be IP police. So I set it up more as a sales office because I’d just come out of sales as a sales office to really focus on, let’s start with the customer. What do they want and what have we got? And it was a good bit of fun to do the initial licences. And then by doing the initial licences, you’re able to show the academics that, yeah, they really do have stuff that is world class and that would play. And some of the licences I did initially were in the West coast of the US and into the UK as well. So it stimulated that interest and proved the point that really the technology is good enough, you can license it. There’ll be people out there that will want it.

Yeah. Following on from that, then what are some of the changes that you’ve seen over these past whatever that is, 16, 17 years?

The breadth of tech transfer has changed substantially. So where there was the focus of let’s look at the research that we’ve got and then we’ll try and see who wants it and we’ll license it to them or we’ll build a spinout. That was the simple model. There’s a lot more understanding that that’s very… it’s kind of closed innovation, really. If you think about it, we start with an invention and then we try to find somebody that wants it. That’s very closed innovation.

So it’s moved to a more open innovation environment, I think. And that’s a good thing, where the researchers themselves are looking at what are the challenges. What is it that people actually want? What is it that the industry wants? And as I say, with the Innovators Initiative, just opportunities to look for unmet needs. And then when you understand the unmet need, then do the research that’s necessary to develop the product, to develop the spinout. So I think it’s a more permeable environment. And I suppose that would be the next challenge would be to make it more permeable so that the separation between industry and academia is more permeable. People can move back and forth across that divide if you like. You’d like to see that happen more in the future.

And then I think the other aspect is the diversity, and that’s beginning to happen as well in particular sectors. So it’s very sector specific, medtech, you can find lots of female founders that are interested in that space. And I think we’ll see more of that as we develop more spinouts that are kind of socially conscious.

Yeah, get more role models and then it inspires others.

Yeah, exactly.

What is a noteworthy challenge that you have already overcome?

It was certainly interesting to start from scratch.

I can only imagine.

The tech transfer office, so that was from a clean sheet of paper where nobody knew what it was. And that was interesting, but lots of fun. And then the other thing that I did, I suppose, was built up a first consortium of tech transfer offices as well. So the thought was that maybe once it got in the first tech transfer office, maybe it could act as a tech transfer office for other colleges. And so that was interesting because when you go to other colleges and they don’t know what tech transfer is, you know, they initially might think that either it’s going to be a great money spinner for them and going to give a great return, or they want to just give away whatever they have just for the sake of reputation and that they are transferring research to industry. So it’s finding the right line in between that. So that was quite an interesting experience and working with different models.

Wow. If you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about knowledge transfer today?

Yeah, I think I would put more emphasis on, as I was saying, the open innovation model where it’s unmet needs, where you would have more time focusing on the unmet needs and then finding the right research that matches up with those unmet needs, rather than starting with the research and going, well, what’s it good for? So very often we have solutions looking for a problem. I think it’s much easier if we start with the problems and look for the solutions.

It’s very easy for the tech transfer offices to see what technologies exist, and they spend a lot of time trying to understand what technologies exist and what inventions there are. But I think going forward, you would like to spend more time facing the other direction and looking for the unmet needs and then bring what you’ve found and the technologies to the table.

That is a good use of the magic wand. I think something that quite a few people would probably agree with as well.

Yeah. So it’s a magic wand, but actually a little investment would do that.

Sometimes the magic wand can be money.

Exactly. Yeah. So there was some additional investment, and I suppose to be fair to Enterprise Ireland, that’s what Enterprise Ireland is doing with the Innovators Initiative, but it could be broader than that. It could be bigger than that. It could be additional funding for the tech transfer offices to reach out and be more focused on looking for unmet needs rather than looking for customers for what they have.

Yeah. I have a feeling even people listening from the US hearing that you get money from a central government office, they’ll already be jealous.

Well, yeah. No, in the US it’s only in the last year that they’ve begun to get some funding for the tech transfer offices to build consortia and so on. So there’s a lot of experience in Europe that could apply to what the US is trying to do. It’s kind of interesting because we’ve always been looking at the US as the mecca. You know, we look at the Stanford and the MIT and so on. But actually in terms of the kind of ground roots universities developing their tech transfer offices and so on, and developing consortia of tech transfer offices, we actually have some more experience here in Europe.

Yeah. Quite a lot that the US could learn. You’ve mentioned a few spin outs already over the course of the discussion, Equal1, Wayflyer. I wanted to give you another opportunity just in case there was another company that you wanted to get the word out.

In terms of some of the successes that we’ve had, you know, we had BiancaMed was one of our companies. It got bought out by ResMed. They’ve built up a team, 70 people or more here in Dublin. It’s an international company. But Equinome was bought out by Plusvital and they’ve been developing that. Logentries is another one that was bought out by Rapid7 and so on.

So we have a number of companies that have expanded out.

Another one in terms of new companies that are coming through that we’re very excited about, PlasmaBound is a new company that is in the space of bonding new materials. And there’s great potential for that in the whole aerospace, you know, building a plane from larger parts and so on that are carbon fibre, making them lighter and all that. So there’s a whole potential opportunity in that.

But we have, you know, the range with a whole lot of therapeutics and we have diagnostics. Yeah, lots of interesting stuff.

That pretty much is all the questions that I had. Is there anything else that you want people to know about UCD before we go?

I think what are we looking for? So what we’re looking for: potential CEOs for our startups. We’re always on the lookout for that. And the way we handle it is like any opportunity we get, we tell people that we’re looking for CEOs and then people can come chat with us and based on their experience and their interests, we can show them a deck that’ll show them the kind of opportunities that we have. We have a pipeline, you know, several opportunities, depend upon the timing of it, you know, can be as much as 75 opportunities coming down. So that’s one thing.

And then investment. I do think that there’s great investment opportunities in the spinouts that we have. And there is that differential, particularly with the US of valuation. So I think there’s great opportunities in that.

I know there’s a few investors listening to this. So put your money in Ireland. I’ll put a link in the show notes to your website as well. So it’ll be easy to find.

Perfect. Thank you.

Awesome. Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been a great pleasure learning more about UCD.

You’re very welcome. Thank you.

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).