The Northern Irish approach to IT commercialization

The pride of Belfast’s research community is right next door to the former home of one the world’s better known disasters.

The Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology is the brainchild of Queen’s University, based in Belfast. The facility, known as ECIT, is located just outside the city and overlooks the dry dock where the Titanic was built.

“(The Titanic) was fine when it left Belfast” is a common local phrase, says Godfrey Gaston, ECIT’s operations director. Gaston and his team are attempting to launch a series of projects – hopefully with happier endings than the infamous vessel – by increasing the level of collaboration between Queen’s University and industry in order to successfully turn research into actual marketable products.

The facility, which opened earlier this year, focuses on digital communications, high-frequency electronics, speech and language processing, and imaging systems.

ECIT follows a set of guidelines designed to make sure all interested parties are getting what they want out of projects. In the past, the private sector tried to tip the scales in its favour, according to Gaston.

“There’s a tendency to say, ‘Let’s go to the university, they’re cheap,’” he says. “There’s a mindset around some companies that they want to own everything and pay nothing.”

ECIT takes on companies on a case-by-case basis and determines the ownership of any resulting IP depending on the level of funding and participation they bring to the table. ECIT employs 130 staff, including 20 full-time engineers with real-world experience. “It’s not normal you’d have so many engineers in an academic institution,” says Gaston.

Research could result in spin-off companies, but it is just as likely that companies could “spin in,” i.e. small firms would become part of ECIT on a contract basis in order to share research with the institution. ECIT is also open to working with other universities to collaborate on projects. One of those is Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

David Gough, president of GINI University Services, visited ECIT in Belfast earlier this year. GINIus is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dalhousie and is mandated to help support the university’s faculty of computer science. One of its goals is to help the university commercialize IP.

What Gough learned from ECIT is that Dalhousie and other universities across Canada could be doing more to support commercialization efforts.

“I think the main thing that they showed is that we could do better over here is the co-operation between universities and the private sector in a tangible form,” he says. “There’s applied research versus basic research, which doesn’t produce what is needed these days.

“What we’re finding here is that there’s very little commercialization going on. A lot of the professors can’t get over the fact that 10 per cent of something is a lot more than 100 per cent of nothing.”

The onus should also be on businesses to seek out academic partners, says James Milway, executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, based in Toronto.

“True commercialization is done by business people who have to figure out, ‘How do I connect market needs with what’s going on in academia?’ That’s where we need to think about how to get businesses more compelled to innovate.”

The situation is improving in Canada, says Gough. The creation of organizations like Springboard – a government-supported effort to commercialize research in Atlantic Canadian universities – is a step in the right direction. But what Canadian universities should focus on is ties to business. Queen’s and neighouring institution Ulster University “could show the majority of our universities here a better way of doing things because of their aggressive and proactive linkages with industry,” he says, adding that ECIT is helping to attract industry participation by focusing on very specific areas of technology research.

Industry partnership is not a sure thing when it comes to turning research into products, says Ron Venter, interim executive director of Toronto’s Innovations Foundation, but is a good place to start.

The Innovations Foundation is affiliated with the University of Toronto and recently moved into the MaRS Centre (Medical and Related Study), a new research facility located in the heart of the city.

Venter says that the Innovations Foundation is currently revising its approach to industry partnerships to avoid what he calls a “disconnect” between university and private sector interests.

A lot of private sector companies thumb their noses at university research since it’s often raw and a long way from a marketable product, he says.

“Industry would love to have products with bows on them where there’s no risk. They would love us to give them the best stuff we have,” he says. “They would like to get it as cheap as possible. There’s always got to be this tug of war. The real truth lies in: what is the real value of this product?”

In a sense, pairing university research with business savvy “isn’t rocket science” says Gaston, but ECIT is still figuring out the right mix to make it all work properly. ECIT currently relies on public sector funding to keep its operation and up running. Assuming it can it hit upon a winning formula, Gaston wants the facility to be funded entirely through the proceeds of its commercialization efforts by 2008.

Most universities are looking for the same formula, but it can be elusive and change over time, said Ventive.

“Belfast may have all these good ideas, but they’re no different from U of T or McMaster or Waterloo,” he says. “The key thing is, nobody is right in this business.”

And after all, before she set sail for New York, even the Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.

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