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Stimulating University Startups

Universities in Ireland are trying to work out how to get more startups from their campus. But are the tried and tested activities of the technology transfer offices really enough now?

A lot of time and energy goes into patenting, but only a few are ever licensed. I am not saying we shouldn’t be doing it, but sometimes (from anecdotal evidence I hear around the circuit) the whole process doesn’t tend to motive academics or young postdoctoral researchers to do a startup. Licensing does bring in revenue but if you look at the universities in the US that have large revenue from licensing like Columbia, it tends to be from a couple of ‘killer’ licenses. The whole reasoning behind patents particularly in the technology sector (not including biotech in this) has been a source of debate in online technology forums in the US like VentureBeat and TechCrunch in recent months. Our TTO offices have to be more than that, taking on the mantle potentially as the focus of the universities economic development platform.

That is why I was happy to work with DCU Invent, DCU’s Tech Transfer Office, at their behest earlier this year on the very innovative technology entrepreneurship and the follow-on mentoring programme that the Ryan Academy helped them with. We now have a bunch of potential startups that will be coming on stream in the next few months, the first one should be out of the blocks next month. The Universities and Institutes of Technology tech transfer offices and their incubators are key to getting entrepreneurship going on campus, with staff and students and with alumni, not to mention the local economic community.

But it isn’t just about technology transfer. The potential impact of the university could and should be much greater. Take the example of the University of Miami. Lets face it, not an MIT or a Stanford but they have a hugely successful on-campus entrepreneurship programme called Launch Pad, based in their interdisciplinary entrepreneurship resource center, with over 45 companies coming out of the programme in the last few years. As their website states:

“The Launch Pad serves both beginning and experienced entrepreneurs, assisting with opportunity recognition, feasibility assessment, and strategy for starting and growing companies or non-profits. We specialize in just-in-time delivery of resources – what you need, when you need it.”

Of course lots of higher education organisations talk about this kind of thing, but they are often delivered by those who haven’t actually either worked with startups or done a startup themselves. Reading lots of books about playing guitar is very different from playing in a band for year. Same goes for entrepreneurship, if the module isn’t just some elective but is delivered to people who want to do it. Now.

The Miami programme is as much about economic development as it is about entrepreneurship. One of the aims of the programme is to show University of Miami students and alumni that starting a new venture is a legitimate career path that starting a new venture is a viable way to make a living. Talking to entrepreneurs in DCU and beyond in the last year, it seems that finally being an entrepreneur in Ireland is becoming just that – a legitimate career choice. Some of the graduates coming out of universities and institute of technology now may not have thought that way five years ago but I guess one of the silver linings to the recession is that this is now, very much, an option.

A second key goal of Launchpad is to encourage every Miami student who wants to start a new venture – either for-profit or not for profit – to do so in South Florida and thereby contribute to the economic and social growth of our region. Notice they include non or more-than-profit in this too, something the Ryan Academy has been pushing for some time now. Empowering people to take control of their own destiny is a wonderful contribution the University can make to people’s lives. Helping to build a robust economy is payback for all the government funding (from taxpayers like you and me) the sector receives. And doing it in an interdisciplinary way ensures ‘no faculty gets left behind.’

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