A SNAPSHOT OF TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER EFFICIENCY OF IRISH HEIS

To build up the technology transfer system in the country, Enterprise Ireland in 2006 commenced a five year programme called the Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative. According to a 2012 HEA report, up to €30M had been invested into the programme during 2007 and 2012.

Entitled ‘Inventions & innovations: The positive impact of ideas from research on Irish industry and society’, the report illustrates the trend of technology transfer activities managed by the ten Technology Transfer Offices physically located in universities, IoTs, and colleges. Each of the seven universities has its own dedicated TTOs, with the rest three offices being operated by Dublin Institute of Technology, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and Waterford Institute of Technology.

It has been suggested that Ireland has made impressive progress in this area in a short period of time, represented by an almost four-fold increase in the number of spinouts generated since 2007 and a ten-fold increase in the number of technologies licensed to industry between 2005 and 2011 (Table 1).

Table 1 Technology transfer performance 2005-2011

    Introduction of Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative

2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Licence/Option/Assignments 12 28 56 67 100 93 121
Spin-outs 5 8 13 7 35 31 29
Invention Disclosures 135 193 271 407 457 431 400*
Patents Applications 83 107 124 202 148 101 145*
Note: * Estimated number.

Source: Enterprise Ireland (2012).

Also, the technology transfer system in Ireland seems to compare favourably with its international counterparts that are more mature and established. Figures from another Enterprise Ireland report – Technology transfer in Ireland 2007-2010 – argue that the country generates more licences and spinouts than the EU and the U.S. for the amount of expenditure on research.

The claim that Ireland leads its EU and U.S. counterparts in the performance of knowledge transfer needs however to be embraced with cautions. In particular, it is unclear whether the sample related to the EU and U.S. is statistically representative of the whole region/country. Undoubtedly, it is much easier for Ireland, as a small country, to collect relevant information from its higher education institutions (HEIs) than for the U.S.

Although it is interesting to know how well Ireland compares against its international partners, one may still wonder how Irish HEIs compare against each other in technology transfer. In particular, we use the data compiled by the HEA in its recent publication ‘Towards a performance evaluation framework: Profiling Irish higher education’, which enable a comparison not only among different types of HEIs but also among individual institutions.

The Irish higher education sector is a small one but of great diversity. There are significant differences between institutions regarding the number of students and academics and the amount of income and expenditure. In order to deal with the size variance, we do not compare directly the absolute performance of technology transfer activities between institutions; instead, we intend to compare the ‘relative’ performance. For instance, if institution A accounts for 10 per cent of academics employed by all institutions, but it accounts for 20 per cent of all spinouts generated by all institutions, we would consider institution A performs more effectively and efficiently than expected given its size of employment.

Figure 1 below shows the relative performance of universities, institutes of technology, and colleges in Ireland in relation to their relative size which is measured by the number of academic staff and by the amount of income. Horizontally it illustrates how different types of HEIs compare against each other in a specific indicator, while vertically it presents how well each of the three types of institutions performs in all indicators. It needs to point out that the data for colleges represent only two institutions, namely National College of Art and Design and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Not surprisingly, universities and IoTs are much larger than colleges in the context of Ireland. For instance, universities account for around 58 per cent of academic staff and just above 62 per cent of total income of the whole Irish higher education sector. These numbers are only 3.4 per cent and 4.0 per cent accordingly in the case of colleges.

An interesting finding is that, among the three types of institutions, IoTs are the ones that show the lowest level of technology transfer efficiency. Whilst accounting for 38.5 per cent of academics staff and 33.6 per cent of income of the Irish higher education sector, IoTs are only able to contribute 12.7 per cent of licence agreement conducted by all Irish HEIs, and to establish just above 16 per cent of spinouts founded by all Irish HEIs. On the contrary, the seven universities, in all indicators, could show better performance than ‘they are expected to’ (in consideration of their relative size). Colleges have a mixed performance. A possible explanation of the lower efficiency of IoTs in technology transfer than that of universities is that IoTs focus more heavily on teaching than on hard research which is more likely to lead to intellectual property outputs such as patents and spinouts.

Figure 1 Technology transfer efficiency by type of institution

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Source: Author’s own elaboration based on HEA (2013).

Notes: Patent – 2010/2011 cumulative; Licence agreement – 2010/2011 cumulative; Spin-out companies – 2010/2011 cumulative; Income – 2009/2010, € 000.

Universities are the only type we feel the data are comprehensive enough for us to break down the figures further. As mentioned earlier, all but two colleges could report their performance of technology transfer. In the case of IoTs, the technology transfer activities are found to be concentrated within a very small number of institutions, such as Dublin Institute of Technology and Waterford Institute of Technology. Figure 2 below compares the efficiency of the seven universities considering their relative size (to the total size of universities only).

Figure 2 Technology transfer efficiency of seven Irish universities

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Source: Author’s own elaboration based on HEA (2013).

Notes: Patent – 2010/2011 cumulative; Licence agreement – 2010/2011 cumulative; Spin-out companies – 2010/2011 cumulative; Income – 2009/2010, € 000.

Obviously, a much more complex picture emerges from figure 2, suggesting Irish universities show strengths in different areas from each other. University of Limerick is the institution that shows ‘better than expected’ performance in almost all indicators. University College Dublin shows best performance in patent applications both in Ireland and elsewhere, while University College Cork seems to have most advantage in patent grant in Ireland.

The data analysed here are mainly collected through the HEA and focus exclusively on the quantity of the IP activities, leaving the quality aspect untouched. Future work could pay more attention to that area, such as the financial returns of each licence and business performance of academic spinouts in the marketplace during a mid- to long period.

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