Gary: Tim – you’re Director of Innovation at the University of Ulster, but you have a number of other roles as well?
Tim: I have two roles through the University of Ulster. The first is, as Director of Innovation, I lead the commercial interests of the university. That involves us making sure the economy gets the support it needs to develop. I lead a team that ensures that we identify intellectual assets within the research base and see if we can invest in those to bring them to business, so that they can have an impact, both on the economy and in society more widely. We also make sure there is good dialogue between the university and industry.
I’m also the Chief Executive of Innovation Ulster Limited, which is the university’s wholly owned technology venturing company. This is an investment vehicle for our spin-outs and it has helped co-invest in many of the fledgling high tech companies in Northern Ireland that are beginning to draw down venture capital from around the world.
It’s very integrated to the university, because we want to make sure that there is rapid flow through from the laboratory into businesses. We are the largest university on the island of Ireland and we have a healthy flow of ideas and technology from across the university. But the university’s research areas are very broad, so Innovation Ulster is not just helping patent-based companies get off the ground, but also high growth businesses from the digital sector including those from our work in art and design.
So over the last 6 years, we’ve started 36 companies, we’ve raised £21m of venture capital and we’ve created employment for 163 people working with high tech, knowledge-based companies.
Gary: That’s very impressive. The figures speak for themselves.
Tim: This is something that we could shout about a little louder. When you look at the 200 or so universities within the UK, both Ulster and Queens are in the top 15% of providers of knowledge into the economy – whether you look at the number of interventions into industry (over the past 6 years, we’ve had over 5,000 projects with industry), or the licence of technology (we’ve licensed out or created companies with some 40). So in UK terms, the University of Ulster sits very high in the league table. And this is in part due to the support we’ve had from the Department for Employment and Learning and Invest NI.
Gary: Talking of Invest NI, you’ve been a board member there for some time?
Tim: Yes, for five and a half years. And that has been a very rewarding period. It’s been a very difficult period for the NI economy, and the shape of the economy has changed quite significantly in that period. If you look at the technology sector here, I can remember bringing together chief executives of NI software companies to a meeting 12 years ago, where we could all sit in the one room quite happily – whereas today, you couldn’t do that.
So there has been a huge growth in knowledge based, technology based, software based companies and one of the things I’ve tried to promote is that the requirements that very high growth companies have are very different from other parts of the economy and we need to make sure we can support those entrepreneurs, and those firms, to make sure they can achieve an international presence as quickly as they can.
Gary: So what are the characteristics of those sort of companies?
Tim: The characteristics can be quiet complex. The underpinning asset – the technology – is subject to very rapid change. And so there is a requirement to continually keep abreast of change. Also, the domestic market is not sufficient for anything beyond the very first step for these companies. They need to be thinking globally from day one, if they are to achieve sustainability, growth, profitability. So a rapid step into the global market, rapid R&D, the need to be aware of all the changes that are going on around so that you can hold on to your competitive advantage, yield the benefits from your intellectual property and bring the skills in to be able to manage all of this – these are all the characteristics and challenges of this sector.
In addition, there are subtleties around the sales and marketing activities – at start-up stage it is rare to find a technology company with a product that is ready out of the box. So the sales and marketing effort is much more subtle, in that people are marketing a product or technology into a market that isn’t quite ready for it, and marketing a product that isn’t quite ready itself. So you are providing an intersection to a point in the future – that might be 3 months time, or in the case of pharmaceuticals, 10 years time – so that adds a layer of complexity to the regular business basics that all companies need to pay attention to.
Gary: And how well do entrepreneurs who are starting new companies understand this complexity. Sales and marketing is a challenge, full stop, but this adds a new level to it.
Tim: In any region there will be good examples and we do have good examples. I think, for any company anywhere in the world – companies that are founded by engineers, tend to underestimate the amount of investment that is required in market development. And this is something we try and impress on our own companies. But that marketing effort needs to be equal to, or greater than, the engineering and R&D effort that goes into a company.
Gary: So let’s think about this word innovation, which is bandied about a lot. Hearing the numbers you’ve just quoted, clearly there’s a fair amount of this going on in University of Ulster. As you look round Northern Ireland generally, in your role in Invest and so on, do you have the sense that there is a lot of innovation going on?
Tim: Yes indeed. Innovation is difficult to define and therefore difficult to measure. If you look at things like business expenditure on research and development – this is increasing. And the number of companies engaged are increasing, as is the overall value of the R&D activity. We still have a fairly immature market for intellectual property, in that the number of patents being filed in NI is lower that we’d like them to be. But what we are seeing is very definite growth in our digital media sector, in digital content. That is growing very rapidly. Now if you were an economist, it is difficult to measure the intellectual asset base of the digital sector, whereas, in the pharmaceutical sector, it’s much easier to tot up the number of patents. But yes, we are seeing a lot of companies starting and growing in the digital content area, we are seeing growth in business expenditure in R&D, and we’re seeing people engaging in innovation programmes at Ulster or through Invest NI. So the number of companies that we are working with is increasing at about 20% a year – which is very positive and healthy.
I remember as a postgraduate student, some 14 years ago, my first job was carrying the bag of the first Chairman of the Northern Ireland Science Park, and in helping define what the Science Park could be about, and we spent time in other regions that had begun to see benefits from investment in technology – South of France to Helsinki to Silicon Valley to Boston – the start-up hubs. Helsinki was one of the most interesting, because it had gone from a fairly cold start and innovation was an important economic policy priority. But innovation for them was a very wide idea of activities – not just encouraging R&D, turning R&D into product, products into companies and money, but also the changes that were being made in indigenous firms to increase their competitiveness. So you had that flow through, which is what many of us think of when we talk about innovation.
For them, though, it was also about incubation, and it was about creating an eco-system for innovation, it was about ensuring that you had the right attributes in the company, the availability of skills, the flexible work space, fast broadband, availability of seed capital – you made sure you had all of those elements so that people who had good ideas had a launch pad for them. And then innovation also involved helping companies identify best practice, so they could replicate it and maybe move it on a notch.
So those early thoughts have stayed with me and it’s what we try and replicate from a university perspective. It’s not just finding those things within research which can have impact on the economy and on society, but it’s also helping people identify where best practice is in every sector and make sure that Northern Ireland can exploit that sort of experience.
Gary: So what is the process within the university – if there is some research that is identified as having commercial potential and the people who have been involved in that are involved in helping bring that to market, that’s a whole new world for some of them who will not have had the skills or experience in sales, marketing, the business processes needed. So how do you get round that?
Tim: One of the important things never to lose sight of in technology commercialization – is that this endeavour is principally about people and not technology. And it’s a team activity. So the challenge for us in the university is to ensure that we build teams that are bigger than the challenges – which means bringing researchers, entrepreneurs, business people, the professional services into projects early. It’s about people more than technology, it’s about building teams that are bigger than the challenges.
But it’s also about getting a balance between vision and pragmatism. I had a couple of students in the office recently who told me they wanted to build the next Nintendo – having that kind of vision, that excitement, but balancing that kind of raw vision with, you know, how are the cornflakes going to be bought this week, how is the electricity going to be paid for. It’s getting that balance throughout this process.
Gary: So, for innovation to happen, you need the right education and skills to be available. And there has been somewhat of a gap at various times over the past number of years – particularly in the ICT sector, which has expanded enormously over the past 10 years or so. There’s a gap between the availability of skills and the needs of the technology and scientific industries. You’re right at that interface – are we getting it right at the education level, or how much more work is there for us to do?
Tim: I think there’s a lot more work to be done. Certainly within my lifetime, there have been two points at which there has been a deficiency of the right type of knowledge worker to give our economy competitive advantage. Today this is truly a global phenomenon. For the Northern Ireland Executive the challenge, in terms of economic policy, is to understand that the regions that get this right are the regions that are going to thrive. It’s a global battle for skills. But it’s not just availability, it’s the specificity of those skills, the depth and breadth of knowledge as well.
I’ve just returned from Lithuania, where I was giving the government there some advice on innovation policy. They have close to 100%, full employment, in software, which probably wasn’t the case maybe just a year ago, so we see the requirements of the global industry are soaking up that skills base. So, what can Northern Ireland do about this?
There is a systemic support system that needs to be developed – you need to start with parents who guide their children through the education system, you need to work with the primary school system, post primary, and the further and higher education sectors. And you need to work beyond that. And you need an alignment between the future requirements of industry and the skills base.
One of things I didn’t appreciate until I joined the university sector is how efficient the market becomes and how quickly. Students who follow their degrees into a career path – that market tends to adapt to the availability of skills. When you see that your classmate, friend or person you lived with at university has just gone into their first job with a software company earning £50,000, and you are spending a year job hunting – that advises the market and drives interest in certain directions.
And so we’re seeing an uplift in interest in being a computer scientist, where starting salaries are high and continue to rise. We saw only a few weeks ago the highest salary for a software developer in Belfast at £127,000 – advertised locally and working locally. And the person needed just four years’ experience. This message does get through, but the thing is, to prepare people to go down that pathway, we need to make sure that Maths in particular is taught well and broadly within post primary education. We need to make sure that parents can see this as well as the students. And we need to make sure that post university, there is the support there to develop the skills. One of the employers mentioned to me a few weeks ago that one of the things they need is helping prepare graduates for working in what are complex organizations – customer oriented, matrix managed. That tends to be how software companies operate. And we need to provide help for the technology start-ups. Because many young businesses do not yet have the experience of developing skills within their own organizations.
So there is support we can provide there. But the one thing we are sure of, if we can get this right, if we can get this working better, then there is competitive advantage for Northern Ireland. But to get that we need an alignment not only between industry, academia and government, but also with the parents. Work of course is under way on this, but that can always go faster, go bigger.
Gary: Tim, what you do is clearly very varied and exciting – what is it you really love about what you do?
Tim: Let me mention a few things. I’ve now spent the majority of my career in the technology sector. And the great thing about the university sector is that someone will put something interesting on your desk every single day. And that is enormously valuable and stimulating, and the excitement that that can bring you is not to be undervalued.
The other thing I like is that people in the technology sector are typically very passionate, driven people, and they all engage in philanthropy in some way. Those who succeed typically give back, in terms of their time and expertise. And the values of that community are something that should never be underestimated.
And the third thing – actually being able to build things is something which unites people in the technology sector: building businesses, building technology, building employment. I’ve been involved in helping build over 20 technology companies personally – once you’re in that world, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything else!
Gary: Final question – if you had some advice for, say, a researcher in the university who has some technology that they think has some commercial application and they’re thinking about a business start-up – what would that be?
Tim: The important thing is to know that this is about people. Bringing the technology through, building anything, it’s about people. And you need to put around you the people who are going to be bigger than the challenges you are going to face. Build teams bigger than the problems!