Spotlight on Ulster University

Placed within the top 10% of UK universities for graduate entrepreneurship, Ulster University boasts a strong record on spinout creation.  The second biggest university on the island
of Ireland, and the larger of Northern Ireland’s two higher academic institutions, the civic university bolsters its entrepreneurial efforts by cultivating particularly close ties with local industry and business.  This strategy stems both from Northern Ireland’s long history as a key centre of UK industry, and from the small and intimate nature of the country’s commercial sector.

“If you look across the 400 or so research active companies in Northern Ireland, every single one of them will have a partnership with one of the two universities here,” said Timothy Brundle, director of research and impact at Innovation Ulster.  This represents a conscious strategy by Ulster, which more than any other university on the island of Ireland seeks out working partnerships with the business sector.

The university has a broad range of spinouts from different technology arenas, with three taking centre stage.  Firstly, medical device innovation, in the form of companies like mobile defibrillator maker Heartsine, has seen some of the university’s greatest successes.  Secondly, with one in ten Northern Irish workers being employed in the tech sector, the majority in software, this industry is also a key area for university spinouts, especially in the areas of cyber security and data analytics.  Lastly, with the rich landscape and natural resources of the Ulster countryside, research into sustainable technologies in the form of wind, tidal, and energy storage techniques have made up an important contingent of Ulster spinouts.

As well as the standard spinouts and start-up companies favoured by many universities, Ulster focuses on spin-in activity, a direct result of its desire to seek close ties with industry.  Rather than simply pushing its own internally generated IP, the university sets up mutually beneficial partnerships with businesspeople with strong ideas and business plans – who themselves benefit from many of the connections and resources that the university has to offer. 

A successful example of this spin-in work can be seen in the drug delivery technology company Sisaf, led by Dr Suzanne Saffie-Siebert.  The company, which over the last five years has secured multi million pounds in venture capital, has such a close relationship with the University that it conducts research out of Ulster’s own academic labs.

Spinout, start-up, or spin-in, the different ventures are engineered to be mutually supportive.  “Therein lies a big part of the value and the competitive advantage – there is great interplay between those different types of businesses,” Brundle explained.  Once a business exits, its proceeds can be fed back into the system to push forward further graduate projects.  In 2018 Ulster aims to launch two spinouts, two start-ups and two spin-ins, consistent with its recent history of launching an average of six ventures each year. 

While spin-ins represent a direct result of Ulster’s aim to work closely with local industry, the small nature of Northern Ireland’s tech sector can be seen as a cause.  As well as encouraging close cooperation with local businesses and Queen’s University Belfast, it forces new companies to look overseas early on.  “We do not have a domestic market that is going to sustain any technology-based business so it is important that any businesses go international from the beginning,” Brundle said. 

Often this is in the form of VC money which has proven difficult to come by within Northern Ireland.  Over the last ten years Innovation Ulster noticed that only a single of its ventures was able to raise Series A capital domestically, over a time frame when it never failed to find financial backing for its companies – demonstrating the importance of overseas money.  Often Dublin and London have proven useful destinations for Ulster companies seeking investment, but it is in the US that most found their luck.

It is natural for Ulster companies to look towards United States’ markets, which Brundle finds to be “very welcoming of Irish innovation”.  Partly this is simply due to the strong pull of Silicon Valley and New York City but it is also down to the ongoing ties present in the Irish diaspora, with Boston also an important city for Ulster University companies.  Brundle noted that diaspora angel groups in the US have played an important role in finding Ulster ventures access to first time investment and early customers.

Back home in Northern Ireland, the advantages to Ulster’s industrial partnership strategy are felt by more than just the University and its commercial ventures.  For the local businesses that make up the other half of this partnership there are plenty of positives, as Professor James McLaughlin, the Director of the Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre, observed.  “Sometimes companies are after the quality of staff that we have and sometimes they are after the quality of the expertise – in terms of equipment or ideas,” he said.  Networking opportunities, particularly in the MedTech sector where the university has close ties with local hospitals, are also a desirable trait for partner companies.

But it is possibly the competitive nature of business that makes local companies so keen to work with the University and its research.  When it comes to areas like innovative materials, industry understands that the university sector can’t be beaten on its ability to measure and test the properties of emerging technologies.  As McLaughlin put it, “companies are often worried about missing out.”

 

  -  Robert Swift

 

Posted on Monday, 18 June 2018