Imagine the possible Inflazomes in an innovation district

27th September 2020 

Last week’s acquisition of the campus company Inflazome by Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, is one of the biggest deals in recent Irish corporate history. The €380 million sale of this small Irish biotech firm, which originated from research carried out by professor Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin, demonstrates that Ireland can compete with the best in the world when academia and business collaborate.

Deals of this scale are an important marker, demonstrating that Irish science can work productively with entrepreneurs and venture capital companies. Inflazome is part of a long line of business success stories originating in universities here. When floated in 1997, Iona Technologies, the software firm which also came out of Trinity, represented the fifth-largest initial public offering in the history of the Nasdaq. Havok, a gaming tech firm also founded in TCD, was acquired by Intel for $100 million in 2005. Logentries, a UCD campus company, was bought by Rapid 7 in 2015 for $68 million, while FeedHenry, a Waterford Institute of Technology campus firm, was acquired by RedHat for €63.5 million in 2014.

The sale of Inflazome should give us confidence that Ireland is on track to establish an indigenous knowledge economy that can balance the valuable contribution made from foreign direct investment.

Moreover, since deals like this generally arise from curiosity-led projects driven by the vision of researchers and their teams, it’s also a reminder that our research funding mechanisms need to be changed to encourage more individual researchers.

Research-led companies play an important role within our rapidly – evolving, open knowledge economy. They utilise intellectual property to differentiate their business, they attract venture investment, and when they succeed, they grow a global business led from Ireland.

However, universities do more than just help create companies from research – they also have established funding to scale companies of this kind.

In 2015, TCD and UCD identified a deficit of early stage venture capital to invest in science – led businesses. In response, the University Bridge fund, a €60 million venture fund exclusively focused on the commercialisation of university research, was established.

Alongside the universities, the fund was supported by the European Investment Fund, Enterprise Ireland, Bank of Ireland and AIB, and is ranked fourth in the world for scale in collaborative venture funds.

This commitment by seasoned venture fund investor is an independent validation of the quality of the science in Irish universities and the importance of universities in driving new businesses.

Since its formation, the fund has invested in 22 companies, leveraged more than €120 million in investment and created more than 300 jobs. It is anticipated that over the next ten years, it will have resulted in investment of more than €300 million for Irish SME’s.

As well as facilitating funding, universities also play a transformational role in supporting the development of an entrepreneurial culture for our students and graduates.

Most universities now run accelerators over the summer for student – formed companies. Trinity has been running the Launchbox accelerator for the last eight summers, helping students transform ideas into viable businesses.

Originally intended to provide an entrepreneurial experience, the university’s expectations of Launchbox were reshaped by the talent and ambition of students.

It has supported the formation of many successful businesses including FoodCloud, the social enterprise, Touchtech, the payments company acquired by Stripe, and Artomatic, the AI company, which was recently acquired for €60 million.

Ireland’s university graduates are successfully establishing businesses around the world. Pitchbook, a business research firm, has ranked Trinity first in Europe for graduate entrepreneurship each of the last five years. This is based on the level of venture funding raised by the college’s graduates, which is $4.1 billion in the last ten years.

Imagine the potential if half of these companies were founded in Ireland – the job creation, the billions of euro – worth of investment, the increased talent retention. Imagine the enhanced economic spill over benefits with our FDI community. Imagine the enhanced research and innovation reputation for the country.

Trinity along with many other key stakeholders, has been imagining this possibility. How can we make it happen? By the establishment of a globally competitive innovation district.

In January, a government report on the establishment of the Grand Canal Innovation District was published. It endorsed the role of an innovation district and a new university and enterprise campus in helping to evolve Irelands innovation capacity and reputation, and to support the country in responding to the opportunities of new emerging technologies and to global challenges such as climate change.

It recognised the importance of building a start-up hub of international scale, co-located with a university research institute and corporate innovation labs. As a country we have done reasonably well when it comes to creating campus companies. But think how well we could do if we channelled the ideas and people coming out of all our universities through an innovation district which linked our regions together at a national level, and connected Ireland to other major districts internationally.

For Ireland to thrive, we need many more success stories such as Inflazome in the years ahead.

Source: Business Post