| 7 minute read

Discovering Ireland’s innovation ecosystem for university-industry cooperation

Elena Galán-Muros
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UIIN is going to Ireland! In this episode, we chat with Finola Howe, Head of Enterprise and Engagement at Atlantic Technological University, our co-hosts for the upcoming UIIN Ireland forum on September 11th.

Finola shares insights into the forum’s key themes and explores how university-industry collaborations drive regional economic development and innovation.

Tune in and discover why this event is a must-attend!

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

Also available on:

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
Today, we will be talking about bridging boundaries for effective external engagement. Our guest speaker today is the local host of our upcoming UIIN Ireland Forum, Finola Howe, Head of Enterprise and Engagement at ATU will provide us with an in depth look at the strategies and insights that will be explored as part of the forum.

I’m very excited to learn more about Ireland’s innovation ecosystem, so do you observe any trends on Irish university-industry engagement?

Finola Howe:
I see it from both sides of it, having worked in industry and now from an academic perspective.

Industry folks do have a fear of engaging with academia. There’s this feeling of maybe being inadequate, of not knowing as much about the subject matter as the university folks would be.

There is also a difference in terms of timeframes. When I was working at the university, going to industry felt like I might be very focused on precision engineering and manufacturing, but one of the key learnings is you are a face to industry and it doesn’t matter what your focus is.

When you go out to industry, you are the door in, and they can ask you about anything. A key thing to understand with university-business collaboration is that there is a level of responsibility when you are facing industry, and that has very significant consequences.

If you, as part of a university, are focused on one thing and somebody from industry asks you about something totally different, you have to follow through on those other requests as well. You are building trust, a relationship, and the reputation of your academic institution.

There is this language translation that needs to happen. To use UIIN terminology, you have to be a boundary spanner. You have to really understand both sides of it, and you have to translate the different things that are going on to come to an alignment.

In terms of what’s harsh an Irish context, the whole third level sector is changing. We have merged all the Regional Institutes of Technology to become Technological Universities. That brings a whole load of structural and cultural change internally, while still trying to deliver on your obligations to students, industry and the region.

Change is hard to process for people. On an internal basis, it’s very hard to really understand the impact that has, but there are huge opportunities in the new technological university sector because we bring much greater opportunities and supports to the regions.

For example, ATU is the only university that covers the West and Northwest of Ireland, so that means students can get a quality education within the region, companies have a greater talent pool and we can attract more national and international academic talent to work in our university within the region.

Something else that comes to mind in the Irish context is that Irish governmental policy has become really focused on economic development. That rolls out through structured regional enterprise plans, and universities are embedded in those struggles in enterprise plans. There is a high expectation for us to contribute to our regions in very impactful ways.

The other hot topic is around industry clustering. It’s very high on the government agenda around policymaking and Ireland is very behind the curve in industry clustering. We’re not garnering impact from the potential benefit of industry clusters, and universities in our current setup have been funded to host cluster managers within the university structures. The university has been pulled into economic development and enterprise development constantly.

One final thing from the government focus on economic development that I want to mention is around the importance of business creation and entrepreneurial mindset development. There are a lot of start-up supports embedded within our system, which is fantastic, but there’s more of n impetus on universities to embed entrepreneurial mindset education and development into the academic programs. Also, the idea of trying to create impact from research and commercialising research and the support of SMEs is becoming more critical.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:
Thank you so much, Finola, there is a lot going on, indeed. What would you say are the some of the current challenges and how would you even begin to prioritize them?

Finola Howe:
There is a lot going on there, and that is all outside of the university environment. When you bring that into the university environment, you have a crux. Typically, our academic institutions have been teaching institutions and the engaging with industry has been a lower priority.

The more mainstream universities always would have research as a focus, and they would have staff built in and focused on that. In the technological universities, the culture is a teaching culture, so you are trying to change that whole mindset.

Academic staff involvement in university-business collaboration can be difficult in that environment because you have got this culture of teaching versus being involved in external engagement.

That is a crux, because all their hours are built up with teaching. Some of the solutions to that what we have seen more and more is the old saying of “what gets measured, gets done”. Many funding mechanisms of the funding that we go after, the key performance indicators are driven around industry engagement, entrepreneurial development, supporting female led businesses, start-ups, patents, license agreements, spin outs, etc.

What we are starting to see now is more of a drive from the funding mechanisms, to expect us to do all those things that are driven by industry engagement. That route has required us to look internally at our structures and our resources to enable that delivery. We had to structure ourselves differently, and our academics needed to be enabled to split their time differently.

Looking back at how best to do that, we need to prepare and motivate our academic staff to want to do this. But how do we train our staff to figure out how to engage? There’s this translation that needs to happen and, if you’re an academic that has grown up in this academic environment and you have never engaged with industry before, how are you supposed to know how to do this well?

Going back to basics and training our staff on how to engage with industry is critical, and also developing systems to support them on how to navigate this.

Ready for more?

The UIIN Ireland Forum: Bridging Boundaries for Effective External Engagement, is hosted in partnership with Atlantic Technological University (ATU) in Sligo on 11 September 2024.

This forum is your exclusive invitation to join a community of professionals, policymakers, and government representatives from across Ireland to share knowledge and exchange experiences. Engage with leading experts, participate in thought-provoking discussions, and explore innovative solutions to the challenges and opportunities in university-industry engagement within the Irish context.

Enhance your network, gain valuable insights, and make a real impact in the Irish landscape.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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