Pre­cious few re­search dis­cov­er­ies will lead to a lu­cra­tive re­ward

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS INNOVATION - Dick Ahlstrom

Any­one who has ever tried to get a book into print would likely ac­cept the view that there is more work in­volved in win­ning ac­cep­tance from a pub­lisher than there is in ac­tu­ally writ­ing the book in the first place.

There is a fe­ro­cious amount of work in knock­ing out page after page but the ad­vice is to work at least as hard to get your man­u­script over the thresh­old and ac­cepted. I like to think that there is a sim­i­lar chal­lenge when a sci­en­tist sits down and de­cides to pen a paper on a dif­fi­cult re­search prob­lem.

Like fic­tional writ­ing it has two parts, the ini­tial cre­ative ac­tiv­ity in­volved in get­ting words and ideas down on paper and then the chal­lenge of de­cid­ing what to do with the re­sults of what could have been five years of hard slog.

Both au­thors have to deal with pub­lish­ers who will be there to ei­ther to tell you why they won’t pub­lish the work or why they are go­ing to make your day by ac­cept­ing it for pub­li­ca­tion as a book or in a big-name jour­nal.

There is an ex­tra di­men­sion, some­thing else to think about, for the re­searcher how­ever. What should you do if the dis­cov­er­ies that have been made have a po­ten­tial com­mer­cial value.

For the au­thor of fic­tion the words and the story are the IP [In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty] and suc­cess will be mea­sured by how many times this IP will be pur­chased and read with plea­sure by the max­i­mum num­ber of peo­ple.

High­est bid­der

For the sci­en­tist, the IP is whether the re­sults might be reap­plied in a new prod­uct or process that can be sold or li­censed on to the high­est bid­der.

It might be the dis­cov­ery of how some small but im­por­tant part of the im­mune sys­tem works, knowl­edge that would open up the po­ten­tial for new drugs or bet­ter treat­ments. The value of the IP rock­ets if the knowl­edge can be­come the en­abler for a block­buster new phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal.

Roll things back to the 1960s or 1970s and few of those work­ing in re­search here wor­ried much about what their dis­cov­er­ies might be worth; re­search was most of­ten con­ducted for its own sake al­though it was not that the greater good count not also be served by the ac­tiv­ity.

Ea­mon de Valera was a long time sup­porter of re­search and sci­ence and, along with the Dublin In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Stud­ies, he had the fore­sight to open the Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil of Ire­land.

Based at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, the sci­en­tists were asked to de­velop treat­ments for TB, a dis­ease that was ram­pant here at the time.

Vin­cent Barry led a team of nine sci­en­tists who failed to de­liver on TB but in the process they dis­cov­ered a cure for lep­rosy – clo­faz­imine, which is still used to­day to treat the dis­ease. The team did not be­come mil­lion­aires from their work but they did win in­ter­na­tional dis­tinc­tion given the im­por­tance of their dis­cov­ery to hu­man health.

To­day no work­ing sci­en­tist is un­aware of IP and the po­ten­tial fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of any sci­ence be­ing con­ducted, whether it is in bio­chem­istry, com­put­ing, en­gi­neer­ing, or new ma­te­ri­als, and rules gov­ern­ing IP are a part of their work­ing con­tract.

Were he work­ing at TCD to­day, Prof Barry would have found all the de­tails in a doc­u­ment, Pol­icy, Prac­tice and Reg­u­la­tions on In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty pub­lished in 2015 but based on ear­lier it­er­a­tions of sim­i­lar doc­u­ments dat­ing back to 1986.

And he would have known that if IP did gen­er­ate some cash it would be dis­bursed on a three-way split, one third each for the in­ven­tor, the Trin­ity school that hosted the in­ven­tor, and TCD cen­tral funds.

This does not mean that every­one is chas­ing the dol­lar rather than do­ing their re­search, and there are still plenty of re­searchers who need con­sid­er­able en­cour­age­ment to get them to ex­ploit the po­ten­tial of new knowl­edge.

En­ter­prise Ire­land and the Ir­ish Uni­ver­si­ties As­so­ci­a­tion jointly fund an agency, Knowl­edge Trans­fer Ire­land, set up specif­i­cally to see sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies com­mer­cialised.

Pi­lot scheme

And on Oc­to­ber 25th EI launched an IP sup­port grant to help com­pa­nies com­mer­cialise their IP. Un­der the pi­lot scheme, com­pa­nies can de­fray the cost of hir­ing spe­cial­ist in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty at­tor­neys who come into a firm and show them the value of the re­search ac­tiv­i­ties. EI says it will help the com­pany de­velop a for­mal in-house strat­egy for IP and how it should be han­dled.

One would have thought ev­ery re­searcher, whether in a pub­lic or pri­vate re­search con­duct­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion, would be keenly aware of the fi­nan­cial po­ten­tial of com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion.

But in the same way that only a tiny fraction of would-be au­thors will see their book in print, only a very few re­search dis­cov­er­ies will de­liver a block­buster.

But as the Na­tional Lot­tery put it, if you’re not in you can’t win.

‘‘ Vin­cent Barry led a team of sci­en­tists who failed to de­liver on TB but in the process they dis­cov­ered a cure for lep­rosy. The team did not be­come mil­lion­aires from their work but they did win in­ter­na­tional dis­tinc­tion

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