Rory Clarke chats to Tom Flanagan & Caroline Gill of NovaUCD about all things innovation, enterprise and the potential of students.
Primarily, as we all know, UCD is a university, designed and established to teach and train generations of (mainly) young people. However, it is so much more than simply another step on the education ladder. Academics teach yes, but primarily, they research, they innovate, they ask and answer socially seismic questions. Students take academic courses and learn facts and theories. However, as we’ve recognised especially this year, the university experience fosters so much more than academic excellence. It improves social and soft skills. It inspires people beyond their books. It is also home to the birthplace of many of Ireland’s most exciting enterprises.
NovaUCD is “a community of entrepreneurs and supports around entrepreneurs to help them grow and expand their operations”, according to the hub’s Director of Enterprise and Commercialisation, Tom Flanagan. These entrepreneurs come from all parts of the UCD community and are dedicated individuals working on the commercialisation of both faculty and student innovation.
A hotbed of Irish and international talent, it is really no surprise that the University has adopted the “recognised international best practice” of setting up a dedicated entrepreneurship programme and incubator, according to Caroline Gill, Innovation Education Manager at NovaUCD.
NovaUCD was established in 2003. A university strategic review recommended that “from a infrastructure and staff point of view, a team and a space” should be provided to help researchers and academics commercialise their innovations. Dr Patrick Frain succeeded in attracting funding to put into the NovaUCD building - near the now disused athletics track, in the south-east corner of campus. Six investors; AIB, Arthur Cox, Deloitte, Ericsson, Goodbody Stockbrokers, and Xilinx, provided the principal funding, with the balance provided by Enterprise Ireland and UCD itself.
Crediting Dr. Frain, Flanagan comments that “he was extraordinary in keeping it going, keeping engagement going. He started it off; it was [his] baby, I’m just here for the teenage years. [It’s] grown from nothing at all, from a clean sheet of paper, to quite a substantial operation”.
These adolescent years, as he calls them, have been abundantly more productive than traditionally associated with teenagers. Since his arrival over 3 years ago, Flanagan has been tasked with taking “Nova to the next level, growing in different ways, expanding in different ways, and supporting more entrepreneurs and students”.
Inevitably, the metrics by which the success of programmes like NovaUCD will be measured are the number of spin-outs and companies emerging from the programme. This has seen remarkable upturns in the past few years. The average annual number of spin-outs has been doubled “from 3 to 6” with notable successes including Logentries, a big data start-up acquired for €68 million in 2015, and Output Sports, a sports science and wearable technologies firm. Speaking to The University Observer in 2019, Dr.Martin O’Reilly, Output’s CEO, confirmed that the key advantage of being part of a community like NovaUCD “is the support network of such a diverse array of academic experts”.
In terms of companies based in Nova, there has also been an increase - from 55 to 75. In recognition of these advances, €6.7million of UCD funding was allocated to NovaUCD to allow it to expand its space, and cope with this new demand.
As well as improving existing programmes, NovaUCD, much like the investors it supports, aim to stay at the coalface of innovation and research methods. Getting “extra funding for additional new projects” has been a key focus for the team. Last year they ran a “5G accelerator programme, for startups in the 5G space”, managing to attract Vodafone and Ericsson as key sponsors. This programme included a 10-week course of group workshops and one-to-one mentoring, as well as trial opportunities with the two communication giants. One of the participant businesses, Iamus Technologies, were named Best Start-Up at last month’s Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena Awards. This company’s area of interest, agri-tech solutions, also leads into another of NovaUCD’s newest projects. €4 million has been invested in creating the AgTech Connector Innovation Hub at UCD’s own Lyons Farm. The idea of such an expansion is, according to Flanagan, to “take Nova and expand its operation onto the farm, so ag-tech type projects have on-farm access to test new projects, and they have our supports” in-situ.
These developments are, according to Flanagan, only right for an organisation like UCD. Coming from his previous role with Dublin Institute of Technology (now Technological University Dublin), where he had set up “Hothouse”, an incubator and tech transfer space similar to NovaUCD, he felt UCD had greater responsibility, as well as opportunity, to expand and develop their entrepreneurial piece. “UCD is a bigger institution, both in terms of students,…research, and ambitions. It’s a different environment, a bigger platform.”
Engagement with the UCD Community
Promisingly, greater focus on UCD student entrepreneurship has also been a hallmark of Flanagan’s tenure. To make the NovaUCD model “actually accessible to students”, there has been a shift from isolated entrepreneurship programmes and competitions to “year round support for students who have business ideas”. This has, according to Gill, “been a really great addition, leveraging the expertise and experience ...built up over 15 years. (...) [We] can help them realise that there are models to get their ideas into the real world.”
The NovaUCD Student Enterprise Competition is one of NovaUCD’s leading opportunities for student engagement. The competition aims to “assist students in refining their start-up ideas” through workshops, mentoring and ongoing support. While at one stage it ran for 4 weeks only, last year it was expanded to continue over the summer and beyond. Flanagan emphasises that “it’s not just a competition, to just pitch on the day - although there is that - you get some funds out of it, and it’s about how you spend those funds to grow the business.” One leading example of this is Zipp Mobility, the e-scooter start-up founded by Charlie Gleeson in 2019, which came into NovaUCD in the Student Enterprise Competition. Flanagan speaks fondly of the company; “Charlie has done a great job there, attracting in over a million in funding” and getting approval for use in UK e-scooter trials.
Gleeson is a graduate of the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, one group within the wider UCD community which NovaUCD have been working very closely with in recent times. As an example, Flanagan cites a new scholarship organised with the Quinn school where “one or two students get funded for a year to work with some of our startups and do some work with us”. In addition to this internship “directly with NovaUCD”, many of the start-ups within the space are “attracting in interns”. They can all benefit from “having bright new talent supporting them. [It] is exactly what they’re after and we support them in that.” The variety of these internships, which are incorporated in a range of different programmes and subjects across UCD, match well to the varied pursuits of NovaUCD’s start-ups.
Other good channels for NovaUCD are the Innovation Academy and dedicated academics. Gill explains that while the Innovation Academy “delivers accredited programmes, which is a differentiation between their operation and ours, they’re really strong on encouraging that same sort of creativity within students and sending them in our direction”. Academics meanwhile, who teach across UCD, who are themselves interested in entrepreneurship often “bring [that] through in their teaching. We would be able to work with them to get access to students to [sic] say, if you have an idea, come and talk to us”.
Unsurprisingly, NovaUCD also looks to tie-in with the Investors & Entrepreneurs Society, often having staff members sit on judging panels of their Startup Accelerator programme. This culminates in a Dragons Den style “pitch-off” before a winner is chosen. Often, participants are encouraged to continue their enterprise and apply for the Student Enterprise Competition in early spring.
Speaking to Gill and Flanagan, their passionate belief in the capacity of student entrepreneurs was evident. In fact, there was a sense that the pair would prefer the ‘student’ moniker to be dropped from ‘student entrepreneurs’. To them, they should be accorded the same levels of respect and inquiry as any budding entrepreneur. NovaUCD is an enterprise hub, which just happens to be located on a University campus. Whilst students are encouraged to get in touch, the rub is the same for them as any other enterprise; if it doesn’t cut the mustard, it will not move forward. Flanagan explains: “We treat them all in the way the same way, whether they’re students or not, regardles of their age or sex. We're really trying to keep that bar high to check that they really are the right person to lead this venture and whether that venture is viable. We’re not any softer on students than any other groups.”
Even when pitching to external parties or investors, these 3rd parties “don't think ‘this is just a student project’; they ask ‘whether it’s a viable project?’, and we certainly do, if we’re supporting it.”
Students do not, according to the pair, generally suffer from working simultaneously with NovaUCD whilst studying for a degree. Flanagan explains the reason for this succinctly “the ‘exception’ is the type of person we’re after. The high-performing individual who is very capable, can manage a start-up business while being extraordinary in class”. Going to “college in the day and [coming] over to NovaUCD in the afternoon, to work and connect with people” quickly becomes the norm. Flanagan emphasises that their job “is to support and spot talent. Once you can see the talent is there (...), it’s [about] trying to challenge them and support them at the same time”.
Although NovaUCD has had its headline-making successes, a key part of the pair’s work is about building resilience in prospective entrepreneurs. Even where the idea pursued in NovaUCD isn’t the “best idea in the world”, entrepreneurs learn so much as they’re developing it, so “that the next time a good idea comes up, you’re better able to spot it and know what to do with it”. Flanagan points out that “most entrepreneurs that are really successful - it's not their first gig (...) Being given the time and potential for it succeed or fail” is really important. As Gill says “what's the worst that can happen?”
UCD updated its overall Intellectual Property policy in 2018; UCD does not assert “any rights to IP created by students in a project that is entirely initiated by the student”. Therefore, as Flanagan explains; as a student “if you’re coming in with a great idea, you [can] just get advice from other people, we’ll support you on that, but it’s your idea, it’s your IP”. The generosity of terms reflects the spirit of openness, participation and support they seek to foster in their community.
Another reason to get involved with NovaUCD is their ability to accelerate the learning process. While students can “absolutely go their own way, that might be a good approach for them, they might also benefit from engaging with the community of entrepreneurs and from the team that surrounds the entrepreneurs at NovaUCD. We can take them and support them through challenges and accelerate developments, avoid having to learn some things the hard way and learn shortcuts to succeed”. Unlike other groups, students are willing to “roll up their sleeves to tackle new things that [they] really don't know [and] things that [they] don't know that [they] don't know”. NovaUCD strives to make sure they don’t learn these things “the wrong way”.
Gill adds that the “physical space at NovaUCD is really useful.” Citing an example of a student who would, when working on their business project, commute into town to work at a parent’s office, the utility of a dedicated on-campus space becomes self-evident. There’s conference rooms, office space and even lab space for scientific research. Although impacted by Covid-19, the main purpose of the space (“to create collision opportunities, for people to bump into and learn from each other”) continues, either socially distanced or through e-conferencing.
As NovaUCD matures, the community is, increasingly, spanning generations of entrepreneurs. Alumni are “really eager to come back” to NovaUCD, according to Gill. Many are “still connected” in the NovaUCD community and want to work “with the new population of students, because they see that they’re the people that are going to be the ones to go out and make [sic] changes in the future.”
A good example of this community is the annual UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator programme, the final of which showcases “the latest things that are coming out of UCD”. Last year’s event saw over 250 people, including alumni, industry experts, and entrepreneurs come into UCD. The details of this year's event are yet to be confirmed.
We conclude on a similar theme as we began, the resilience and capabilities of students. “The cream rises to the top” says Flanagan. “If you're putting out the net far enough, giving people the opportunities that we are here to support, you'll see the Charlie Gleesons and Shane Curran [founder of Evervault], the people who have the capacity to lead” coming to the fore.
Gill, as the lead contact for students at NovaUCD, has, unsurprisingly, some apt final words; “There [are] more students out there; the message is that we’re open for business for students with bright ideas. No matter what the idea is, no matter what stage it’s at - it doesn’t need to be figured out - that’s what we’re here for. (...) University students and graduates are the future leaders of the country and beyond. They’re going to go on to do amazing things.”