During the past decade, several European universities have created programs to help start-ups launch and grow. NovaUCD at University College Dublin is a standout program. The organization supports entrepreneurs and start-ups through the various phases of business development. Tom Flanagan, Director of Enterprise and Commercialization at NovaUCD, tells us about his background as an engineer and business leader. He then covers start-up innovation at NovaUCD and offers advice for engineers interested in launching a business. 
Tom Flanagan at NovaUCD talks about start-up innovation
Tom Flanagan at NovaUCD (Picture Credit: Nick Bradshaw, Fotonic)
Syag: You graduated with an engineering degree from UCD, and today you are the Director of Enterprise and Commercialization at UCD. Can you tell us about this interesting journey?  
Flanagan: I started out designing fibre optic circuits in the UK. I moved to Canada and then to the US, where I invented SONET Fibre Optic Rings and championed them to worldwide deployment. I was promoted several times and transitioned from design to product line management, to marketing, to sales, and then consulting. I led a $100-million-per-year business as Vice President for Canada and Central US at Nortel before returning to Dublin to be involved in the start-up community. 
I enjoy working with inventors and entrepreneurs, and on returning to Dublin, I established Hothouse Innovation & Tech Transfer at Technology University Dublin. Three years ago, I moved to NovaUCD, the Centre for New Ventures and Entrepreneurs at University College Dublin, Ireland’s premier innovation and start-up hub. I’ve been on several boards, including being a founding board member of Decawave, which was recently acquired for around $400 million.
Syag: You have seen innovation in both the corporate world — as you were involved in creating new business units, new products, and services in telecommunications at Nortel — and in a university setting at NovaUCD. How is the innovation process different in each setting?
Flanagan: At one level, it is exactly the same. It is about inventing, creating something new, being first to see things that others don’t, identifying real problems, and inventing new solutions and then convincing people that it’s a good idea and worth investing funds and resources in to make it happen. 

Innovation in a University setting is different from the corporate world in that there is strong interest to research and discover new things that may or may not be commercial. In a corporate environment, there is always a focus on commercial outcomes.
Syag: Compared to, say, a decade ago, are universities and industry are working together more or less effectively?
Flanagan: Yes, a lot has been done around the world to establish Knowledge Transfer Professionals that can bridge the gap between industry and academia. They develop the partnerships necessary for research collaboration. They also identify the best inventions and think through how the inventions can be used. They look for potential partner companies to develop the inventions further, and take them to market or they bring together the right funds and people to launch new start-ups to take the inventions to market.  
Syag: Can you briefly explain what you do at NovaUCD and how your knowledge and experience help the start-ups?
Flanagan: I lead a team of 24 people at NovaUCD that support our research and start-up community at the university. We do everything to support start-ups from ideation, market research, customer validation, building the team, business planning, preparing for investors, delivering on a plan to growing and scaling. There is a lot in this, and I have a really great professional team. We enjoy challenging inventors and entrepreneurs to reach for the stars, and we enjoy mentoring and coaching them to achieve their global ambitions. I suppose what I bring to the table is great admiration and enthusiasm for the new ventures and the scars and war stories of having tried lots of similar things myself over the years.
NovaUCD Campus
University College Dublin, Belfield campus (Credit: UCD)

Syag: The NovaUCD website mentions that the organization serves “entrepreneurs, investors, industry & business, researchers, and students.” Can you briefly tell us what they can gain from your institution and its programs?
Flanagan: At NovaUCD, we offer a wide range of flexible occupancy options to our clients including; co-working space and offices, to enable them to move as their businesses grow and develop. A limited number of the offices can also be configured to laboratory space.
At NovaUCD, which has 24/7 access, additional facilities and services provided include: reception services, a permanent boardroom, seminar and meeting rooms, a dedicated video conferencing room, wireless network, a dedicated server room, and a café with an external deck.
A comprehensive business support programme is also offered to client companies. This comprises of advice, clinics, seminars, and workshops as well as facilitated access to UCD’s world-class researcher community, business leaders, the NovaUCD sponsors, alumni, and investors. A specialist NovaUCD Founder’s Club also convenes monthly, which generates interaction and group discussion around key issues and assists client companies in establishing new networks as part of the NovaUCD community.
NovaUCD also offers a range of tailored internships and programmes to UCD researchers and students in the areas of entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity and technology commercialization. For example, NovaUCD has an ongoing range of internship opportunities, some of which are in collaboration with the UCD Quinn School of Business and the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, in areas such as business development and marketing, available to students to work with start-up companies. Such internships enable students, who have an interest in entrepreneurship or an ambition to start their own business, a real experience of working in the start-up sector.  
In addition, we run regular one-day hackathon programmes for researchers to encourage the development of commercial outputs arising from research taking place at UCD by engaging with them at an early stage in the commercialization process. We also run three-week UCD Commercialisation Bootcamps to help equip UCD researchers, staff, and postgraduate research students with the knowledge, skills, and understanding of the commercialization process.
The university’s Knowledge Transfer unit is part of the NovaUCD team and through its extensive commercial experience and drawing on a network of industry experts, patent agents, and legal experts, supports UCD researchers to commercially exploit research outputs for the benefit of the university and the wider community.
NovaUCD has a growing portfolio of licensing deals which will benefit the companies to whom the technology is licensed by making them more competitive, create new products, scale, generate employment and hopefully, with time, provide financial returns to the university and the inventors.  
ConsultUCD, the university’s managed consultancy service, is also part of NovaUCD, and facilitates access and supports engagement between business, industry, and the university.
Syag: How do you help your start-ups in terms of funding? 
Flanagan: At NovaUCD, we help our start-ups in a number of different ways to raise funding and one of my team is a dedicated Senior Manager for New Ventures. A key element of his role is to assist our start-ups to secure funding. He is very well connected to the local investor community here in Ireland, and internationally, and regularly briefs these communities on investment opportunities stemming out of NovaUCD and UCD.
Members of the local VC community regularly visit NovaUCD to meet with our clients and to build relationships with them. They attend our events, including our regular pitching events. Also, members of the VC community are represented on the judging panels for our competitions, which gives them an opportunity to see early-stage opportunities first-hand.
In addition, UCD was instrumental, along with Trinity College Dublin, in establishing a dedicated University Bridge Fund to invest in early-stage companies emerging from the research outputs generated by both universities and all Irish third-level institutions and universities. This €60 million fund, managed by Atlantic Bridge, brings together significant institutional investment from the European Investment Fund, its first cornerstone commitment in an Irish fund of this type, Enterprise Ireland, AIB and Bank of Ireland, and by both universities.
Audience at the 2019 UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme Showcase and Awards evening.
The 2019 UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme Showcase and Awards. (Credit: Nick Bradshaw, Fotonic).

Syag: Can you share a few examples of electronics-related start-ups that have developed out of your program?
Flanagan: Over 55 companies, ranging from early-stage high-tech start-ups to established innovation-led companies, are now located on the UCD campus and are supported by NovaUCD. Over 40 of these companies are currently based at NovaUCD (the others are located at NexusUCD, our Industry Partnership Centre, managed by NovaUCD, or elsewhere on the campus), and they cover a vast array of sectors, including ICT, biotech, medical devices, wireless, and renewable energy.

NovaUCD has supported well over 360 companies and early-stage ventures since it was established in 2003. NovaUCD is currently supporting a number of electronics-related start-ups, such as:
  • Equal1 Labs is developing a new type of quantum computer based on the latest advances in semiconductor CMOS technology.
  • iBrux is developing a smart mouthguard and mobile app to help dentists and patients to manage Bruxism more effectively.
  • Manna is a drone delivery as a service company, which is using custom-developed aerospace-grade drones.
  • Naiad is developing a novel liquid-based 3D bioprinter that helps researchers fabricate highly-reproducible and realistic 3D tissue models.
  • Output Sports has developed an end-to-end solution to test and track athletic performance with a single wearable sensor.
  • PearLabs has developed a photonic chip that serves as a nanoscale optical imaging device, which are becoming the imaging stage of next-generation super-resolution microscopes.
Syag: Competitions can be an exciting way for young companies to prove their value, not only to the investors, but also to the potential customers. Do you recommend any competitions to your start-ups and your thoughts on our start-ups competitions, such as Elektor’s Fast Forward competitions
Flanagan: Yes, I agree that competitions, such as Elektor’s Fast Forward competition, represent an exciting opportunity for early-stage companies. Not only do they afford start-ups an opportunity to hone their elevator pitch and introduce their prototypes to investors and potential customers, but they also represent opportunities to receive feedback on their start-up ideas and plans, which can help them to refine their business models and plans. Many such competitions, including Elektor’s Fast Forward, also offer excellent prizes for competition winners so they represent opportunities to receive an investment, associated media publicity, and an opportunity to join a valuable network of former competition winners.
We recognise the value of such competitions. And we regularly promote competitions — local (e.g., Irish Times Innovation Awards, InterTradeIreland Seedcorn Competition, US-Ireland Research Innovation Awards) and international (e.g., Cartier Women’s Initiative, Nature Research/Merck Spin-Off Competition) — to our clients, many of whom have reached competition finals and successfully won awards over the years.
At NovaUCD, we also run a number of our own competitions, such as the NovaUCD Student Enterprise Programme and the UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme. NovaUCD Student Enterprise Programme, now in its sixth year, is run by NovaUCD as a framework to support undergraduate and postgraduate students who want to work together to develop and grow start-up companies. Its overall aim is to assist students in refining their start-up ideas through a series of structured workshops, including taught content from industry experts, interactive workshops, regular pitching sessions, and mentoring, over a four-week period. This year, as a result of COVID-19, the programme is being run virtually, including a virtual demo day, and a final pitching event and involves 11 early stage student start-ups and 30 participants. 
VentureLaunch is UCD’s annual 10-week accelerator programme, held at NovaUCD, to support the creation and launch of sustainable and profitable new ventures based on UCD intellectual property. The objective of the programme is to equip UCD researchers with the knowledge, skills, and understanding that will be required to work as part of a team leading a new commercial venture. On completion of the programme, the expectation is that participating new venture projects will have developed a commercially viable business plan.
The overall winner of the annual programme is announced at an Annual Showcase and Awards. This high-profile event is attended by members of the business, investment, and university communities, and last year was attended by some 250 people. At the event, participating ventures deliver a short pitch, and an overall winner, as assessed by the independent judging panel, is announced. The winner receives €10,000 of seed money as well as professional services and supports worth an additional €20,000.
Syag: As an engineer, do you have any words of motivation to the engineers around the world who want to become entrepreneurs?
Flanagan: Yes, you are off to a great start. You know how to identify problems and break them down so that they can be solved.  You can think up lots of solutions. You are inventive. Look around: the whole world needs to be reimagined and reinvented — pandemics, climate change, growing and aging populations, limited arable land and water, food shortages, cybercrime on the rise, the race for space, etc. It’s all there waiting for you. 
If you want to be a billionaire entrepreneur, solve a billion dollar problem. Get advice and attract in the right partners with financial and commercial expertise and go for it. The world needs you!!

Start-Up Innovation at NovaUCD

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