New approaches for technology transfer of food innovation between universities and industry: the devil is in the detail


*Corresponding author
1. Technological University Dublin, Ireland
2. School of Biological and Health Sciences, College of Sciences and Health, Dublin, Ireland


EU states are committed to the concept of technological innovation as a driver for economic growth, and in the wake of COVID, identifying the Rosetta stone to achieve this aim remains a pressing objective. Analyzing the experience of Ireland as a barometer for other EU states, this communication suggests a revised approach based on eschewing the traditional one-size-fits all strategy to technology transfer. Identifying information asymmetry as a critical challenge to overcome, the revised strategy includes extending the intellectual property debate beyond patents to instruments of greater relevance to the food industry, and the adoption of a revised definition of ‘innovation’ by research grant agencies.

Profitable technology transfer between universities and industry remains a goal of governments around the world, but still presents challenges (1, 2). Like many EU states, the importance of the agrifood industry to Ireland is significant: it provides employment for 163,000 people (8.4% of total employment), with food and beverage manufacturing accounting for €26 billion of total turnover (3). Dominated by small or medium-sized food enterprises (SMEs) (4), the challenges of low levels of human capital and lack of finances for innovation (5) are complicated by limited absorptive capacity to successfully assimilate technology (6).


Publicly funded research has the potential to play a key role in expanding the food industry’s knowledge base in Ireland (reviewed in 7), and third level institutes (TLIs) are central to this (8). Henchion and colleagues (2008) reported that food technology was transferred via personal relationships among individuals in a non-linear model rather than through classical mechanisms of arms-length marketing between academic labs and private companies.


National funding to support food research is disbursed by a variety of government support agencies, and such schemes usually require a financial contribution from the company. However, most Irish food and beverage companies spend less than 3% on research and development (R&D); indeed, many spend less than 1% (9), and European Innovation Scoreboard data indicates that Ireland rates low in private co-funding of public R&D expenditure (10, 11), implying a mismatch between funding priorities and the needs and/or capabilities of Irish food companies.


TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER AND INNOVATION: A QUESTION OF DEFINITION?Information asymmetry and differences in institutional motivation are critical challenges to be analysed and reconciled. In terms of specific outputs, firms are usually interested in how quickly new products can be obtained, and understandably want to delay academic research publications in order to avoid disclosing information. University researchers, in contrast, are typically motivated to publish research results quickly. Industry is concerned about secrecy and misalignment of expectations with regard to IP rights, being guided exclusively by the need to derive a profit from their investment. Thus, agreements need to be established in a commercially timely manner that ensures the ability to commercialise with appropriate returns. Within such constraints, a key question relates to how successful technology transfer can be.

In the US, the reported average time from invention disclosure to licence is 4 years (12), with even the highest performing technology transfer programmes licensing only 20-25% of the disclosures they receive, with only an estimated 3% of disclosures finally result in marketed products.


In the absence of comparative data for the ‘united states of Europe’, it is difficult to assess the success of European counterparts in the technology transfer challenge. The Expert Group of the European Commission has begun the process of compiling a European-wide set of harmonized indicators for knowledge transfer (13). In reviewing the data from the 2019 European Association of Knowledge Transfer Professionals (ASTP) survey, the Expert Group noted a number of limitations, including inconsistency of definitions and data collected, combined with incomplete data (13).


However, a more fundamental question relates to measures of technological novelty. In setting the research funding agenda, government policy documents are riven with the term ‘innovation’. However, there are subtle differences in the definitions of innovation (reviewed in 14), and largely unacknowledged subjectivity is evident in this area.


From many years of dealing with grant application schemes (both submission and evaluation) administered via the major research funders in Ireland, the authors note the pre-eminence of the patent as the desirable stated end goal of innovative research outputs. There is less of an appreciation of the role of instruments such as trademarks or design rights, which are more widely used by the food industry (in addition to marketing and manufacturing innovation to enable rapid penetration of a target market).


Paucity of financial resources and limitations in technological capability represent barriers to any SME in adopting new technologies (15). Previous studies have identified skills gaps in the technology transfer process among researchers (7), and called for education in this area via graduate training, and also the strategic training of personnel in companies and technology transfer offices (16). Other issues relate to reward systems in universities that are inconsistent with greater entrepreneurial activity.


At the moment, protection of intellectual property in TTOs inevitably dwells on patents (17), and this viewpoint is also present in research support agencies: this conflicts with new product development based on incremental innovation strategies, which is characteristic of many food SMEs. Indeed, the pre-eminence of patents as a tool for protecting IP is still common in the literature. For example, Arenas and Gonzalez (18) in a wide ranging review of the instruments of technology transfer focused on aspects such as patents, publications and presentations, but did not mention trademarks or design rights. Indeed, others have written that the latter merely represented a fall-back position to reclaim some value in the situation where a patent was unobtainable (19). The relevance of trademarks and design rights to the food sector needs to be acknowledged by development agencies and suitable support instruments enacted to address this deficit. For the food sector, technological and marketing innovation are inseparable, and this integrated view represents an advantage in the marketplace. This observation implies that invention disclosures, not patents as such, are the critical input in university technology transfer when it comes to food innovation. Additionally, although patents on university technologies nominally disclose those inventions, a significant amount of knowledge related to practicing and commercializing these technologies remains tacit or uncodified, residing in the mind of the faculty inventor (20).


In Ireland, the disparity in the suitability of different IP tools is exacerbated by the presence of a strong pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing sector, which deal in radical technologies that are eminently suitable for patenting. A lack of recognition of other ‘creative’ IP protection mechanisms (trademarks, design rights, domain names), combined with varying definitions of the term, ‘innovation’, represents a significant hurdle facing the food industry in dealing with grant agencies. Here, the discrimination between radical and incremental innovation is important. While the former suggests a major technological development that can only be developed over time, the latter refers the application of a new technology to deliver organisational benefits over a shorter time scale (delivered within a 6-24 month period) (1).

The aspect of varying perceptions of the word, ‘innovation’, may also extend to the perception of the activities of a TTO among potential company partners. Re-branding of the TTO office to an ‘office for technology commercialization’ or ‘industry engagement’ might make the outreach message more explicit for the food sector, while also implying a two-way dialogue between prospective partners. This process which has already begun in some US universities (17).


Poor margins on many food products, compared to the pharmaceutical sector, may result in universities cherry picking which life science innovation is progressed to market. Such ‘homerun’ technologies (21), which promise high returns within a short amount of time, are usually licensed or sold to high technology industries (22). However, the prospect of ‘selling’ in the shorter term, combined with more ready market access, means that food innovation can be a much better bet for a university technology portfolio. To prevent the possibility of any such preferential treatment of technologies, there needs to be a discrimination between academic engagement (knowledge-based collaboration by academic researchers with non-academic organisations – consultancy, contract research, networking) and licensing. Some companies have been reported to consider it significantly more valuable than licensing university patents (23). A broader-based approach in compiling metrics for European ‘knowledge transfer’ is evident in the latest Expert Report from the European Commission (13).


The focus of technology transfer professionals understandably remains identifying ‘the right way to do it’, but usually involves a one-size-fits-all approach in the quest to unlock the secret of rapid technology uptake by industry (24, 18). However, in this paper we have called for a re-assessment of such an approach and proposed specific mechanisms to improve the success of transferring technology from TLIs to the food industry.



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Ciaran O’Connell is the Food and Life Sciences Licensing Executive for the TU Dublin Hothouse . Ciaran has extensive commercial experience, having worked in senior leadership positions at Unilever, Roche Fine Chemicals , Country Manager Benelux Keenan and Keenan Buyers Club USA. He has worked in fast-moving consumer goods for Kepak Convenience Foods, Dawn Farm Foods and VION Food Group. Ciaran is a science graduate Queen’s University Belfast, MBA from University of Stirling, Scotland a graduate in food innovation & technology, St Josephs University PA USA and is a Registered Technology Transfer Professional from the The Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals

Gwilym Williams lectures in biotechnology and bio-entrepreneurship at TU Dublin. He was previously Head of International Programmes at the Enterprise Ireland Biotechnology Directorate and Manager of the National Agricultural and Veterinary Biotechnology Centre at University College Dublin.