NovaUCD is an Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre based on the campus of University College Dublin (UCD). It has been in operation since 2003 and its general purpose is to take advantage of the ideas and innovation arising from the research programs of academia and and connect them by means of startup enterprises with the general market place.
These companies can either be spin-outs from research activities or spin-ins; outside companies that wish to collaborate with the work done by UCD and other universities.
Ciara Leonard, Project Manager, Enterprise Development at NovaUCD, points out that, “the spin-in companies will be more commercially aware. The team would have been developed over a longer period of time. So the mix and links between the two, spin-outs and spin-ins, is very important.”
It is this cross-fertilization of experience and ideas that is fundamental to the success of an initiative such as NovaUCD. As Ciara sees it, “We’re a community of entrepreneurs and each individual adds to that community so it is important that we have a mix.
“I see myself as a knowledge facilitator between the clients here. People have the idea that you fling people together in a building and they will network together naturally. But that is not the reality, it has to be facilitated.
“Because these people are CEOs of startups, and everyone knows that a CEO is doing five jobs, they have to identify with people before they will network and collaborate.”
One of the methods of encouraging exchange and interchange between NovaUCD’s client companies is by running seminars based on the needs of client companies. “That means you will get ten or twelve of the client companies, (you would never get them all at the same time,) discussing a particular subject or challenge. Therefore, they engage with with each other and identify around those issues.”
Ciara explains further, “We are a community of entrepreneurs where entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey.”
NovaUCD, and similar other incubators help to solve the problem that startups and their founders have of sitting at home reinventing the wheel every five minutes. The incubator environment helps build the external network of vital relationships at the same time as the companies are building themselves.
According to Ciara, “The secret of building a community or network is making oneself relevant. NovaUCD has made itself relevant. Also, NovaUCD has set itself apart in some ways by being a thought leader in innovation and tech transfer. This has been done through our director, Pat Frain, and Micéal Whelan, our communications manager.
There are strict eligibility requirements for a company to take up residence in the NovaUCD incubator. Having high standards is seen as being vital to continued success.
“Startups can suffer from credibility and being part of an incubator like NovaUCD which is seen as a leading light and as being cutting edge adds a certain amount of credibility.
“When the customers and investors come to NovaUCD and see a nice environment and a nice space they say, ‘wow,’ and it gives a different impression. It is all about the companies and what they are doing and their technologies but all of this helps add value as well.”
Ciara’s Phd work was in the area of looking at how industry and universities collaborate. In her opinion, “The key success factor in promoting a successful collaboration is proximity.
“Proximity is key for a company wanting to collaborate with a university partner or third level partner because the company easily link up and have meetings constantly and create a stronger network and relationship.”
After being at NovaUCD for four years and working in the sector for ten, Ciara has developed a sense of what is necessary but not always sufficient for success in the startup sector.
“When I first meet a potential client, I don’t want to hear about the technology. I want to hear about them, the individual. What is their background? What is their passion?
“The next thing I ask is, ‘What do you believe your core challenges are over the next six months?’ First of all I want to see is, do they get it? Do they see what milestones and challenges they face?
“But secondly, I want to know if I can be of benefit to them. If they don’t know what their core challenges are I don’t see how we can help them.
“One of the factors for success is that if they don’t have a strong team already, they have to build it. We can only provide support and advice around a company. It is up to the co-founders to run and lead that startup.”