Dragons Fired by Inventions from University Researchers

Eleven research teams from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster had an opportunity to test the commercial potential of their inventions at a unique ‘Dragons’ Den’ event organised by Invest Northern Ireland.

The researchers presented their projects to a panel of ‘Dragons’ made up of venture capitalists and business ‘angels’. Taking part in the panel were the chairmen of the two university organisations which support the creation of new spin-out businesses - Dr Brian O’Connor of the University of Ulster’s UUTech and Dr Bryan Keating of QUBIS at Queen’s.

The 11 research teams are all being assisted by Invest NI’s Proof of Concept Fund to develop and explore ways to commercialise their ideas. This could involve setting up small businesses, forming joint ventures with established companies or concluding licensing deals.  Each team leader had five minutes to present their business idea followed by 10 minutes of intense questioning by the panel. The panel then gave each team valuable advice on how to commercialise their project.

New business projects presented to the expert panel spanned a wide range of technology sectors and included: a nanotechnology-based coating process for medical devices; a new type of vacuum glazing; a breathable fabric that protects against chemicals and biological agents, and a wound dressing system that speeds up the healing process.

“Two key objectives underpinned this initiative,” said Roz Carson, Manager of the Invest NI Proof of Concept Fund and organiser of the ‘Dragons’ Den. “First of all,

we wanted to encourage the teams taking part to consider how best they could commercialise their project to maximise its business potential.  Secondly, we believed that they would benefit from an opportunity to meet and gain advice from influential people with considerable experience in funding and managing technology-driven businesses.”

Tracy Meharg, Invest NI’s Managing Director of Innovation and Capability Development Services, commenting on the event, said:  “We hope the event will help to accelerate the development of a number of new spin-out companies and will also encourage other university researchers to think seriously about commercialising their ideas and inventions,” she adds.  

First hand experience of running a technology business was provided by Noel McKenna, Managing Director of Audio Processing Technology (APT) in Belfast. Mr McKenna recently headed up a management buy-out of the business, which was spun out of Queen’s University in the 1980s, from the English company which had acquired it from its founders. APT recently rejoined the QUBIS portfolio.

The panel also made a number of ‘Flame Academy Awards’ to the project leaders based on their commercial potential and on the quality of their presentation on the day.

The award winners were:  

-  Alan Clarke, Queen’s University Belfast – Development of chemical and biological protection clothing;

-  Professor Paul Maguire,  University of Ulster – Nanoscale surface engineering for volume manufacturing of medical and other devices; and

-  Dr Sakir Sezer, Queen’s University – Hardware-based IP for next generation networks.

Master of Ceremonies for the event was Prof Norman Apsley, Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Science Park. Also taking part in the panel of Dragons were: Aidan Langan, Chief Executive, Enterprise Equity; Deirdre Terrins, Investment Manager, Crescent Capital; Dr Alan Mawson, NITech; and Des Oliver, Chief Executive, Halo Initiative. In the audience were senior representatives from QUBIS, UU Tech, Clarendon Fund Managers, Crescent Capital, Enterprise Equity and leading business people.