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With New Hubs, Trinity Seeks to Develop Innovation and Entrepreneurship Among Students

University Times                             October 14, 2016.

The new business school in Trinity, priced at €82.5 million, is one of the most significant infrastructural changes the university has announced in the last five years. A central part of this project is a proposed Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub, to be co-located in the school, with a proposed completion date within the next two years.

In documents submitted to University Council in June and obtained by The University Times, the new hub is described as the “cornerstone” of Trinity’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategy. The documents outlined Trinity’s plan create a Trinity that is “more in line with Stanford than Harvard” when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship as a core value across all faculties.

The hub, which is a working title for the project, aims to achieve this by providing a single nucleus for existing programmes for entrepreneurship within Trinity, along the lines of NovaUCD in University College Dublin (UCD) or the Innovation Campus in Dublin City University (DCU). These are mentioned in the same documents as providing an “integrated brand” to promote innovation, a model that Trinity seeks to emulate. These projects have already proved successful. NovaUCD, for instance, has raised over €9,000,000 worth of equity funding between 2003 and 2013, according to their 10th anniversary report.

The idea is to create a business unit that brings together all of the innovation activity that we currently have in college

Trinity already has an impressive record in terms of entrepreneurship. Trinity is currently the highest-ranked university in Europe for venture-capital backed entrepreneurship, according to private equity and venture capital research firm, Pitchbook. Trinity also claims to have the greatest number of spinout companies of any university in the country.

With the new hub, Trinity is hoping to develop this entrepreneurial reputation. According to Trinity’s Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Diarmuid O’Brien, who spoke to The University Times in August, “the idea is to create a business unit that brings together all of the innovation activity that we currently have in college”. This way Trinity will provide a one stop shop for budding entrepreneurs across campus, in the form of a dedicated incubation space to provide a more focused path for entrepreneurship.

The initial constituent parts of the hub are already operational across college. Launchbox and Blackstone Launchpad, two startup incubators that currently occupy space in the Graduate Memorial Building (GMB) during the summer and the Berkeley Library all year round, will become part of the hub, as will Trinity’s Innovation Academy. The Innovation Academy is a skills-based initiative that works primarily with PhD students and business executives to develop “the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship” in attendees, according to Executive Director, Dr Barry McMahon. Speaking to The University Times, McMahon said the academy, which is run in conjunction with Queen’s University Belfast, is very much an “educational space” where as well as learning new skills, the academy gives students the opportunity to acquire postgraduate qualifications in innovation and entrepreneurship and take other classes aimed at fostering creative business solutions.

Where the Innovation Academy may exist to help people generate and perfect their idea, Blackstone Launchpad and Launchbox aim to help bring them to fruition. Launchbox’s “main aims are to produce high quality entrepreneurs to help startups progress”, according to Programme Manager Alison Treacy, speaking to The University Times. By providing funding, mentor support and access to alumni networks, the programme provides space to help curate student startups. Launchpad fulfils a similar role and is open to alumni, staff and faculty as opposed to just students.

We’ll be working towards the same strategy together. It makes sense that we would all be doing so as part of one team, rather than all of us in disparate areas

In addition to these elements, the hub will also incorporate the Tower on Trinity’s Technology and Enterprise Campus (TTEC) on Pearse St. This space acts as an incubator for businesses spun out or built around university research. This is quite common, especially in science-based research. Last week, for instance, Trinity professor Luke O’Neill secured over €15 million in venture-capital funding for a new company based on his research.

The hub will also have a role in facilitating Trinity’s involvement in the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) knowledge and innovation communities (KICs). These are large-scale partnerships made up of universities and innovation stakeholders across the EU. Trinity is involved in two communities, based on health and raw materials research.

Each of these components have helped Trinity become a highly profitable and well-regarded partner for industry. For example, Trinity is the only Irish institution to form part of two KIC’s. Similarly, Launchbox managed to raise €2.6 million worth of funding in the last year alone.

The purpose of the hub is to bring these disparate strands together. Speaking to The University Times by phone, Chair of the Trinity Business School, Sean Melly, said the hub would serve as a “lightning rod”, channeling the various parts of the existing infrastructure into a more focussed and, it is hoped, a more effective means of facilitating enterprise.

This is the practical value of the hub in having everything in one place, and co-location in the business school allows for ease of access to facilities, greater exposure for facilities like LaunchBox and for the sharing of best practice amongst departments. “We’ll all be within shouting distance of each other”, Treacy said: “We’ll be working towards the same strategy together. It makes sense that we would all be doing so as part of one team, rather than all of us in disparate areas.”

The design of the hub is very much based around flexibility: the ability for the space to function in a multitude of ways, providing a sense of fluidity and creativity in keeping with the innovative spirit of the project. Student projects from the Innovation Academy were used and consulted during the design project, underlining the idea that the hub is aimed towards facilitating students.

There is still no confirmed solution for the funding of the hub. Much of the “filling in the gaps” will be left to the new chief executive officer of the hub. The position, advertised in July, will have responsibility for developing and implementing the strategic plan for the hub, as well as developing its constituent parts as they operate within the project. One that is emphasised in particular is the Tower, which Trinity hopes can be shaped to provide formalised and comprehensive incubation.

Innovation, and innovation related to entrepreneurship, is becoming a mainstay of the university.

It is expected that the new chief executive officer will also be responsible for integrating some of the new initiatives due to be developed on campus, which College hopes to include within the competence of the hub. Examples include the new undergraduate certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship, which builds on the existing work of the Innovation Academy. It is also expected that the hub will play a supporting role to other research centres, as well as to student societies and clubs. It hopes further explore the creation of entrepreneurial summer schools and internships.

For McMahon, the idea is that the hub will create a culture of entrepreneurship across disciplines and faculties. The hub will be open to people from all schools, meaning that there is enormous potential for people to access new ideas and share expertise to a far greater extent. The coalignment of departments, McMahon points out, creates a sharing culture, as well as an environment in which innovation is uniquely emphasised.

This is a value that the Innovation Academy has tried to foster and one that he hopes the hub can continue to develop. “If you take people out of their ordinary everyday environment … they can behave in a different way or engage with things in a different”, McMahon says.

The collaborative spirit of the hub is already starting to bleed into Trinity’s innovation culture as departments prepare for its implementation. McMahon stated: “The teams have already started to build around the hub, so we already see cross-pollination. We’re all invited a lot more to each other’s events, we can also more often pick out students and say ‘they’ve got a great idea, why not talk to them.’”

The investment in large infrastructural support for innovation in the university, like the hub and the business school, reflects the changing nature of the job market more broadly. There has a palpable culture shift in higher education since the 2008 crash, according to McMahon: “The model of universities not just being about education and research, probably will move to a model of research, education and innovation.”

The project has strong support from the Provost, McMahon says: “Innovation, and innovation related to entrepreneurship, is becoming a mainstay of the university.”

The hub also exists to serve the educational needs of students. “Trinity responds to global pressures”, remarked the Provost at the recent Irish-American education and innovation symposium, hosted by Trinity. “Innovation and entrepreneurship is becoming embedded in the pedagogy of how people learn now … and we need to provide more of those kinds of learning opportunities for our students”, he said.

The model of universities not just being about education and research, probably will move to a model of research, education and innovation

This has obvious economic benefits for a university – companies pay to use intellectual property and facilities owned by Trinity and the college’s researchers, and the more high-value entrepreneurs the university can be affiliated with, the greater access it has to potentially lucrative donors. Melly highlights this need to exploit “alternative revenue streams”, especially given the current underfunding of higher education.

According to Treacy, the hub is “an opportunity for students to be able to spend time and resources on their own idea and to make use of all the resources that Trinity and the wider Dublin ecosystem have at their disposal”.

This is something that Trinity is very much attuned to, and which the hub directly facilitates by making entrepreneurship a visible priority of the university, argues Treacy: “We wouldn’t want to be known as only the oldest university in Ireland. We want to be the oldest and the best and the most innovative.”

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