Mid Term Report: Universities in Good Company; the Commercialisation of Northern Ireland's University Research Base Has Led to the Creation of a Hive of Businesses and a Mutual Relationship Which Has Fostered a Culture of Enterprise. ADRIENNE McGILL Examines This Beneficial Partnership

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IT HAS been a momentous six months for university and commercial partnerships in Northern Ireland with a number of significant developments helping to turn academic research into wealth-creating opportunities.

Plans for a pounds 30 million world class Science Park and the establishment of a foundation to steer the project through underpinned the government's drive to encourage links between the Province's universities and industry.

The main development, to be sited on reclaimed land on Belfast Lough, will be linked to Queen's University, while satellite operations connected to the University of Ulster's Coleraine and Magee campuses are also planned.

In addition, the money made available to assist university research increased dramatically earlier this year with the award of pounds 2 million from the Government's University Challenge Fund to both Queens and the University of Ulster.

The Fund, supplemented by pounds 500,000 from Queen's and pounds 250,000 from the University of Ulster, will provide the opportunity and the resources to exploit commercially the research strengths of both institutions across a broad scientific and technological base.

In addition a range of schemes including the Viridian Fund and the IRTU Fund has increased the opportunity to secure financial backing for research projects.

Both universities have committed investment to commercial projects. The University of Ulster recently announced a pounds 1/4 million business initiative to provide an incubator unit for young companies in the health and science sector.

And Queen's University has long been renowned as a pioneer in the field of university start up companies and was one of the first universities in the UK to embrace the venture.

Qubis, the Queen's university business incubator unit, has since its establishment in 1986 invested in 24 new start up high technology companies, the majority in partnership with industrial investors and currently retains a holding in 19 of them.

Qubis seeks to identify and evaluate commercially exploitable research and resources. Management and partners are then sought who have appropriate skills and access to the market place According to Edward Cartin, chief executive of Qubis for the past 14 years, the funding has come at a critical time.

"These 24 companies are a testament to the quality and commercial relevance of Queen's research and to the entrepreneurial ethos at Queen's.

"Winning the University Challenge Fund has been the biggest development in the last six months. It is an endorsement of what we have been doing. Our track record has made a major part in getting that.

"The money will be invested in an earlier stage of scientific research as opposed to near to market research. Although this is the riskiest part of the investment, the pay offs can be enormous.''

Queen's has already demonstrated that its internationally recognised research capability can be turned into jobs.

The combined turnover of Qubis companies in 1999 will exceed pounds 19 million of which 95 per cent is exported outside Northern Ireland. Together they employ 386 people, almost of whom are graduates and many with higher degrees.

Kainos software, for instance, is distributed around the world by ICL, while Lumichem has sold its amino acid detector in over 20 countries, Andor has clients in the USA, France, German and Japan, and Biosyn sells its diagnostic products to large US drug companies. …