Posted on Monday 12 March 2012 by Ulster Business

Spinning out - and in

The new head of QUBIS, the company responsible for helping commercialise research from Queen’s University, is confident more firms can replicate the success of early pioneers like Kainos and Andor Technology

Frank Bryan admits that compared to most people in business he operates in something of a “good news bubble”.

That’s because as CEO of QUBIS, the delivery vehicle for spinning out innovative companies from Queen’s University, he is overseeing the development of new Northern Ireland businesses that have the potential to use their technology to become world beaters.

In its 28 year history QUBIS has of course played a key role in the early stages of successful companies such as Andor Technology and Kainos, with its spinouts generating £130m of revenues – 95% from exports – and supporting over 1,100 high value jobs.

“It is good to hold up examples of what’s possible,” he told Ulster Business. “Our companies cover a whole spectrum so for the new fledgling companies, the fact that they can see Kainos or Andor hopefully inspires them to say, well they can do it, why can’t we.”

Bryan, who took over as CEO of QUBIS at the start of the year after three years on its board as a non-executive director, pinpoints green technology, life sciences, engineering and digital/software as the sectors in which the company sees the greatest strength in its spinout pipeline, although it is not restricted to them.

“It depends on the right opportunity,” he says. “There are no strict rules or criteria. We do look to see that there is a real market opportunity to address, and then can we connect the knowledge with business acumen, and also can we help them to secure initial seed funding.”

Bryan was chairman of the IoD in Northern Ireland between 2006 and 2008 and has also been involved with the Economic Development Forum and Matrix. Having worked for large multinationals as well as rebuilding a family business and playing key roles in some new technology companies, he feels he’s well suited to his new job.

“I guess what I can bring to the role is personal business experience at many levels but also with many sizes of companies. I’ve been involved in large business, small business, operating at a very hands on detailed level through to managing director level. Alongside that I’ve always had an interest in helping shape an economic environment that will be conducive to allowing business to prosper and how innovation is part of that,” he says.

As well as raising awareness of the work QUBIS does he is keen to invest in building up the network of stakeholders in the spinout process, to increase knowledge and access to business experience and finance.

QUBIS is also working with the Directorate of Research & Enterprise in Queen’s as it tries to widen the catchment of research that feeds through to spinout opportunities.

One concept he is actively promoting is the “spin in” where a business identifies an opportunity to tap into the research or innovation inside the university to develop their product. The first such deal involving Andor founder Hugh Cormican’s new venture has just been signed, with backing from Clarendon Fund Managers.

“As he started to drive that business forward Hugh recognised he needed to partner up in the development of the research. He had a piece of work that needed the support of the university – that’s where the spin in bit comes in. He has brought technology into a partnership with the university to develop the product,” says Frank.

He notes that through good times and bad there has been a steady stream of success coming out of QUBIS, but sees no value in setting targets for particular numbers of spinouts – or spin-ins – to happen in any given year.

“It comes down to what’s coming through. We don’t want to be in the position of spinning out companies for the sake of spinning them out. You could make big headlines in some years by doing 10 or 20 but if within four or five years they’ve all gone bust it would be a short blaze of glory,” he says.

QUBIS’ success is based on having a broad portfolio of businesses at various stages of development, he adds, highlighting among others, companies as diverse as Lewis Fertility (new DNA tests on sperm quality); Flish (which has developed a new type of satellite antenna); eMs (monitoring technology for electricity substations); Lahmroe (wireless wave sensors); and Tactility Factory (innovative design materials).

“What’s exciting is that as we spin out these fledgling companies any one of them could be the next Kainos or Andor,” he says. “Our crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. But there is some great work going on here and if we just keep focused these are the business of tomorrow that will be able to make a very strong contribution to the Northern Ireland economy.”

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