Focus on research: Declan McKibben, Adapt
29 October 2020 | 0
Declan McKibben is executive director of Adapt, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for digital content. In this interview he talks about the business of research and the value of collaboration.
What made you decide to move from research to the business end of innovation?
I have an ICT background, in digital technologies, software development and innovation across a range of sectors. This background gives me knowledge of multiple sectors and the different functions within enterprises. My team in Adapt understands the commercial needs of our industry partners and the need to engage professionally and productively, aligned with business timelines.
We are fortunate to work with a pool of really talented academics and research colleaguesin the areas of natural language processing; speech; machine translation; computer vision; video processing; knowledge & data engineering; AR/VR; personalisation; audio; and robotics.
We have built a strong knowledge base through current and planned projects which demonstrate how the world class research expertise at Adapt can help businesses that are engaged in research and development or advanced technology-enabled product innovation.
A key function of the commercial team is to align the needs of industry with the relevant expertise. We discover and understand the needs and objectives of our industry partners through a deliberative workshopping process and match these to research experts across a wide range of areas. This collaborative approach has been proven to instill confidence in our partner that they are engaging with the right team of experts, and likewise ensures that Adapt researcher colleagues can be confident that we are introducing collaboration opportunities that are aligned to their research interests.
Your position as manager of dLab made you a point of contact with industry. How did that dynamic work?
I was head of Adapt’s Design & Innovation team (dLab) for several years, growing it from a four person team to 16 as we scaled to meet the demand from our industry partners. DLab is an Agile software team with excellent designers, engineers and dedicated project managers. We plan and run projects for best impact. This means that we focus on the areas prioritised by our partners and develop deliverables and demos that give our partners the confidence that we get it, to enable them to evaluate the research more effectively through use cases and datasets with which they are most familiar.
Working with industry, Adapt has been able to harness its research and innovation to drive impactful outcomes and has completed many successful collaborative projects for business across a range of industry sectors including ICT; fintech; health; localisation; online retail; media & gaming; and Mobility. Our industry partners collaborate with us to solve specific problems that aren’t easily solved conventionally from commercially available sources.
The engagement approach depends on the situation but generally we start with a discovery phase where we clarify the needs and goals of our industry partners. This is generally done with the commercial team including colleagues in dLab if required. Next we identify how this aligns with the research interests of the researchers in Adapt. We often find that more than one research area or expertise is required to address a need and this is something that we are very strong on in Adapt; supporting researchers from different topics or areas or even different disciplines, in their collaboration with industry.
Our research colleagues are keen to get involved at this stage because we have qualified the opportunity and confirmed a ‘fit’ to our research expertise. Following that we schedule meetings or workshops to further explore the collaboration opportunity including the Adapt researchers and technical or scientific personnel from the industry partner. The outputs of these workshops will be a high level collaborative research project proposal which will form the basis of the legal agreement required to commence the collaboration.
Dlab includes a dedicated project management team and it is this team that ensures that our collaborative research projects are planned and managed professionally. Our intellectual property manager is responsible for ensuring that the IP emerging from the project is managed effectively and transferred or licensed to the partner as required.
Have conversations with industry created new avenues of research at Adapt?
Collaborative research with industry – in the computer science domain in particular – often creates new avenues for research, potentially new collaborations across research areas or the opportunity to explore the application of existing ideas or techniques in a new context and with real life datasets. Such collaborations regularly result in moving beyond state-of-the-art approaches and the associated publications (co-authored with researchers in industry) receive more citations than non-industry research publications.
Our researchers value the opportunity to collaborate with industry because of the different perspectives this offers, new scenarios for applied research, new research questions, new datasets and the potential for valuable co-created research.
Spin-outs can be an important metric of success. How do you decide when a project is ripe for being spun out?
When one of our spin-out teams is getting customer traction or validation. They may be engaged in customer trials that are creating – or have the potential to create – value for those customers or they may have strong customer interest, a willingness to fund trials or to book sales for the product or service. If our spin out teams are getting this type of engagement then they are well placed to raise VC funding to spin out of the university.
In terms of what project should be brought to trials, it’s all about the problem that they are solving and that they have strong validation from the industry that this is a real problem and if it can be solved it will enable a valuable commercial opportunity.
Some of our spin-out teams are removing manual work from workflows. These include Arama, Biologit, AImapIT. In others they are enhancing performance. These include Epushy and Darwin & Goliath.
Adapt has spun out five start-up companies over the past five years and is currently incubating 16 teams funded by the Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund programme. These teams span healthcare, pharmaceutical, finance, content & media, sustainability, education & wellness.
The MoveAhead team is helping address childhood obesity by providing physical education activity instruction and feedback via a tablet device; Vertigenius is using a wearable technology to address issues with balance/vertigo and Caliber is developing a tool to help publishers and authors identify toxic or problematic content, and Darwin & Goliath is providing ecommerce providers with an opportunity to give their products a sustainability score.
Notable spinouts to date include Soapbox Labs (children’s speech technology) and Data Chemist (data and knowledge management) and former spinouts which have been acquired in the past year include Iconic Translation Machines and Kantan MT.
Has Adapt’s success in research tranlated into greater interest from business?
Yes. Business leaders are smart, they understand the strategic context in which they’re operating and they plan and direct their business accordingly. They have done their homework when it comes to identifying the partnerships and capabilities that are needed to fulfil their innovation goals (product, service or operational). Our reputation is based on the research we deliver as well as the top talent we attract.
In the last five years 73 PhDs have come through Adapt with nearly 46% of our alumni moving into industry which demonstrates the trust in the high quality talent and excellence nurtured by the Adapt member institutions
There continues to be a very high demand in industry for the scientific and technical expertise of Adapt’s researchers and students. We are finding that organisations do not have this type of expertise in house yet this advanced AI talent is needed to support their business transformation and business goals – whether this is from the visionary/future focused perspective or on the ground research analytics.
Adapt also has a reputation for excellent interdisciplinary research collaboration. We collaborate with colleagues from disciplines such as Law, Ethics, Neuroscience and Medicine to ensure that the technology is developed (and deployed) and capable of addressing our needs for safe, productive and engaging interactions with the technology and with each other, mediated through the technology.