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22 May 2018

Lifetime Achievement Award: Alison Campbell

Alison Campbell, director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Global University Venturing

Author: Chris Torney, reporter

It is the best part of a decade since Alison Campbell was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to knowledge transfer in the 2010 New Year Honours list.

That recognition has appeared to spur Campbell to even greater things, principally as director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, the Irish national office responsible for policy, practice and the performance of the domestic tech transfer system, so Global University Venturing hopes that giving her our 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award will have a similar effect.

“At the time, I felt that while it was, of course, a great honour, the really terrific thing was what the OBE said about the importance and relevance of the knowledge transfer sector,” Campbell told Global University Venturing. Promoting, and in particular professionalising, this sector have been key motivating factors over the course of a career that stretches back to 1991, and a role with the Medical Research Council (MRC) in its then new technology transfer team.

“When you begin to immerse yourself in an area, you begin to care very much about it and the people involved,” she said. “Working in technology transfer is all about people, not just in terms of the deal-making but the quality and calibre of the individuals.

“There is a great element of personal drive, empowerment and motivation – but certainly when I came into it there was no formal training. To some extent that was good – we jumped in, got on with it and developed our networks. But we recognised that that approach was not necessarily sustainable when a discipline is growing itself.”

Campbell added: “One of the big fortunes in my life is having encountered people who can see the potential in me. That is something that is incumbent on all of us – ensuring we can make the space and time to see the potential in other people.”

In 2002, while still at the MRC as director of intellectual property (IP) development, she became the founding director of UK-based national tech transfer training organisation Praxis – subsequently PraxisUnico, following a Campbell-led merger, and now PraxisAuril.

Later, in 2010, she again became a founding director, this time of the Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals. “That was about creating a global standard for technology transfer,” she said. “Prior to that, there had been a very valuable qualification, Certified Licensing Professional, which still exists. But that examines and tests people in their technical knowledge in the field of licensing, and of course technology transfer is far broader than that.

“It covers the hard intellectual property, licensing and spinouts, as well as the other disciplines of research collaborations and partnerships, supporting consultancy arrangements and so on. We wanted to create something that would recognise all of those with some sort of global standard.”

In 2016, Campbell was elected to the board of the Association of University Technology Managers (Autm) before becoming the organisation’s chairwoman – the first from outside the US – at the start of 2018.

“Again, with Autm there is an element of seeing potential,” she said. “Working on the board is a way to engage with a lot of people who are leading in their profession in the US, get a lot of different perspectives and of course remind oneself that many of the opportunities and challenges that face us in the profession are the same wherever you are – the context just changes slightly.”

Campbell added: “It is great to be associated with an organisation that has that kind of pedigree and credential, but which also is of itself quite global in both its membership and its outlook. That offers some real kind of opportunity to give back to a profession that I care about, and maybe make a difference – and it is a very enriching experience.”

Campbell said this increasingly broad outlook across the profession was one of the main changes she had noticed over the course of her career.

“The networks, the connections and the ways of doing business have become far more global and richer, but of course there are different drivers in different countries. In Ireland, for example, as well as enriching the research and teaching, there is a quite a strong economic development agenda behind it.”

At the same time, she pointed out, increased professionalisation and the sector’s growth have introduced new pressures. “In the public sector in particular, when things are successful, many people will begin to look at that success and start to ask questions in all sorts of different contexts. There is always a need within the profession to be justifying technology transfer – does it work, what are the results, what is the value and, heaven help us, what is the return on investment?”

Campbell continued: “To some extent that is part and parcel of any business – you have to communicate the value-add. But it is tough for the profession. Technology transfer is often being scrutinised and it is often an easy target given that it is something that is very complex and which is fundamentally about developing an innovation ecosystem.”

In some cases, this can lead to technology transfer being undervalued or insufficiently appreciated, she added.

“I would like perhaps to see more overt support or acknowledgement of the value that technology transfer and knowledge transfer can bring to regions, countries and systems,” Campbell explained. “We need to celebrate what this community can help achieve and the role it has to play. That does not mean we should stop asking questions of it, but perhaps being a little more benign would not be a bad thing.

“We need to bear in mind that this kind of scrutiny can become a distraction. People in offices and organisations will end up spending a little too much time trying to explain and justify rather than actually getting on with the job at hand.”

Campbell’s journey thus far has been impactful, but how did she end up in the university ecosystem? It happened after her time with the Medical Research Council, when she was appointed director of innovation and managing director at King’s College London Business, the university’s technology transfer office, in 2004. She held that position until 2012.

“Going to work in a university seemed like a logical next step in terms of rounding out an understanding of technology transfer and research commercialisation more generally,” she said. “And I really enjoyed being able to establish some new and enduring functions within King’s. We created a function that supported continuing professional development in a more formalised way and that became embedded in an area of the college.

“I helped to form the joint clinical trials office, although clearly this was built on the back of many clever and smart academic clinicians who knew what they wanted to do. And we created six spinouts, as well as a lot of research collaboration with industry.”

After leaving King’s, Campbell said she “took a step sideways”, adding: “It really was that time in my career when I had to think: Do I want to carry on? What do I really want to do?” She worked as a consultant for universities and research organisations, both in the UK and overseas. “I got to see so many different environments and worked on many different kinds of projects. I liked the variety and the types of interaction that were coming my way.”

In 2013, however, she was approached by Enterprise Ireland, the state-owned enterprise support agency, and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and asked to help set up Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), the national tech transfer agency.

“I was not looking for a job, but the opportunity was too good to miss,” she explained. “It involved coming in to lead on the creation on something quite new, but it was also building on some very good work.

“In Ireland, we are still relatively young in terms of formal research funding and certainly in terms of technology transfer. But one of the reasons I love it so much is that it takes in so many aspects of what I have done in the past and draws them all together. The role at its heart involves making it simpler for industry and entrepreneurs to engage with the research base – which is very easily said but perhaps not as easy to do.”

One of the biggest attractions of working within the Irish system, she added, is that there is widespread recognition that “this stuff matters”. She said: “So many of the people I have met, in the higher education sector, in industry or in government departments, want this to work and they understand why they want it to work. It is a great environment to be in.”

Ned Costello, CEO of the IUA until the end of last year, was one of the people responsible for bringing Campbell to Ireland five years ago. “Alison has made an outstanding contribution to the development of the commercialisation and knowledge transfer ecosystem in Ireland,” Costello said. “She has been instrumental in establishing Knowledge Transfer Ireland as a focal point for both enterprise and pubic research organisations and making it simple to connect and engage with the research base in Ireland.”

He added: “The resources Alison has developed in KTI – the National IP Protocol, and the various guides, templates and model agreements – are of real practical assistance and a valuable legacy for everyone working in IP and commercialisation. At a personal level, Alison’s consistent enthusiasm and good humour have made working with her a genuine pleasure.”

Anita Maguire, chairwoman of VP Research & Innovation at IUA, echoed Costello’s sentiments. “Alison’s relocation to Ireland was a very significant development in the research and innovation landscape in Ireland.

“Bringing her extensive experience in technology transfer and commercialisation of research, her skills in influencing diverse stakeholders including policymakers, and her international credibility, she has made a very clear impact on the Irish landscape, bringing coherence and enhanced understanding across the system.”

She added: “Engaging with Alison is always a pleasure. In addition to her wise insight and pragmatic approach, her cheerful optimistic can-do approach makes even the most complex situations appear manageable. In every discussion it is clear she is always open to new ideas and keen to learn from every new situation – which is something to be admired given her level of experience.”

Campbell said: “My role is a combination of being a catalyst and quite a practical person. And as time has gone on, my role has become more of the former. I very much enjoy working in environments where I can make change.”

She said she was particularly pleased with the progress KTI had made. “We recently undertook a review of our three-year progress, consulting stakeholders and bringing in some external people to conduct it. The feedback on that was that we have made a difference. It is great to have that sort of validation – it is not just what I have done in my office, but how the system around us has grown.

“But overall, the roles I have been lucky enough to get have been fun. That really does help, particularly when they are hard and the hours long. And that is the other common thread – the joy of having worked with some really excellent people so we can all spark off each other.”

And although winning a Lifetime Achievement Award might create the impression of a job well done, Campbell was clear she had plenty more to offer. “I am not sure what I want to do next, or whether I have any particular ambitions I want to fulfil. But I do know that I have another adventure left in me.”

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