Working with academic innovations

Dr Monalie Bandulasena, MICRA Intellectual Property (IP) Associate is part of the team at Loughborough University working on the translation and commercialisation of the university’s innovations. She gives insights into her work and how to get the most out of your IP. 

Can you give our readers a bit of your educational background? 
I obtained my BSc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka in 2003 and moved to the UK in 2004. I was hoping to find a postgraduate opportunity to do a doctorate. As I was categorised as an international student at that time, it was difficult for me to find a PhD studentship. Therefore, I worked as a customer services advisor in a leading life insurance company for more than seven years, hoping and waiting for the right moment to start a PhD. After becoming a UK citizen, I completed my doctorate in Micro and Nano Particle Production using Microfluidic Methodsfrom Loughborough University in 2018. 

When did you decide a career in IP exploitation was for you?

I developed a microfluidic device to simplify my experimental procedure during my PhD. My supervisors and LU enterprise office team realise the potential of the device and decided to explore commercial opportunities. At that stage, I got involved with initial commercialisation activities such as patent searches, market research and exploring commercial/industrial partners for collaboration activities to exploit the commercial possibilities for this novel technology.

Realising the commercial potential led me into an entrepreneurial training programme called “Engineering YES” which was organised by the Loughborough University Graduate school in conjunction with the University of Nottingham and the Rotary Club of Loughborough Beacon. I will say I found myself in technology transfer due to the programme. 

You are part of the Enterprise Office team, how does working with external partners benefit research?
As a part of my day job, I interact with seven other midlands’ innovation universities and a vast tech transfer community from around the world. I also interact with organisations, including local SMEs, national and global companies, government bodies and charities.

Working with all these different stakeholders opens up significant possibilities for collaborative work, funding, training as well as developmental opportunities for academics and their innovative research ideas and inventions.

Making new connections and expanding the network of external stakeholders is key to my role, which improves my ability to support academics in disseminating their research to the wider world and make impact.

Your team is often at the forefront of ground-breaking research, what projects are you excited about at the moment?
At the moment, the university has two recently spun-out companies which we are excited about. 

‘Previsico’ is a spin-out company from the school of Social Sciences and Humanities which has the capabilities of nowcasting and forecasting floods around the world. It is attracting lots of attention. Using this technology, ‘Previsico’ has the potential to save lives and livelihoods in areas affected by floods.

The second company is ‘Zayndu’, a spin-out from the Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering, and has the capabilities of chemical free agricultural seed sterilisation; a novel technology that the agriculture sector has been waiting a long time for.

We are also excited about our technology which is converting harmful NOx gases from diesel engines to harmless gases (ACCT) and we are waiting for suitable licensees for this technology.

What does a typical day look like for you?
My day-to-day work consists of working with entrepreneurial academics within the university to exploit the commercial potential of their research innovations. This includes protecting IP, carrying out market research, exploring funding opportunities, assisting on drafting of funding applications, finding industrial partners, negotiating terms for collaborative/commercialisation activities and finding opportunities for academics to gain commercialisation skills development. I also widely assist the tech transfer offices of other Midland Innovations universities to do the same.

What challenges do you think women face, working in higher education?
When I started my PhD, I had two young children to look after and they needed my full attention. As a mature student, I had to balance my family life and my research career. I experienced a great deal of difficulty at the beginning of my PhD, with time commitments, but I learnt to prioritise work and manage time efficiently as I progressed. 

Considering this question more broadly, I can say that I experienced some obvious difficulties as a woman in a male dominated research world. For me, the main thing is to look at them gracefully and to try to work through them to mitigate those difficulties in order to achieve your goal.

Where do you think the greatest challenges lie in getting funding for new projects, particularly during this pandemic?
Almost all the projects that we support in the Enterprise Office are related to enterprise/commercialisation activities and cover all the research disciplinaries. 

Considering the above, funding applications should focus on making a positive impact on society, the environment, and the economy – locally, nationally, and globally. 

Projects must demonstrate an ability to answer/mitigate/solve pressing issues that the world is experiencing. These include climate change, pollution, unemployment, economic crises, health and wellbeing etc.

Projects should also demonstrate their understanding of the existing market, competitive technologies and the economic and time benefits from their technologies/ideas – in order to shine against other projects.

Particularly during this pandemic, health and wellbeing and unemployment are major areas of focus and there are many funding opportunities for projects relating to them.

However, there are sufficient funding opportunities for projects in other areas too. If you can demonstrate the potential of your research/enterprise idea, and articulate it in a smart way, there are vast amount of opportunities to be had.

Academia still rewards individual achievements. What advice would you give to academics regarding their intellectual property?
In my opinion, impact from research IP is the most valuable reward an academic can receive in their career. An efficient way to achieve this goal is to proceed through the entrepreneurial/commercialisation pathway. 

This can be done by providing consultancy to companies, councils, governments, health services or charities. And also, by working with relevant stakeholders to make an impact through licensing your IP to a company to commercialise it as well as by setting up a spin-out company and being involved with commercialising activities, until your IP reaches the highest possible impact to the world.

As a technology transfer officer, my main advice to academics is, please contact relevant people, such as your own technology transfer officers, and try to take any necessary actions to protect your intellectual property before disseminating it in anyway.By doing so, you will be able to commercialise your valuable ideas efficiently to make impact.

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