Harnessing the
power of innovation

Diarmuid O'Brien

WHO? Dr Diarmuid O'Brien, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation and current CEO of the University's innovation arm, Cambridge Enterprise.

WHAT? Responsible for how Cambridge creates impact from its research through its innovation partnerships and world-leading innovation ecosystem.

WHY? "So that Cambridge research translates into positive social and economic change. My job is to make sure that we are always doing that to the very best of our abilities, by asking ourselves some tough questions."

When did you first become interested in the idea of translating research into something that will make a real difference to the world? Probably not until I started my PhD. Until then, science had simply been an exciting set of discoveries, interesting in their own right.

My PhD was in organic electronics and early on I was reading about how the field was going to revolutionise the electronics industry. I suddenly realised that all this stuff I was having fun with in a lab may actually result in something that transforms the way we live our lives.

After my PhD I did a postdoc at Princeton, where we were patenting our research on small molecule display technologies. I began to see how a technology can quickly go from the lab to a license to a company.

When I talk to researchers and they say 'but I’m just interested in the science', I was that person for a long time. I didn’t necessarily see the relevance or the importance of the pathway for the science to innovation. I think that makes me empathetic to that kind of mindset.

Did you think you were on a conventional academic career path? I went from being a postdoc at Princeton to a lectureship at Trinity College Dublin. But I only lasted a year before joining a university spinout. Clearly, my experience at Princeton had started to colour where I wanted to spend my time.

Over the following seven or eight years, I worked in three different university spinouts, looking at how to make products, how to bring them to market, how to talk to customers, how to manage supply chains. Suddenly, I found myself energised by a whole new set of topics that hadn’t previously been on my radar.

What's interesting is that I went through my whole undergraduate degree without having had any conversations about how research can have societal impact. Now when I talk to students in Cambridge, they are exposed to enterprise training and entrepreneurship and they know all about IP, venture capital, angel investment. The change that has taken place over the last 20 or 30 years is extraordinary - and welcome.

"When I talk to researchers and they say 'but I’m just interested in the science', I was that person for a long time."

Diarmuid O'Brien outside Senate House

Was there someone who inspired you in the early part of your career? The key person for me was Steve Forrest, a professor at Princeton. Everyone else defined themselves as a scientist or a business person or an entrepreneur, but Steve was all of those things. He could publish five or six Science and Nature papers a year, start a company, raise venture capital and run a department, all at the same time.

The really top people often excel both academically and entrepreneurially. Researchers who think differently about things and are really disruptive in their science and the kind of breakthroughs they can achieve, definitely have an entrepreneurial mindset.

What characteristics make the biggest difference for people driving successful innovation? I look at this through a rather simplistic lens. There are people who say 'why?' and people who say 'why not?'. The 'why not?' people are the ones to back. Their attitude is, ‘I get it’s hard and and I get it’s disruptive but why can’t we do this exactly?’ I really embrace that as a philosophy.

"There are people who say 'why?' and people who say 'why not?'. The 'why not?' people are the ones to back."

Diarmuid O'Brien

As Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation you will also be championing the University's collaborations with industry partners. What are the mindsets needed for successful partnerships? The biggest challenge with that kind of enterprise partnership is to align projects so that you are creating a win-win opportunity.

Too often they start on an uneven footing. Either the academic is looking for a particular piece of research to be funded by the industry partner or the company is coming at it with a very fixed agenda. What really works is if you can build a collaboration where there’s a listening capability as well as a speaking capability.

You need to hear what everyone wants to get out of it and then design a programme that meets everybody’s needs. That’s why having something like a strategic partnership office is so important. People who sit in on those meetings on a regular basis, can spot the tell-tale signs of miscommunication and say: 'You are both hearing what you want to hear but we need to go a step further'. By adding value to those conversations you can scale up the ambition of what can be achieved.

What are you most proud of in your career? I love getting things started. That’s what’s energises me: seeing an opportunity and finding a way to deliver something. Before Cambridge there were two highlights. One is a partnership I set up between Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin to create a venture fund called University Bridge Fund.

Neither of those universities could have done it by themselves. We needed the collaboration and scale that you could only get through partnership.

The other highlight was setting up what’s now called Trinity East, a new campus for Trinity College Dublin - and imagining what it could unlock not just for Trinity but for Dublin as a city.

The first couple of buildings are now open and there's a real sense of momentum behind it. We won’t know its full impact for another 20 or 30 years but to be the original parent of that idea and to deliver the first funding to support the buildings on that campus was a wonderful project to be involved in.

And what about at Cambridge Enterprise? When I arrived the goal was to evolve it from being focused on transactions such as patenting or licensing to being more of an enabler, by understanding how we can better leverage the ecosystem here and how we better support translational funding and company creation.

We've been adding richness to that enterprise story by setting up a number of new initiatives that I'm really excited about such as Founders at University of Cambridge and the Technology Investment Fund.

But I guess the big thing that I've really loved being involved with is Innovate Cambridge. It is a very collaborative initiative between the University, Cambridge Enterprise and Cambridge Innovation Capital - and a lot of other organisations - to define and deliver our ambitions for the Cambridge ecosystem.

When you look around the world you see a hundred different cities developing their innovation districts, coming up with new ways to organise themselves and making bold declarations about what they aspire to be into the future.

Cambridge - in spite of all its strengths - can't afford to rest on its laurels. To get to the next level, we need a forward looking story that is ambitious, engaging and exciting.

"Cambridge ... can't afford to rest on its laurels. To get to the next level, we need a forward looking story that is ambitious, engaging and exciting."

Diarmuid O'Brien

We should celebrate our past but we also need to have a vision for the future that excites people, and not just within the University. The local community needs to feel energised about what Cambridge can be for them and do for them. And that's what Innovate Cambridge is trying to do.

What’s distinctive about Cambridge from an innovation perspective? Obviously, the quality of the University and the research that happens here is truly different. There are maybe only half a dozen places globally that can claim to have the same reach and capacity.

That breadth and quality of the research from arts and humanities, through life sciences through physical sciences to computer sciences is very unusual. Being able to undertake cross-disciplinary research is going to be very important for the future.

The other thing that’s really distinctive about Cambridge is the quality of the ecosystem that surrounds it. There’s probably no other location in the UK and, one could argue, in Europe that’s got the same richness of capability.

Very few places can claim the 5,000 plus knowledge-intensive companies and the 30 science and tech parks all in a 10-mile radius of Cambridge. At the same time, you’ve got companies like Arm and AstraZeneca headquartered here. To have that kind of anchor industry capability across different sectors all in one small city is pretty unique.

You have just started as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation. What are your immediate priorities? The first thing I would aspire to do is to make sure that the innovation opportunity that sits in Cambridge is understood and we are organised to try to take advantage of it.

I think everybody understands fundamentally what education and research mean for a world-class university but I think people are still trying to understand what being exceptional at delivering on innovation and impact means for a university - and how do we best position ourselves and structure ourselves to take advantage of that.

Cambridge is a top three global university. If we are not running a top three innovation business unit, we are underdelivering.

What that translates to in terms of initiatives, I would look at it through a number of different lenses. You have to get the infrastructure right. For Cambridge, that means a number of things. We’ve got a huge opportunity around both the West Cambridge and Cambridge Biomedical campuses.

We’ve also got an amazing aspiration – one of the recommendations of Innovate Cambridge – to build a city–centre based innovation hub. I feel incredibly excited about what that could deliver.

It’s really important that as we develop plans for those campuses, we think about how industry might co-locate there and how we have room for our spinout community. How can we create different kinds of spaces that allow for interactions across disciplines, and not just research disciplines but between industry, start-ups and academics? That porosity is really important.

We need to bring in more investment capital to support technologies coming out of the university in two ways. The priority is to increase translational funding, but research funding rather than equity-driven capital. To do that, we need to find a way to convince government that investing in a translational agenda is going to be vital for unlocking the innovation potential of our university system.

"...we need to find a way to convince government that investing in a translational agenda is going to be vital for unlocking the innovation potential of our university system."

Diarmuid O'Brien

We see it right now. The University has a patent portfolio of a couple of thousand patents but we can’t unlock all the possibilities embedded in those patents unless we can find a way to provide more of that translational funding. We have a deficit, both as a country and as an ecosystem.

Similarly, we’ve got a deficit on venture funding. We are very fortunate in Cambridge to have a better venture environment than most other places in the UK but if our aspiration is to be truly globally-leading then we have to recognise that we are way behind the US. Being proactive about trying to fix that is important.

A key responsibility of my new role is to help understand what’s possible and what good looks like. That means continually looking at and benchmarking against what’s happening on a global basis so that we can understand what we need to be doing to make sure we are in the right place now and in the next five and the next 25 years.

We also need to recognise that within our own community, we have the ideas and capability to dream that future up.

In a place like Cambridge, you don’t tell people what to do – that’s not the culture here. And the ecosystem has achieved a lot by behaving in that way. But I think you are entitled to challenge the institution about how we need to respond to what’s out there and to try to cultivate a response that people buy into and support.

What one piece of advice would you give your 20-year old self given what you’ve learnt in your life or career? Say 'yes' more than you say 'no'. I really believe that you've just got to try stuff and get on with it.

Having a positive mindset - saying 'let’s have that conversation, let’s try, let’s meet and see if we can do it' – that’s what gets things done. 'I don’t have time, I’m not interested or that doesn’t fit', closes things down.

That’s the advice I give everyone. You've got to be open. I don’t believe in a linear pathway. Things happen because people are open to them. Of course one has to put common sense on top of that, but saying 'yes' more than 'no' is a very healthy way of living your life.

What do you do when you are not working? Family obviously, that’s the big one. And I’m a sports nut. I’ll read or watch anything to do with sport.

Does that mean you are competitive? I’m competitive with myself. If I go for a run, I like to be faster than I was the day before.

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist.
People or ideas? People.
On time or running late? I prefer to be on time but am always running late.
The journey or the destination? The journey.
Team player or lone wolf? Team player, for sure.
Risk-taker or risk-averse? Probably a risk-taker. I do hate the ‘computer says no’.
Big picture or fine detail? Big picture.
Lots of irons in the fire or all your eggs in one basket? Definitely lots of irons in the fire.
Do you have to be lucky or make your own luck? I'm a complete believer that you make your own luck. There's that saying: 'Luck favours the prepared'.
Work, work, work or work-life balance: I'm afraid that’s a case of don’t do what I do, do what I say.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Visiting Fellow & Honorary Ambassador at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Published 4 June 2024

All photography: StillVision

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License