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Inside industry collaboration

TResearch Autumn

John Tobin in Teagasc’s in-house designed filtration plant, one of the many facilities that industry benefits from.

Teagasc’s Food Chemistry and Technology department works closely with the food and dairy industry, providing key players with research that underpins their success. Here, Head of Food Chemistry and Technology John Tobin provides an insight into Teagasc’s motivations for working with industry and the benefits it offers.

The Food Chemistry and Technology department is one of the largest research departments in Teagasc. It encompasses a diverse team of permanent and contract researchers and technical staff, in addition to Walsh Scholars and hosted students.

The department’s mission is to provide the food industry with science and research that supports and underpins its success. Leading the department is Head of Food Chemistry and Technology John Tobin, who effectively manages the resources assigned to the department to ensure that a cohesive vision is in place regarding its research activities. 

John joined the department – and Teagasc – in 2006 as a Walsh Scholar. He then took up a brief contract position in the organisation, before moving to an industry role with leading food company Danone. He re-joined Teagasc in 2015 as a permanent senior researcher in dairy science and process engineering. In 2016, he was appointed Head of the Food Chemistry and Technology department.

John, what are your motivations for engaging with industry?

Supporting the food industry in Ireland – in particular the dairy sector and nutritional formulators – is our remit. With our subsidiary Moorepark Technology Limited we offer a range of services, from advanced analytical perspectives through to pilot plant services. We also execute contract and collaborative research projects to meet specific industry collaborator needs, which we approach both proactively and reactively.

What do you think attracts industry to engage with Teagasc?

Our model of industry engagement is a major factor. Unlike higher education institutions, Teagasc is structured to deliver research on a full-time basis. Companies favour the fact that we are already carrying out applied research activities and publishing papers that will support their work, and they often reach out to us directly to partner up or learn more.

We also offer access to process and analytical infrastructure, including a state-of-the-art commercial pilot plant. Companies use our bespoke food factory pilot to carry out services they wouldn’t want to do at a commercial factory, such as testing products and process conditions.

Because we operate on a large research campus, those visiting also have the opportunity to interact with researchers from related departments, such as the Food Safety department and the Food Quality and Sensory Science department.

What are the benefits of working with industry?

Working with industry ensures that our core research themes are in line with and relevant to industry needs. We also benefit from the connections made. Many of our skilled researchers have gone on to take up roles both with our industry collaborators and the wider Irish food sector, generating for us a strong network of contacts that we’re able to draw on.

What are the challenges of working with industry?

The management of confidentiality and protection of intellectual property from all parties involved is always at the fore when negotiating a new research project. Luckily, we have the research support and the Technology Transfer Office available to ensure that any potential challenges or roadblocks are both identified and addressed at the earliest point.

Another challenge is managing industry expectations, as things don’t always work out as intended. Research can take unexpected turns and the outcome may not always be what the industry partner is hoping for. But we always share our learnings and ensure the delivery of the agreed project brief.

How can researchers protect their own interests when it comes to intellectual property?

Consider carefully the ownership of background intellectual property and agree with the industry partner how any outputs from the project will be protected and transferred to the industry collaborator. This in itself will depend on whether the agreement is contract or collaborative in nature, so familiarise yourself with the details and seek support from those with more experience if needed.

What are the considerations researchers should make before embarking on industry collaboration?

Understandably, industry place a lot of emphasis on the need to successfully deliver a project. For researchers, this means there should be a careful review of the allocated budget and resource before agreeing to partner up.

What are the factors that contribute to long-lasting, successful and impactful collaborations with industry?

Good communication is essential, especially if you want to start a project in the right way. Ensure there is clarity and vision regarding what each partner will deliver and be transparent.

As mentioned above, you need to have a clear idea of budgets and timelines – particularly when the project will start. At Teagasc, we set ourselves a high standard to always deliver projects on time and within budget, which is key to maintaining active industry engagement.

Once the project is underway, keep your industry partner updated on progress regularly, and be willing to disseminate results as and when needed.

How successful would you say the Food Chemistry and Technology department’s collaboration with industry has been over the years?

It has been very successful. We have had lots of return business and successive research projects with many clients, which is indicative of the positive working relationships we have been able to build.

Lots of the most impactful work we do never gets published due to confidentiality clauses, but we have been instrumental in the development of new process innovations, the licensing of intellectual property and, in one instance, establishing a new dairy factory in an emerging market.

Our industry interactions have led to millions of euros worth of investments into Teagasc’s campus. Our research is well respected, so much so that many companies have chosen to establish a research base at our Food Innovation Hub. We can be proud that our campus is a place that industry wants to be and
we’re an organisation that they want to work with.

Up close and personal

What’s your favourite animal?

Irish dairy cow. Based on my affiliation with Teagasc, of course.

If you hadn’t ended up in research, what other job would you have wanted to give a go?

I would have done a trade, I reckon. Perhaps some sort of fitter or a mechanic.

What are you most proud of professionally?

Being appointed to my current role as Head of the Food Chemistry and Technology department within two years of joining Teagasc as a permanent researcher.