Institute innovation gets cash injection
It was announced earlier this month by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Harney TD that funding of €24m was to be provided for business incubation centres in 11 Institutes of Technology under an initiative managed by Enterprise Ireland.
In her announcement, the Tánaiste announced that the institutes were regarded as the main engines for growth in the regions and that €24m in funding would help them to build their business incubation and commercial research activities, as well as give existing companies in their regions the technology support they need.
For the Institutes of Technology, the announcement is welcome news. "This demonstrates that we have the proficiency to provide this type of service and we see it as a huge vote of confidence from the Government," says Professor Ciaran O'Catháin, chairman of the Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology.
This announcement does not mark the beginning of the initiative. Several Institutes of Technology already have incubation centres up and running. Indeed, according to O'Catháin, the Enterprise Platform Programmes, already provided by the Institutes, are responsible for over 500 start-up companies to date.
While some incubation centres are already operational, the funding means that now all 11 institutes will have their own centres. It is expected that most will be operational within the next 18 months.
According to Ann-Marie Kearns, Innovation Centre manager at Athlone IT, the centre is designed to create commercial entities in the knowledge intensive sector.
While applicants may come from an academic background in IT, the facility isn't designed solely for graduates. "A lot of participants will be people who have spent years in the business environment and now need an opportunity to develop a new enterprise," she says.
It is envisaged that the typical life cycle for an occupant of the centre will be three years.
The first year of this period will comprise the Enterprise Platform Program, which is an intensive training programme. It is at this stage that the applicant's business plan will receive thorough scrutiny and it is hoped that any potential flaws will be dealt with and the applicant will benefit from the consulting services on offer. During this period, the applicant will have the use of hot-desking facilities within the centre.
According to Kearns, once the first year is passed, it is anticipated that most applicants will be in a position to stand on their own two feet. At this stage, they would move into a large space within the centre and possibly expand their businesses by hiring staff. Aside from office space and IT facilities, the centre will also provide services such as meeting rooms and video conferencing. All of this doesn't come free though and a rental fee will apply for space within the centre. However, in order to support these growing businesses, fees will be somewhat lower than the usual commercial rates. "The centres will be built with a flexible brief in order to aid any expansion that a company may undergo," says Kearns.
Beyond the three-year period it is expected that a business would be in a position to strike out on its own and move on from the Innovation Centre.
Kearns doesn't anticipate too many problems in this area. "Performance is reviewed very closely, especially during the Enterprise Platform Programme. Most people ought to have a viable business up and running by the end of the three-year period," she says.
Athlone's first program is expected to get up and running in January. However, given her previous involvement in the South East Enterprise Platform Programme, which incorporated the Waterford, Carlow and Tipperary Institutes, she was able to point to well-known IT companies such as Headway Software and Waterford Technologies, both of whom were products of the South East programme.
In these times, with the prospect of serious budgetary cutbacks along the way, any initiative receiving state funding may be in jeopardy. Professor O'Catháin, however, is confident about the long-term viability of the project. "The funding we've received allows us to set up the infrastructure. After that, the centres ought to be self-funding," he says.
The country's Institutes of Technology have long been praised for their educational standards in the high-tech arena. It is hoped this new departure will succeed in closing the gap between learning and application, fostering a greater culture of enterprise and innovation.
Pictured: Professor, Ciaran O'Cathain (right), the chairman of the council of directors of the Institutes of Technology, with Minister for Education and Science, Noel Dempsey TD and international student, Matthieu Berrin from France
By Dick O'Brien