Funding issues inhibit applied research potential

6 Oct 2005

Some of the most lucrative exports yet to come out of this country at present probably exist as a student’s project gathering dust on a shelf in a third-level institute or in the corner of a factory somewhere. The missing link — turning such bodies of work into practice and in turn a viable commercial product — has yet to be addressed.

Last week Enterprise Ireland (EI) hosted an Informatics Technology Commercialisation Showcase in association with Investnet at the RDS where some 13 third-level research and development (R&D) programmes — the fruit of three to four years of investment and in an advanced stage of preparedness for commercial exploitation — were unveiled before an audience of potential investors. Described by EI chief executive Frank Ryan (pictured) as “the class of 2005”, the projects covered fields such as biometrics, enterprise software, e-commerce, wireless communications, mobile devices and healthcare technology from august institutions such as University College Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, Waterford Institute of Technology, University College Galway and University College Cork.

Ryan told an audience of research bodies and venture capitalists: “Today Ireland and Israel are considered the best in the world at starting up companies and I foresee that continuing going forward. There is an increasing stream of high-potential companies emerging from the universities … We are unashamedly in the commercialisation business.”

Ryan said in 2004, more than €80m in financial support was given to indigenous companies. “Some €15m of that went into third-level research that provided commercialisation results.”

Ryan revealed that over the next five years some €400m would be invested in R&D in a strategy designed to create a larger pool of medium-sized, revenue-rich Irish firms. “Things don’t happen overnight and we need to re-hone and re-focus our R&D investment programme. On average it takes two to three years for research to be conclusive. We need to establish a pipeline of leading research that can be commercialised over the next few years. Technologies don’t make things happen, people do,” Ryan said.

Up and down the country, however, the various institutes of technology are rallying their forces to ensure that capital investment in infrastructure for applied research is used to support regional SMEs.

Dr Tim Creedon, director of the Institute of Technology of Tallaght and chairman of the research policy committee of the Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology, explained: “There is a need to provide resources that local industry could avail of to commercialise its own R&D. This would also act as a conduit for the colleges to take R&D in their own right and translate that into commercial opportunities too. This is not about creating incubation centres for campus companies — these facilities exist — but centres where SMEs can avail of a cohort of skills that they can apply to a viable commercial activity.

“We are making a proposal to the Department of Finance to include scope for such an investment in the Budget as well as the new National Development Plan. The unique factor is that it would give real front-line technology transfer for indigenous industry in the regions,” Creedon advised.

It is through infrastructural investment in applied research that Ireland can stand up and be counted in terms of rolling out world-class businesses. If this happens Ireland may one day produce global brands as popular as Ford, Nokia or Ikea .

By John Kennedy