Get NDRC right or forget it, warns Dempsey

15 Aug 2005

The two consortia bidding for the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) to replace Media Lab Europe (MLE), which closed earlier this year, have been warned by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey TD their final bids due next month must be top notch or else he won’t go ahead with the project.

Speaking to Dempsey warned: “There are two final consortia at this point. Unless we are satisfied, we are not going to go ahead with the NDRC for sake of it. The bidders are aware of this and the bids will have to be top notch. Unless we are 100pc satisfied this will add value we won’t go ahead with it.

“The other scenario is that we allow the Digital Hub to develop and won’t go for an NDRC. We have to be certain it will succeed,” Dempsey said.

Last January, the MLE facility adjacent to the Digital Hub closed with the loss of 60 jobs. The news was no surprise to critics of the project who felt its research was too “blue sky” and of little credible value to indigenous Irish industry. It is understood negotiations broke down between the Government and the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MLE founder Nicholas Negroponte over further funding of the project.

Since its foundation in 2000, it is understood €35m of Government money was pumped into the MLE project. There was an understanding MLE was to pursue funding from the private sector for around €20m a year. Despite attracting investment from companies such as Intel, Ericsson and Orange, it failed to raise sufficient annual revenues due to a major change in sentiment caused by the bursting of the internet bubble in 2001.

However, the Government has no intention of seeing its €35m investment wasted. Last April a tender document for the NDRC was issued, which will occupy 20,000sq ft of the former MLE site now known as the Digital Exchange. The centre will be backed by €3m a year in funding over five years. Public money will not be its only source of support: the tender documents stated that the centre “must also win significant funding from other public and private sources”.

According to the tender documents, the centre will complement government initiatives focused on digital media and technology enterprises. It will have a strong industry input and affinity, married with an imperative for commercialisation, and a particular focus on Irish-based industry.

So far two consortia have emerged on the shortlist. The first consortium – Doing Innovative Research, Enabling Communications Technologies – is led by Dublin Institute of Technology and includes the National University of Ireland, Galway; University College Cork, University of Limerick, Dublin Media Forum, Dublin Business Centre, eSpatial and the Institutes of Technology in Tralee and Waterford.

The second consortium, Liberty, is a partnership between Dublin City University, University College Dublin, Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and the National College of Art and Design. The shortlisted candidates have been invited to submit full tenders by the end of September.

The tender competition organised by the Higher Education Authority will be judged by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Dempsey is under no illusion as to how it will progress. “The NDRC will be much more focused on real needs of Irish industry and it’s about product at the end of the day.

“It will have to wash its own face in terms of being financially viable. The State will pay for its first few years. Unlike the MLE concept, which was launched at the time of the internet bubble, there is no one throwing money around this time,” Dempsey said.

By John Kennedy