Ireland’s mini-Silicon Valley plans 1,000 jobs in next five years

12 Feb 2009

A full lifecycle R&D centre in Ireland’s south east that has created employment for over 200 people through contracts with the EU, Nokia and Ericsson, as well as through spin-out start-ups, has said it plans to create up to 1,000 jobs in the region in the next five years.

The Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) has turned the area into a mini Silicon Valley after channelling modest seed money into €53m-worth of public- and private-sector R&D projects, creating employment for over 200 people in the south east.

Members of the TSSG’s management team have told that, in addition to the 160 people directly employed at the Waterford Institute of Technology research arm, spin-out companies from the world-renowned lab now employ 60 people.

TSSG is currently active in around 45 research projects, with budgets ranging from €100,000 to €3.5m, and totalling over €50m from 1996–2009.

The organisation got started in 1996 when the current head of research at WIT, Willie Donnelly, left Broadcom and set up TSSG with a European Union (EU) project he brought with him.

Today, TSSG is involved in developing spin-out and spin-in companies. The TSSG itself has 160 staff and a 10-year track record in telecommunications management.

The executive director of commercialisation at TSSG Barry Downes said the lab – which views itself as a full-circle research body that can conduct basic, applied and commercial research – is working to an ambitious plan to generate 1,000 jobs in the Waterford region over the next five years. In the immediate term, spin-out and spin-in companies have projected plans to grow to 200 workers in the coming year.

Downes cited two spin-out organisations that are already enjoying export success: Zolka-c, which develops mobile software for audio tours and has won deals with the National Trust of Scotland; and Catch, a software firm that allows radio stations to sell music over the internet, which has completed deals with Red FM in Manchester and Spin FM in Dublin.

In what should be seen as a blueprint for other regions to follow, the group has won 115 competitive projects since it was set up in September 1996.

The WIT-based research organisation receives no base-line funding. All its finance comes from the highly competitive tendering processes for research funding within the EU and Ireland (Higher Education Authority, Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland).

The TSSG has become so successful in the EU proposal-tendering process in particular that companies and individuals are coming to it and asking its staff to co-ordinate their proposal ideas.

The TSSG’s PCS competence centre manager Kevin Doolin explained that the body had secured €94,500 in funding from Enterprise Ireland (EI) to write a number of EU research proposals that took approximately three months to complete.

As a result of this, the TSSG won €1.6m worth of funding into Ireland a mere five months later – a 1,065pc return on the original financial support available to prepare the proposals.

“Projects have to be innovative and high-risk. If the innovation isn’t there, nothing’s going to happen,” said Doolin.

Doolin manages a group of 25 researchers responsible for future communications services, and interacts with major European telecoms equipment makers and operators on areas such as making technology more pervasive and almost invisible, particularly in areas such as future devices.

Doolin said that success in winning EU research work has been fundamental to TSSG’s growth. The TSSG has registered particular success of late under the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which groups all research-related EU initiatives together under a common umbrella, playing a crucial role in reaching the goals of growth, competitiveness and employment.

It now has over 100 academic and industrial partners and has been successful in twice winning the EU FP7 funding achieved by other leading Irish research centres. “If companies or institutions have an innovative idea and want our help to lead their project under FP7, we are glad to oblige,” he added.

The world-class telecoms hub at the Carriganore Campus at WIT is one of the leading centres of its kind in Europe, and has been ranked in eighth position in a prestigious European Commission league of research, development and innovation centres.

In the very topical area of researching the future internet, the TSSG’s success in winning funding has placed it in the top 10 participants in the whole of Europe, alongside other very prominent companies such as Nokia in Finland and Ericsson in Sweden.

The TSSG is the only Irish company or research centre with this type of leadership position in European Future Internet research in the area of IPv6.

Downes explained the TSSG research ethos is to build links between academic and industrial research through the creation of a balanced portfolio of activity in basic and applied research, as well as commercial activity.

He explained at the heart of TSSG’s ethos is the master’s in communications software development developed at WIT by Willie Donnelly, which most researchers would have graduated from, and which lends itself to the full lifecycle research from basic research to product commercialisation.

Downes agreed that what has been achieved at the TSSG in the past 12 years should serve as a blueprint for other regions in Ireland to pursue, especially during the current recession and in an Ireland shocked by Dell’s decision to close its Limerick manufacturing plant with the loss of 1,900 jobs.

“Start-ups should be seen as the foundation for economic growth in Ireland. While multinationals are an important aspect, and have brought many advantages as well as jobs such as knowledge and management expertise to this country, Ireland has to have start-up industries to help it develop and mature.

“For this reason, it’s important the Irish Government continues to support R&D funding across third-level in Ireland because, clearly, these centres can have an economic impact.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years