The Friday Interview: Enda Connolly, IDA Ireland

16 Sep 2005

There is a school of thought prevalent in Irish society that manufacturing is dead, that it is no longer relevant to Ireland’s future. “Think of Wyeth and Intel’s multibillion-euro operations in Ireland,” says Enda Connolly (pictured), division manager of IDA Ireland’s education, skills and research division and you could not be further from the truth.

Connolly is a figure amongst a few whose task is to formulate a strategy to ensure Ireland’s industrial and economic future is ahead of the curve and another less publicised facet of his job is to identify the gaps in the product.

Asked about Ireland’s future in the technology world and particularly the future of manufacturing in the Irish economy — which many believe to be in its death throes — and Connolly is upbeat about the nation’s prowess. “Manufacturing is not gone in Ireland. A huge proportion of the businesses that are here are still in manufacturing. However, the days of the low-cost low-volume operation will gravitate to lower-cost places. Ireland’s future is in high-quality, high-end processes. If you look at the operations such as Wyeth, this is a scientific endeavour involving sophisticated processes. The issue is not the cost of the labour but the quality of the labour to run the facility at the level of productivity and yield. Intel is the same. Many of the medical technology firms are about the quality you produce and the value that you add. Ireland needs high-quality skilled people to produce real products.”

This view was echoed recently by Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Micheál Martin TD, who Connolly flanked at the announcement of a €72m state-of-the-art National Institute for Bioprocessing, Research and Training (NIBRT), which will be based at University College Dublin’s (UCD) Industry Park. The facility will be established by four leading colleges: UCD, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University and Sligo Institute of Technology.

The majority of the €72m will be provided by IDA Ireland over the next seven years and the institute, with world-class research and training programmes and a 9,000 facility with scale-up capacity, will be a cornerstone in the agency’s efforts to attract the next wave of industrial development. The industrially focused institute, which will be only one of a small number of its type in the world, will be a centre of excellence in bioprocessing and biomanufacturing technology training and research to support the rapidly growing biopharmaceutical industry in Ireland. A key element will be the substantial investment in a scale-up capability within which the training and research can take place. This capability will make the training and research carried out at the institute highly relevant to the needs of the biopharmaceutical industry in Ireland and throughout the world.

At the announcement, Martin said: “As we have seen, particularly over the past few weeks, manufacturing in Ireland is changing. It is clear we can no longer compete on a cost basis for low-level assembly type manufacturing, however this is not to say we do not have a future in the manufacturing industry. We do. Manufacturing in Ireland in the future will be characterised by its high-technology nature, its capital intensity and most importantly by the skills and expertise of the people managing and operating these facilities,” the minister added.

According to Connolly, Ireland has a number of strings to its bow, particularly in terms of the caliber of Irish management and scientists still strewn around the world whose influence and abilities could still play a significant role in shaping Ireland’s industrial and technological future. Spurred on by the suggestion that Ireland may not be able to field the appropriate number of graduates due to declining interest in science subjects at second and third level, Connolly avers: “Not only are we capable of producing the skills in the required numbers in terms of quality and capability, but look also at the people who left Ireland in the Eighties and Nineties and how well they have done internationally and so many coming back today. Examples such as Hugh Brady, president of UCD who is top of his game in medical research.”

With this in mind, he believes the Irish have a particular talent for research and development. “We bring a uniqueness — particularly in terms of literature and culture — that is applicable to research and development [R&D], and we bring that type of creative thinking to science and business. Thinking outside the box, our little bit of wildness. Now put that wildness and creativity with someone who is top class in their field and you have a superb mixture. We are already showing ourselves to be good entrepreneurs and our ability to run some of the best facilities in the world, such as Wyeth and Intel. The reason why Intel keeps getting investment in Ireland is because it runs that facility to the highest level of productivity — these are Irish engineers doing that to the best of their ability.”

Connolly predicts that employment in R&D operations in Ireland is going to increase dramatically in the years ahead. “Employment in R&D is going to double and treble over the next five to 10 years. At an academic level, where the plans are in place to increase postgraduate output and this will require investment by both State and industry to encourage inward investors to come to Ireland. It is really about getting engagement from industry. The NIBRT investment was driven by industry helping us to identify real problems that existed and gaps that needed to be filled. The second part of the plan is to capture and exploit talent, and the need to put in place more structures and support mechanisms to employ and use that talent.”

Looking beyond manufacturing and R&D, Connolly emphasises that the next big part of the game plan will be enabling multinationals to commercialise R&D activity. “We are talking about sophisticated sales and marketing activity as well as the people who do the applied research and those that identify commercial business opportunities that will culminate in the launch of a product to the market.

“We want to put the building blocks in place that will enable multinationals to run entire product ranges from Ireland. We are seeing that already with Boston Scientific in Galway and Apple in Cork whereby a multiplicity of functions are there to support the market for a product range. This is where Ireland’s industrial future lies,” Connolly concludes.

By John Kennedy