The Friday Interview: Prof Barry Smyth

8 Jul 2005

If the Government wanted to issue a profile of the type of entrepreneurial researcher it would like to see a lot more of, it should look no further than Professor Barry Smyth (pictured). As head of the Department of Computer Science at University College Dublin and co-founder of campus spin-off ChangingWorlds, he has successfully straddled the very different worlds of business and academia for the past six years. He recently received the 2005 NovaUCD Innovation Award for his efforts.

There are some notable cases of Irish academics that have gone on to head successful technology firms. What makes Smyth different is that he has decided to stay in research. In doing so, he is potentially forging a new model for how to create and sustain the strong linkages between universities and industry that are seen as crucial if Ireland’s billion-euro investment in science and research is to bear fruit.

In 1999 Smyth co-founded the mobile software company ChangingWorlds with Paul Cotter to commercialise the output of his research at UCD’s Smart Media Institute in the Department of Computer Science in the area of personalisation technology. ChangingWorlds has raised almost €6m in funding and employs about 50 people. Its clients include Vodafone Ireland, Vodafone Global, O2 UK, O2 Germany and Swisscom Mobile.

From its inception, the company retained strong links with mother ship UCD. In fact the firm has its own research and development team-based at the university’s business incubation unit, NovaUCD, working in concert with Smyth’s researchers, feeding ideas back and forth. For Smyth, it is an ideal set-up: his team gets exposure to the real world of business while ChangingWorlds has access to a pipeline of world-class research and commercially-savvy researchers, many of whom go on to become employees of the company after gaining their PhD. “It’s great for my research group because my researchers see a career path. People will often say to me ‘If I do a PhD, does that mean I’m limited to an academic position? I’d really like to get into industry research.’ Six or seven people who’ve come through my research team are now working for ChangingWorlds,” says Smyth.

Having one of its founders on the ‘inside’ working on leading-edge technologies is what makes ChangingWorlds different to many other young campus spin-offs, which gradually lose touch with their academic roots because the researcher who invented the technology is often the same person now running the company. Smyth observes that few researchers have the unique commercial skillsets needed to build and sustain a tech firm. “It’s an unfortunate thing that we academics have very large egos and believe we can take over the world! It takes a lot of inward insight to realise that you’re not going to be able to do all this, that you definitely need the right set of people around you.”

Taking a back seat and handing over the reins to someone else sounds great in theory but how does a scientist with little commercial exposure actually find that person who is going to turn their science into world-beating technology? This, Smyth acknowledges, is often the weak link in the chain because there is no tried-and-tested method for identifying these individuals. Often, he says, it is comes down to sheer luck.

ChangingWorlds, for example, found its CEO in 2000 after Smyth gave a presentation at a First Tuesday networking event. In the audience was Luke Conroy, a former senior executive within Sun Microsystems Ireland who had also helped establish Siemens Nixdorf’s European Software Centre in Ireland. The two talked afterwards and Smyth realised he had found his man.

“We were fortunate with the management team. If we were doing it again, we couldn’t guarantee to be as fortunate. Quite how you go about as an early-stage company identifying and attracting the right management team is very difficult to know. I don’t think there’s a formula for that. It seems it’s built very much on your network of contacts and I can imagine some entrepreneurs that are just starting out haven’t had the chance to build up that network,” he says.

Although venture capitalists and government bodies such as Enterprise Ireland will have good contacts, Smyth feels there could be a case for putting more formal structures in place to match the start-up with the right management team.

Smyth also notes that while a technologist may not be the best person to run a tech start-up, he or she should still be closely involved because their understanding of the technology and their ability to evangelise it will be crucial to the success of the start-up — especially if the technology is truly ground breaking or ‘disruptive’ as the current industry jargon has it. That is why the role of chief technology officer, a part-time position he held at ChangingWorlds at an early stage of its development, is crucial, he feels.

“I knew that I didn’t want to run [ChangingWorlds]; I knew my strengths lay on the technology side — not just developing it but evangelising it. And that’s a really important role for the scientist within these high-tech spin-out companies, because it’s not like taking a well-defined product and service and wrapping it up in an efficient management team and expecting it to sell. Very often you’re having to create a new market so you desperately need an evangelist and that role is very well filled the chief scientist who has developed the technology,” he says.

As for the future, Smyth’s ambition now is to do what he’s done with ChangingWorlds with new spin-out companies and different technologies. One of these — for which three patent applications have been filed — is a search engine technology that improves the quality of search engine results. He is also exploring internet protocol licensing as an alternative to spinning off new firms. “The biggest benefit is speed: if you can license a technology to the right company and it already has the right channel to market and the right client base then the technology can get out there really quickly. If you’re doing all that from scratch, it’s very expensive and takes a long time.”

While his career to date suggests innovation is still the lifeblood of high-potential start-ups, Smyth believes where commercialisation is concerned he would also wholeheartedly agree with the old maxim that says invention is 99pc perspiration, 1pc inspiration. “You still have to do the hard work. That’s ultimately what everyone has to remember. It’s a hard graft and you need to get out there, make yourself known and get to know the people. Organisations such as Enterprise Ireland and NovaUCD provide a really good platform for starting that journey but the opportunity won’t fall into you lap.”

By Brian Skelly

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