Intel boss: Ireland needs a clear digital strategy for the 21st century

28 May 2009

Intel Ireland’s Jim O’Hara believes smart kids and entrepreneurs will drive the country’s future.

Twenty years ago, in an unused car showroom on the Naas Road, the jewel in Ireland’s technology crown quietly started operations.

Today, Intel is Ireland’s largest employer, with 5,250 people building tomorrow’s technologies for homes, businesses, cars and consumer gadgets from what could be the most advanced chip fabrication facilities in Europe.

By 2005, the Irish operation of Intel had produced the company’s one-billionth semiconductor chip. Only last year, the local operations played a leading role in the development of a chip code-named ‘Canmore’ that will power mass-market consumer electronic devices such as internet TVs.

To date Intel, which is the world’s largest microprocessor manufacturer, has invested €7bn in its operations at Leixlip, which include Intel Fab Operations (10 and 14) and Fab 24.

In February, while the nation was digesting the implications of one of the most severe economic downturns in history, Intel restored hope when it unveiled a €50m investment and 134 new jobs at its Shannon research and development (R&D) operation, where it already employs 250 people, to focus on enabling a digital Europe.

For a nation that is clearly at the crossroads of its economic future, one road – technology – definitely remains open. But as far as straight-talking Cabra native Jim O’Hara, who heads up Intel’s operations in Ireland, is concerned, that road will only stay open as long as the country grasps the opportunity it has been presented with.

“We’re a small, open economy in a geographic position that’s not at the heart of anything really. But if we choose to be a digital economy, geographic difficulties disappear because technology and communications are great levellers – we can be at the heart of everything.

“A digital economy for this reason suits Ireland and will be fundamental to our long-term success.”

But where to begin? “I would start with the kids in the classroom,” he says. “The successful digital economy to me would be one where the country has one of the best education systems in the world. The ingredients are good teachers, and a Government strategy that makes it clear what kind of a future the kids would have, particularly in science, technology and engineering, while the business world has a role to play by embracing technology to be more agile and efficient,” explains O’Hara.

“We have to have the best teachers teaching in the most important subjects – maths, science, engineering and technology. These subjects will be the most fundamental building blocks for this country in the digital economy of the 21st century, there’s no question.

“To do this, we have to have the smartest kids. You have to create a vision for them and you have to have them aspiring to careers in technology and manufacturing, R&D and the bio-pharma industries.”

O’Hara says digital infrastructure – from fibre to far-reaching wireless technologies such as WiMAX – should be available to every citizen and business and embraced by every educational institution.

“The whole of Ireland needs to be connected digitally – it needs to have ubiquitous broadband for every family and every small or large business.”

He believes that Ireland has many of the right pieces in place to be among the leading players in the digital economy, from the pioneering efforts of Science Foundation Ireland to our promising entrepreneurs, driven by passion and energy.

The problem is there is no joined-up effort for the areas of science, digital infrastructure, entrepreneurs, and education and talent.

“What creates smart ideas?  The recent R&D innovation tax initiatives, the growing convergence between small and large companies and academics and creative clusters.”

Recently, the Intel-backed Innovation Value Institute (IVI) at National University of Ireland, Maynooth opened its doors to help businesses unlock value from their IT investments. O’Hara says it’s the first of many examples of multinationals working with local businesses and academia. Other examples include CRANN at Trinity College Dublin and Tyndall National Institute.

He finds it ironic that while some of Ireland’s largest employers and some of its largest home-grown multinationals – from Intel to CRH and Glen Dimplex – are engaged in manufacturing, the perception is that manufacturing is a dying industry.

“It’s strategically vital that the country maintains a strong, vibrant, advanced manufacturing capability. I can’t conceive of a future where Ireland could be the best in the world in areas such as nanoscience if it doesn’t have companies like Intel doing advanced manufacturing of products at nano (one billionth of a metre) level.

“Sustaining an advanced manufacturing strategy would be a fundamental building block for the digital economy and for the wealth-generating ideas from bright entrepreneurs.”

O’Hara also strongly believes a ‘yes’ vote is vital in the next Lisbon referendum. A ‘no’ vote, he says, will set the country on a dangerous road.

“The ‘no’ result in the last Lisbon referendum has had a massive negative impact on this country. One of the things that multinationals look for when investing anywhere is stability and certainty.

“When multinationals start asking questions such as ‘why is Ireland voting no to Europe at a time when our whole strategy and reason for being here is because Ireland is a part of Europe?’ we should take note. Ireland has always punched above its weight in Europe, so why is it putting itself in a situation where it is cutting itself adrift from Europe? Luckily, we have one more chance to get it right.”

In conclusion, O’Hara asserts that a joined-up National Digital Development Plan, which puts education, infrastructure, entrepreneurialism and intellectual property at its heart, will form part of the leadership needed to ready Ireland to thrive when the upturn comes.

“This nation is ideally suited for the digital economy of the 21st century. A digital economy eliminates the physical barriers of our geography.”

Technology leaders in Ireland have joined forces to develop a National Digital Development Plan to spearhead Ireland’s economic growth in the 21st century. To learn more, go to 

By John Kennedy