In recent years the midlands has been hard hit by the economic slowdown. Although they are recruiting again, major employers such as Elan and Ericsson went through a period of consolidation, laying off workers at all levels. In such times, there is often a flurry of business start-up activity as newly unemployed executives attempt to become entrepreneurs. This activity is vital if skills and experience are to be retained in the region.
However, previous attempts at starting a business innovation centre in the midlands have failed and the accepted wisdom was that such initiatives were doomed to failure in the midlands because there were not enough start-ups in the region. Ann Marie Kearns (pictured), manager of the Midlands Business Innovation Centre, did not accept that. “In reality,” she says, “there was no proper mechanism to support this knowledge-intensive category.” Since her appointment in September 2002 she has set about creating the proper environment for a successful venture.
“What I set about doing when I arrived was institute a programme called the Midlands Enterprise Platform Programme. This gives identified start-ups that meet very strict criteria financial and business development support for 12 months,” she says. During that 12-month period the companies in the centre are constantly reviewed and any issues they have are examined and addressed.
The companies that qualify occupy a former warehouse on the campus of the Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT). A new centre, however, is under construction and is on track for completion in November. In the meantime, the institute works closely with the centre providing facilities such as meeting rooms and so forth. According to Kearns, this is in keeping with the institute’s proactive approach to supporting the centre.
“Ciarán O’Cathain, director of the AIT, comes from private industry,” she points out. “He is very interested in the centre. One of his key positions is that education is changing and that to move the economy up the value chain we need to commercialise research and development [R&D]. We cannot separate R&D from business so a lot of what I do involves developing links between the centre’s companies and the college. For instance, one company in the centre, Realview, has developed new 3D and 4D imaging processes and we are encouraging links between that company and the science department for things such as molecular modelling.”
Kearns also points out that the first year of operation of the centre was funded by the institute from its overall budget without any special allocation from central government.
To qualify for a place within the centre, companies are rigorously vetted in advance. “The main thing we look for is that the person behind the company is a good promoter,” says Kearns. “The business itself has to be innovative and have market potential and the promoter has to have a clear vision of how to get the product to market. Very often the promoter has a vision but no idea of how to commercialise it.” She admits, however, that picking winners is not an exact science.
The first batch of 12 companies was selected and housed in the centre in March 2003. Over the following year, Kearns became the business development manager for each company at centre. “We run the programme by the way of fixed milestones. The first objective is to get the business plan sorted out. Then we have reviews. The promoter says this is where they think business will go and what they hope to achieve in three months. If those targets are not met we try to rejig the plan to get them back on track,” she says.
One of the most important goals of the review process is to make sure that at the end of the 12-month period the company knows where it is headed and that funding is secure. “We have secured funding for companies from Enterprise Ireland [EI] or through the Business Expansion Scheme or through a private investor. We aim to make sure there are no surprises so if halfway through the year it looks like a company will be unable to attract finance, then we will sit down and discuss rejigging the business plan or exploring other options,” she adds.
The centre is now housing the second batch of companies that are due for their first review at the end of this month. As part of that review representatives from the AIT and from EI along with senior business executives will troubleshoot the business plans.
The success of the programme can be measured by the number of high-profile start-ups to emerge from the region. “Over the past decade there were maybe four or five high-profile start-ups coming out of the midlands,” says Kearns. “In the past year alone, we produced three. This demonstrates that with the right support companies will emerge.”
One of the better-known success stories is 3touch. “Nationally, it is the fastest growing start-up company,” says Kearns. “It started with one employee and now has 12 and is still growing.” The company’s range of three products is based around a wireless presentation system that eliminates the messing around that takes place when a speaker tries to plug his laptop into the projection system. The product aimed at the conferencing market allows all of the different presentations to be uploaded to a central server and then projected when needed. Delegates who cannot be physically present but who wish to hear the presentation can have the slides and audio sent to their mobile phone.
“The big seller is the Campus System,” says Kearns. “We have six or seven different lecture theatres here and each one has a dedicated PC for presentations, which is a bit of a waste of resources. Instead, presentations can be uploaded to a server and then projected at the requested time. The company has had sales in the UK and EI has bought it for their own conferencing needs.”
According to Kearns, 3touch, the company that started life as a midlands start-up 12 months ago, will launch its products officially in Atlanta next month and is already taking orders from all over the world.
By David Stewart