Corridor of power sparks business boom

29 May 2003

It has often been suggested that if you want to open a software company in Ireland, either as a start-up or as an Irish branch of an international company, you have to do it in Dublin. That’s a view that is firmly rejected by the people behind the Atlantic Technology Corridor that was launched last Thursday (22 May) in Bunratty, Co Limerick.

The concept of the Atlantic Technology Corridor is to create a cluster of companies in a region stretching initially from Galway to Limerick via Gort and Ennis. It is modelled on similar corridors in the US such as the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Route 128 near Boston.

According to Atlantic Technology Corridor CEO, Pat Shanahan, the idea arose from research conducted by NUI Galway that validated creating a cluster of businesses in the information and communications technology (ICT) and medical device sectors. “We now have sufficient critical mass to be a world class cluster,” he said. “We estimate there are about 240 ICT companies and about 40 medical companies in the corridor employing among them about 22,000 people.”

The majority of those, he says, have given support to the project. The principle of the corridor, according to Shanahan, is that businesses are attracted to an area where like-minded organisations have already set up shop.

“What attracts business is like-minded people in the region to bounce ideas off each other and collaborate,” he says. “What we are trying to do with the corridor is to inculcate a culture of co-operation between industry and the research community.”

The activities of the corridor will be focused on creating linkages between companies, especially between indigenous small and medium-sized businesses and subsidiaries of global enterprises and at the same time create links between businesses and the academic institutes found in the corridor region.

The universities and institutes of technology in the region will therefore play a significant role. Science Foundation Ireland has already awarded €12m to NUI Galway for the establishment and running for two years of a Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI). International IT company Hewlett-Packard has pledged a further €7m.

The DERI will be a cross-disciplinary institute attached to the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Engineering and the Centre of Innovation and Structural Change, which is part of the Department of Commerce. It will be headed by Dieter Fensel of the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

The role of the institute, according to Dr David O’Sullivan, will be to conduct research into the semantic web. “The semantic web is effectively about adding a lot of intelligence to existing web pages that allow users and, more importantly, machines to gain more understanding of the content of a page. Think of it as a Google for machines and you get an idea of the complexity,” explains O’Sullivan. The semantic web, he continues, is a vital key in the further development of business-to-business e-commerce.

Meanwhile, at the University of Limerick, Dr David Parnass has been appointed to conduct world-class research on software methodologies.

All of these moves, says Shanahan, will have a major effect in attracting software companies to the region.

While Shanahan declines to use the word ‘lobbying’, a key part of the corridor’s role will be to persuade the Government to honour its commitments to address the infrastructure deficit in the west of Ireland.

“There are only 100km separating Limerick and Galway,” he points out. “A motorway between those two cities with a spur to Shannon would facilitate easy access to Shannon Airport and would boost its catchment area.” Such a move, he feels, would go some way to offsetting the impact of abolishing the compulsory Shannon stopover by making it an attractive destination in its own right. “We also feel that Shannon Airport needs to be managed independently so it can stand commercially on its own two feet.”

The other major issue in terms of infrastructure is broadband telecommunications. “It can cost up to 50pc more in the west of Ireland for broadband access than in the east of the country,” he points out. This he attributes to the lack of critical mass. One approach, he thinks, that could address this issue is for companies in the corridor to pool their purchasing power and put downward pressure on the prices.

“After road, air and telecommunications, the next major area for action is rail,” says Shanahan, referring to recent moves to encourage the Government to reopen the Western Rail Corridor. “We believe there should be north-south rail access between Limerick and Galway.”

However, Limerick and Galway are only the limits of the corridor for now. “We do not want to restrict the corridor geographically,” he says. “Once the concept is proven we would hope to extend it north and south.”

By David Stewart