Insight’s Mike Conroy: ‘This is how we attack the mega trends’

26 Oct 2016

Pictured: Mike Conroy, head of industrial partnerships and strategy. Image: Insight

Ireland’s ability to punch above its weight to corner opportunities in mega trends like data science, cloud and internet of things, is down to a clever strategy, says Mike Conroy of Insight.

Conroy, who is in charge of industrial partnerships and strategy for the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, is well placed to have a core understanding of how multinationals and academic institutions can work together.

He also has a key understanding of how small countries can punch above their weight in leading Horizon 2020 research partnerships and matching up to Silicon Valley tech giants.

‘By being flexible and adaptable and pooling our strengths, we have figured out how to exploit the edges of the core trends without having to have the scale of Silicon Valley’

Prior to his present role, Conroy was a global R&D and business leader with some of the biggest communications companies in the world, including Avaya and Cisco.

In his last role, he headed up Cisco’s R&D operations in Galway where his team developed technologies for the future workplace, including the Jabber cross-platform software for collaboration and components of Cisco’s TelePresence technology.

The Insight centre has a staff of over 450 researchers and PhD students and was formed from the coming together of four established data analytics research centres at Dublin City University, NUI Galway, University College Cork and University College Dublin.

Between them, the centres focus on core research platforms like machine learning, linked data, semantic web technologies, media analytics, decision analytics and sensors, to name a few.

In the last two years, Insight has delivered over 700 scientific papers, won over 140 individual grant awards, graduated 45 PhDs (with 150 more in the pipeline) and is active in 40 Horizon 2020 consortia, of which it is leading 12.

“The volume of PhD students in the pipeline is significant,” said Conroy. “The research is a combination of long-term strategic research and research with a high impact. There are opportunities for potential spin-outs and of course, there is significant work being done with Irish SMEs and large multinationals.”

Conroy said that at any one time, there are over 100 contracted projects involving over 60 companies.

The key to the success of Insight, one of a number of strategic SFI research centres, is the network effect. This is essentially a force multiplier that enables universities with complementary competencies to work together as a team and compete at scale against larger bodies, for funding and to achieve breakthroughs.

The data science opportunity for Ireland

For Ireland to capture mega trends in fields ranging from data science to the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, cloud, big data and machine learning, Conroy points out that teamwork between institutions is vital.

“Each of the constituents in Insight – from semantic web to linked data, machine learning and the web of knowledge, to name a few – have, in many cases, world class research in their fields. Increasingly, data science is made up by bringing these together into large integration platforms.

“What is really interesting about working at Insight is how we bring that all together.

“Data science only becomes powerful when you understand the use cases and applications.”

The ultimate arbiter for winning in the machine and data science age is talent, says Conroy.

“Any of the trends that have happened here in Ireland – be it a transition from software to the cloud and APIs, from networks to IoT – it all comes from a combination of good talent coming out of the universities, an open environment that attracts the best talent in the world and mature leadership coming up through industry.

“Where Ireland can prosper is better outputs and there are master classes that Insight provides to top up skills in mastering an understanding of the application domain.”

One of the areas that Conroy believes Ireland has a real advantage is raw talent and the closeness of the ecosystem.

“We are betting much better at bringing people from different disciplines and getting them to work together, for example, combining financial services people with analytics people to understand the impact of blockchain.

“Bringing these forums together can help people get a lot more context in terms of opportunities and applications. You will never have enough raw talent, but you can continue to invest to turn out the scale of computer scientists with the appropriate data science components.”

Exploiting new opportunities

In this way, Conroy believes that opportunities in fintech, telecoms, agritech, life sciences, data analytics and data mining can be tackled with a high degree of flexibility.

“The challenge is to combine all of this in an agile way, to make sure we can have an impact in the market three years down the line. There are long-term bets that may fail. But the opportunity for Ireland is being able to respond to tech trends and leverage the various agencies and institutions in an agile and cohesive way for maximum effect.

“By working together, we can figure out where the innovation is coming from and how we can exploit it.”

The core point of Conroy’s argument is that it is possible to have a very large impact on the technology world even if you don’t have the scale of bigger universities in large countries.

“To look at the future mega trends, you need to have the core underlying knowledge in computer science, data science, statistics and more. These remain fundamental in order to connect with the opportunities.

“The history of digital in Ireland is a transition from a technical manufacturing environment to a cloud and R&D-based environment.

“That success comes from talent and leadership and exploiting the mega trends and finding new areas to focus on.

“By being flexible and adaptable and pooling our strengths, we have figured out how to exploit the edges of the core trends without having to have the scale of Silicon Valley.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years