Institutes have key role in regional R&D

19 Nov 2004

Ireland’s 13 Institutes of Technology will have an increasingly prominent role to play in regional industrial development and are already working closely with IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to foster strong research and development (R&D) links between the colleges and multinational and indigenous companies, the chairman of TecNet told

Richard Thorn, director of Sligo Institute of Technology and chairman of TecNet, a network of senior staff at the 13 institutes nationwide, explained that the colleges are banding together to foster greater R&D interaction and technology transfer in regional bases between the colleges and local and overseas companies.

Thorn said that the network, which was established in 1999, is focusing on four core areas; IT and telecoms, biotechnology, sustainable energy and marine technology and has already been key in driving industrial investment in the regions.

Thorn cited strong research links between Tallaght Institute of Technology, microprocessor-maker Intel and pharmaceutical giant Wyeth. Thorn’s own college in Sligo is playing a key role in enabling Coca Cola International to save millions a year by training small groups of staff from all over the world in international quality control. The college also played a crucial role in securing a long-term investment by furniture maker Masonite. “A local management initiative saw us train the staff in lean manufacturing and automation. As a direct result of upgrading the knowledge and skills of the staff the company’s factory in Carrick-on-Shannon has started to secure key head office functions.”

Thorn also cited “close to market” technology and transfer initiatives taking place between Tralee Institute of Technology and Waterford Crystal.

According to Thorn, Abbot Laboratories, which is establishing a new medical devices and diagnostics division in Sligo and Longford is contracting Sligo Institute of Technology to train graduates for its processes and systems.

“It has been said before that it would be far more attractive for the CEO of Intel to have sherry with the provost of a third-level status college than with the head of an institute of technology. We are not sexy institutions, but that perception is changing. Enterprise Ireland and companies trying to get off the ground are saying that the institutes are doing the business in terms of technology transfer and industrial innovation.

“Look around the country – yes we are institutes of technology – but we are responding to regional and community needs and we are better positioned to do so than the universities because of our closer ties to community,” he added.

Thorn also cited strong links with indigenous companies in bringing them to the world-class standards expected in the international marketplace. “The institutes are playing a strong role in upping the knowledge level of people within those companies and in turn saving those companies money. If you read the recent Enterprise Strategy Group report, companies will have to become leaner and meaner and at the same time have the capacity to produce more products. Each institute is responding to this challenge in its own way,” Thorn said, citing a €1.9m funding deal between Sligo Institute of Technology and a Northern Ireland college, funded by InteReg, to establish a cross-border initiative in automation and robotics manufacturing. “We also received funding from Enterprise Ireland to establish a design management centre.”

However, Thorn warns that greater Government recognition of the institutes’ role in research and increased funding is vital. “We need recognition by the State that the institutes have a role to play in industrial development, maybe not a blue skies role, but a role nonetheless. Universities have been getting the support for years and are able to establish space in the area but we are at the bottom trying to catch up. The amount of funding going into institutes is small, even with the Programme for Research in Third- Level Institutions

“To be fair the Department of Education has recognised the importance of the institutes for regional industrial development and technology transfer and has agreed to change the course approval systems giving us greater freedom to respond to market needs. Basically, the institutes need to be let out of the leash and given greater freedom and I believe that Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland are on our side on this issue,” Thorn said.

By John Kennedy