Niche green tech research will drive Irish innovation

28 Sep 2009

Going niche and playing to our strengths in the green technology sector is the only way Ireland can compete globally while remaining a high-wage economy, said Eoin O’Driscoll, chairman of Enet, director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and a member of the National Executive Council of IBEC, as he spoke Friday at the 2009 IRCSET Symposium in the RDS, Dublin.

O’Driscoll, alongside several other influential thought leaders across academia, government and industry, gathered at the IRCSET Symposium to talk to young PhD researchers and policy makers alike on the importance of sustainability and green technology as part of Ireland’s long-term economic recovery.

Likening Ireland to an aircraft carrier on the edge of Europe, O’Driscoll described how the country held a “temporary monopoly” serving the European marketplace as a base for high-tech companies to operate efficient business models, but that as Asian economies emerged in strength and China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, “Ireland’s share of world trade manufacturing began to decrease in 2002, despite general growth”.

Setting the scene with a brief overview of Ireland’s high cost base and huge consumer and construction expansion, O’Driscoll said that boom years costs spiralled out of control, far in excess of our trading partners.

This, said Riita Mustonen, member of the IRCSET Council and doctor of philosophy and docent in genetics, is not unlike the economic crisis in Finland in the early nineties, and like Finland, Ireland, too, can recover by exploiting our post-graduate talents.

“This recovery is not a linear process and most importantly it places people at the heart of innovation; it is about investing in people,” said Mustonen.

Mustonen said that as companies steer themselves towards growth and recovery through innovation, they must “hire people for how they learn, not what they know.”

Echoing the consensus that economic recovery through innovation will be circular rather than linear, and will require much investment, O’Driscoll quoted Stanford University’s famous post-war dean of engineering, Fred Terman.

A strong and independent industry must, however, develop its own intellectual resources of science and technology, for industrial activity that depends upon imported brains, and second-hand ideas cannot hope to be more than a vassal that pays tribute to its overlords, and is permanently condemned to an inferior competitive position.”

Ireland’s niche green technology sectors were highlighted, with talks from various organisations and institutes, including Rosheen McGuckian, group corporate development director of the NTR, who talked about the company’s transition to post-carbon energy and its investment in solar power with the Suncatcher solar plant in the US.

Dr Jerry Murphy of University College Cork, as principle investigator in bioenergy and biofuels in the Environmental Research Institute, went on to talk about Ireland’s opportunity in this area by playing to its strengths: a large bovine population.

Rather then trying to grow the low-yielding rape seed for biofuel, we can capitalise on the anaerobic digestion of grasslands with help from cow enzymes.

Dr Barbara Fogarty of the Marine Institute talked about Smart Bay and Ireland’s unique position to exploit our marine resources, while the discussion panels were finished off with presentations from five promising PhD students, highlighting the varied and unique research being undertaken by Ireland’s post-graduate community.