RIA president: ‘Ireland is a world leader in electronics’

19 Apr 2018

Peter Kennedy, president, Royal Irish Academy. Image: RIA

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Peter Kennedy shines a spotlight on the world of academia and the field of electronic engineering.

Peter Kennedy is president of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and professor of microelectronic engineering at University College Dublin (UCD).

He originally trained in circuit theory, specialising in nonlinear dynamics and neural networks. He received his bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from UCD in 1984, working every summer with Philips during his studies. He earned his master’s and PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, then returned to UCD for eight years.

Kennedy also spent 17 years at University College Cork, where he was vice-president for research for six years and scientific director of the Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI) for seven.

He was elected president of the RIA in March 2017 and relocated to UCD as professor of microelectronic engineering in July.

Kennedy has held visiting appointments at universities in Hungary, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, the UK and the US but these days, he spends most of his time in Ireland, specialising in electronics for communication networks.

Describe your role and what you do.

At UCD, I am head of the electronic engineering discipline. This involves strategic planning for research and education in electronics. I teach circuit theory and electronic circuits, and lead a team of students that carries out research on electronics for communication networks with the SFI-funded Connect Centre and Enterprise Ireland and IDA-funded MCCI.

As president of the RIA, I lead a team of volunteers and permanent staff members who carry out research, run events, and develop policy in the fields of science, humanities and social sciences.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

My diary fills up for six to nine months at a time. Teaching is my number-one priority. Lecture periods, tutorials and laboratories are immovable feasts. They require preparation and real-time delivery. So, they go in first, followed by core meetings of the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and the university.

Meetings on the academy normally take place on Mondays – they go in next. Research requires concentration and focus so I reserve a day for intensive one-to-one meetings with my research students.

Then, I fill in the white space. Many of the academy commitments, such as lectures and public meetings, take place in the late afternoon or evening. Sometimes, I’ll open a workshop or conference first thing in the morning. This was difficult to do from Cork because each visit to Dublin took a day. From UCD, the academy is a bus ride away so I can be there and back in an hour. I can also attend evening events without having to run for the 9pm train. It makes life much easier!

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Electronics is a global industry. It moves fast; it changes fast. And it’s not good enough to be good enough; you have to be the best in the world at what you do.

The key to success in this industry is to have a critical mass of smart people selling best-in-class products to the most challenging international markets. The electronics industry in Ireland has evolved dramatically over the past 40 years. We still struggle to train enough highly qualified people at home to meet the needs of the industry. Importantly, Government policy has understood the need for investment in advanced research and training in centres such as Connect and MCCI; their contribution to the development of the industry has been huge.

‘Doing a PhD is tough, especially in electronics. We need to solve a problem that is so hard that nobody in the world has been able to solve it before’

Through our international contacts, we increasingly attract skilled people into the industry in Ireland from overseas, and enable Irish-based units to grow. At European level, it has been understood that national academies can play a key role in assessing advances in science, stimulating dialogue with national populations and communicating with political leaders.

In addition to our traditional roles in promoting national culture and heritage, publishing, and influencing higher-education and research policy, the RIA has become more proactive in raising awareness of issues such climate change, genetic technology, energy, food from the oceans and research integrity.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Ireland is a world leader in electronics. Our engineers design products that are sold in vast quantities around the world. In addition to traditional electronic microchip companies such as Analog Devices, Intel and Xilinx, we now have companies that sell products and services based on these chips and the software that runs on them.

Electronics has transformed almost every industry, from farming and medicine to transportation and shopping, and companies in Ireland are at the forefront of many of the latest technological breakthroughs. With enough highly trained people, we can continue to lead.

We are fortunate to be able to draw upon the experience of domain experts who are among the best in the world in their fields. Over the past few years, we have participated in major collaborative efforts across Europe, sharing best practice on topics such as energy, food and research policy. With the UK leaving the EU, Ireland can potentially play a greater role in shaping thought across Europe. Already, we have led projects on energy storage and research integrity. There is more to come.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Working with Philips as a trainee engineer in the 1980s gave me an early insight into globalisation. The factory where I worked employed more than 500 people at its peak. It closed in the late 1980s when production was moved offshore. The only part of the factory that was moved to the new production site was the automated production and test equipment that the engineers had built. I did ‘blue skies’ research for my PhD in Berkeley and have continued to do basic research with my students since returning to Ireland. But, I have also made sure to apply what we learn to help develop products that embed and grow employment in Ireland.

Interestingly, while all of my PhD students have done basic research, only one has gone into academia. All of the others are developing commercial products using the research skills that they perfected during their doctoral studies.

I was elected to membership of the RIA in 2004. I was asked to serve as secretary for international relations in 2012. I did that job for four years, during which time I grew to appreciate the value of our participation in international networks. We were developing our strategic plan at the time and I was also asked to develop processes for policy formulation and oversight. I completed my term in the expanded role of secretary for policy and international relations in 2016.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Early in my career, I hired an underqualified person for an important role. They couldn’t grow and it affected the performance of the entire team. I learned too late that you need both the right people on the team and the right people in the right positions. In addition, you need support from the organisation’s leadership when you have to address difficult people problems at work.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Doing a PhD is tough, especially in electronics. We need to solve a problem that is so hard that nobody in the world has been able to solve it before. If the problem is important commercially, you can be sure that the world’s best engineers are working on it too, with whatever resource their companies are willing to commit. So, it’s one PhD student and his or her supervisor versus the best in the world. We face continuous setbacks: ideas that seem promising don’t work, someone else publishes a similar solution, papers are rejected. We persist, we learn to get up again and again when we’re knocked down. And somehow, it always works out in the end; maybe not as first planned, but there’s always a result if you persist. Call it optimism.

‘When you have to be the best in the world, it is important to include as many minds as possible in the effort’

In the academy, we rely heavily on volunteers. Equally, members of the professional support staff often work irregular hours and to strict deadlines in support of events, meetings and policy outputs. This deprives them of time that could otherwise be spent with their families. It is important for both volunteers and staff to know how much we value their contributions to the work of the academy, so we thank people regularly.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

For many years, electronics has been male-dominated on the design side, albeit with a greater number of women involved in semiconductor processing and applications. When you have to be the best in the world, it is important to include as many minds as possible in the effort. Industry knows this, and is crying out for talent. Due to skills shortages in Ireland, the sector has been recruiting the best people it can find from wherever they are in the world. It means that we have now a significantly more diverse population in the industry than two decades ago. This can only be good.

When I began lecturing in UCD in September, I was pleasantly surprised to find nearly 30pc female students in my undergraduate classes, compared to 10pc in Cork – this is very encouraging. I hope it’s because the message is getting through that electronics is inclusive and talent is what matters. I picked up a lovely children’s book about Marie Curie in Kilkenny Design last week. It began: “When Marie Curie was a little girl, she didn’t dream of becoming a princess; she dreamt of becoming a scientist.” Role models and stories matter.

Who is your role model and why?

I am lucky to have worked with some great leaders in my time. My PhD adviser, Leon Chua, was never afraid to tackle hard problems. He dreamed big dreams and promoted blue-skies research. At more than 80 years of age, he’s still developing new ideas and encouraging younger researchers.

Gerry Wrixon, founder of the National Microelectronics Research Centre, dreamed of building a strong electronics industry in Ireland. He brought American-style postgraduate education and research to Cork, and fundamentally changed the level of ambition in the country.

John Quigley of Motorola built, from scratch, a microchip design team, which, after less than five years, had its chips in mobile phones across the world. He only picked the best people. He invested in their professional development, was relentless in getting things done and inspired them to lead the world.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

John Quigley introduced me to Execution by Bossidy, Charan and Burck – it’s a superb guide to getting things done.

Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a great read about innovation at Bell Labs – what worked and why.

More recently, I was moved by Schmidt and Rosenberg’s How Google Works and Ford’s Rise of the Robots. The latter two pose fundamental questions for educators and for society. How are we to educate people for gainful employment in a world that is becoming increasingly automated, and where intrinsically human qualities such as creativity and social interaction are all that will give us a competitive advantage in the long run?

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I would be lost without my diary and my wife. The diary makes sure I’m in the right place at the right time. My wife, a medical doctor, is my one-person pit crew.

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