SMI encourages Irish innovators to access Washington dollars

26 Mar 2013

Amongst all the Irish-American meetings and engagements in Washington, DC, recently, consulting firm Strategic Marketing Innovations Inc (SMI) officially announced it would open its European operations in Dublin, saying it intended to help Irish innovators access millions of dollars in US federal funds. We spoke to the founder and CEO of SMI, Ted Lynch, about why the company chose Ireland.

The Washington, DC-based technology consulting and government relations firm has been on the go for some 20 years and already has a track record of helping European companies access funds. A case in point is Irish-based ocean-energy company Wavebob. SMI helped it secure a Department of Energy grant of US$2.5m.

Wavebob’s former CEO, Andrew Parish, is acting as SMI’s senior adviser in Dublin, and Lynch’s trip to the Irish capital in February sealed the firm’s decision to opt for Dublin.

“We feel we can do a lot more in Europe and we decided if we really want to expand our European activities we need to work out of a base and that’s why we looked so seriously at Ireland,” Lynch said. He describes his trip to Ireland as “even better than I expected”, leading to confirmation last week that SMI’s EU base would be in Ireland.

“One of the things that really struck me, and makes it very different to Washington, DC, was that everyone seems to be on the same page. There seems to be a general consensus that technology is one of the keys to the future of Ireland, and whether it was public officials or private enterprise that I met, everyone seemed to be moving in that same direction.”

The work of Strategic Marketing Innovations

SMI has already worked with a variety of technology companies in Italy, Belgium, the UK, and of course Ireland, companies that either have a footprint in the US, or are looking at making a footprint. It specialises in assisting companies and research centres (it has 10 US universities on its client list) access US federal funding to support tech development, commercialisation and rollout. That funding can take the form of grants, contracts or commercial partnerships.

According to Lynch, its core areas of interest are clean tech, med tech, nanotechnology and defence applications.

I asked Lynch why the US federal government might invest in Irish innovators? “There are many reasons, but one is that there are many areas in technology where Irish companies are ahead of their US counterparts, and they would have no trouble investing in particularly Irish-born technologies. There’s an affinity to Ireland.

“I should say that if there was a technology where there was a US company that was further advanced, then they would not,” he said.

“In addition, with respect to universities, there is a desire to collaborate with universities in the EU and the UK. Some of our clients already do that and others have expressed an interest in doing so.”

And it is not just about those Irish companies looking to have a footprint in the US. “In my one-week visit to Ireland, I did see some technologies that were very interesting, and there were companies that were interested in selling products into the US and into US government departments, which is where the funding would come in.”

Ireland and clean tech

Lynch said he was particularly impressed with the work going on in the clean-tech areas in Ireland. “Even the smart grid there, and the fact that you take so much wind-generated energy onto it so successfully, my thoughts are that it should be a natural for US companies that are working on grid-related technologies, that they should want to work with Irish companies in order to test them on your smart grid, which is already in place.

“I was amazed by how much renewable energy you’re already using and how much you plan to generate in the future, and that you have a system that can absorb that energy,” he said.

Historically, some of the most important technologies have migrated from military origins, bringing us the internet and indeed Silicon Valley, and Lynch pointed to plans in the US to ensure military facilities have their own electricity grids, independent of the main grid, for national security reasons, protecting them from power outages.

“They are looking at how they might have micro-grids in place on each of these big facilities. You already have one in Ireland so why not look at what’s happening over there and try and learn from it, maybe try out some of the technologies over there.

“I came away from Ireland thinking ‘this looks great, this is something we can definitely bring back to the US and something that should be well-received and hopefully end up with some work being done across the Atlantic.’”

SMI clients

And the type of clients that SMI is seeking? According to Lynch, its client base spans large companies with thousands of employees, to small companies. “The only hurdle they have to get over is that they have a technology that has some potential for capturing federal funds, that this technology may solve some of their problems, or hit their sweet spot.

“Renewable energy and clean tech is a major growth industry in the US and elsewhere, and it’s an area that cuts across all areas of government in the US,” said Lynch, so it’s an area of key focus for SMI.

“Take for example the Department of Defense, which has directives that say 25pc of their energy use will be renewable by 2025. So there you have an opportunity where the department has money and has a real need as a user. So you can look at every US base as a laboratory for clean technology. And then of course that technology can be spun out into the private sector very easily.”

Nanotechnology is also a major focus for SMI – Lynch is a materials engineer by qualification – and he was extremely impressed by what he saw in Ireland in, for example, Trinity College Dublin’s research institute, CRANN.

“Maybe 10 years ago people were sceptical about nanotechnology, but today there’s a huge amount of money being spent on research into this area. Now you are starting to see some real breakthroughs, and some really interesting products coming out of this, and nano will be across everything.

“Trinity is playing a leading role in this area, and we’d love to connect them with regards to things they are leaders in with the US companies and other universities. We see a real opportunity there,” he said.

SMI said it has sourced more than US$1bn in funding for its clients in the last eight years. While SMI’s new Dublin base will manage Europe-wide business, Lynch is clear that the potential to do business with Irish innovators was a key factor in the decision to choose Ireland.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 March

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human