The Friday Interview: Ben Hurley, National Digital Research Centre

21 Mar 2008

The Government’s €25m National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) replaces the failed Media Lab Europe and recently put out a €7m call for proposals. Ben Hurley (pictured) is the centre’s director.

Media Lab Europe (MLE) collapsed in 2002 with the loss of €50m in investment. Where will the NDRC succeed where MLE failed?

We want to become experts at translational research and that means taking applied research and putting it right into industry, in the hands of SMEs, public sector organisations and multinationals.

In a practical sense, how will this work and who will own the intellectual property?

Any intellectual property generated is likely to be owned by the parties who develop it.

Our aim is to provide the environment to allow these ideas and research to reach fruition and at the same time build up expertise and thought leadership.

We aim to establish a network of scouts who will work with all the various academic institutions to find research that could have commercial application in industry.

What international bodies is the NDRC modelled on?

The plan is to create a body that helps to nourish ideas. If there were an international example of the model we would base the NDRC on, it would be the Kelvin Institute in Scotland and the various Centres of Expertise in Canada.

It will be run as an independent company and is based on a consortium of third-level institutions that successfully tendered for the job.

Our board includes Paul McCambridge, managing director of Xilinx in Ireland, Sean Baker, co-founder and director of Iona Technologies, Paul Rellis, country manager of Microsoft Ireland, John Herlihy, general manager of Google in Ireland, and Liam Fitzgerald of Intuition Publishing.

What are the growth plans for the NDRC and how will it be staffed?

The centre will employ between 40 and 60 people, representing a mix of full-time staff and staff who come into the centre based on the proposals for research we decide to back.

We have the commercial expertise to advise and direct funding, and these people also understand how academic environments work.

But to bring strong ideas to fruition, the cloth must fit the frame. We want to be thought leaders but also to have the ability to spot commercial opportunities for applied research.

SMEs are being told again and again to invest in R&D, will the NDRC form a bridge between businesses and colleges?

SMEs in Ireland want to have good R&D opportunities, but this is hard to do if you’re the chief executive of an SME. We can bring forward a development project that will be of use to the Irish SME.

We’re positioning the NDRC as a mid-way house, taking the applied research away from the academic campus and taking it nearer to the commercial and industrial application.

We want to identify the next generation of products and we realise that SMEs in Ireland want to have a good research capacity. Hopefully, we’ll bridge the gap.

By John Kennedy