Why we need to stick to our guns on the innovation economy

15 Nov 2010

In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy notes it is Innovation Week in Dublin and how this should be a reminder to policy makers how we need to steady our resolve on science investments.

More than a decade ago, before there was a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and before there was a Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), I steered my rusting red banger of a car that I owned at the time up the driveway of UCD Smurfit Business School in Blackrock. An hour later I drove away, stunned at how few Irish academic institutions at the time embraced technology transfer after an academic patiently and politely informed me how much research just gathered dust in labs or on library shelves.

The impression I had – maybe unfair – was that academic staff were more interested in collecting salaries and were in stark contrast to academic staff in places like Stanford, who also ran their own start-ups.

But within two years there was frenetic activity with the creation of SFI, the PRTLI started, stopped, started again and I am pleased to say what Ireland has achieved in a few short years in building an innovation ecosystem is staggering.

At the end of last year, SFI-funded researchers were working with 389 firms. Last year, the agency directly supported 3,225 researcher team members – up 15pc on 2008 – involving 601 collaborations with firms.

With the hairshirt Budget that is looming, one of my fears is the fantastic progress could be lost.

Last week, I took my place along with 18 other speakers at The Long Debate, one of the highlights of the Innovation Dublin 2010 festival, which centred on the report of the Innovation Taskforce and how we can make innovation systemic throughout Ireland.

In my clumsy, self-conscious way, I argued my belief that the fact of the matter is the Irish have always been innovative, we have always been creative, and we have always been brave.

Think back to the wonder that is Newgrange and how our forefathers created a structure so perfect that light fills a chamber during the winter solstice. Think back to our Golden Age and the oft-held belief that we brought Christianity and learning back to Europe during the Dark Ages. Think of how William Rowan Hamilton carved the fundamental formula for quaternions on Broom Bridge on the Royal Canal in 1846. One of Ireland’s successful technology companies, Havok, still uses Hamilton’s discoveries to make games and movies as realistic as possible.

Our contributions, therefore, to science, literature and even digital rights are clear, we have our credentials and not least so because of the sheer achievement of having attracted more foreign direct investment than the nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

Building the innovation economy

But I believe fervently we will never have an innovation economy unless we resolve our broadband problems. A recent Cisco survey revealed that while Ireland’s broadband structure is perfect for the applications of today, we are not prepared for the applications of tomorrow.

And if that is indeed the case, then how are our scientists and innovators meant to communicate with other scientists and innovators around the world, not to mention create the next generation of products the world will want to consume?

In the 19th century, trade flowed to seaports and along railway lines. In the 20th century, it was airports. In the 21st century, trade will fundamentally flow through digital networks. Yet in the recent Innovation Taskforce report, just one paltry page was given to next-generation networks.

We all gaze in wonder at places like Silicon Valley, where young companies like Apple have grown up, and talk about being the Silicon Valley of Europe, but as Craig Barrett recently pointed out during a visit to Ireland earlier this year, there are 3 billion new capitalists in the world, they all want a better standard of living and they’re willing to work for it.

In addition, the axis of the technology world no longer centres on Silicon Valley, every country in the world has an opportunity to play a role, building great companies and coming out with great innovations. This is our time.

3 pillars on which a smart economy can thrive

As Barrett, who is in Ireland this week with the Irish Technology Leaders Group, pointed out earlier this year, there are three pillars on which a smart economy can thrive: Smart people, doing smart things in a smart entrepreneurial environment.

He said, “The FDI era is over. Real economic investment will be indigenous and growth will come from investment in new ideas.”

I am an optimist at heart. I believe in the creativity, flair and imagination of the Irish people. I am proud wherever I go in the world and see Irish technology entrepreneurs hard at work lighting up rooms with their enthusiasm.

If it does and indeed we do reach that magical figure of 3pc of GDP going into R&D, the resulting industries, jobs and society will be for the best.

When I was in school, innovation wasn’t a word you heard very often, neither was the word entrepreneur.

Two weeks ago, David Coghlan from Havok pointed out that the company had to think global from Day 1. He also pointed out that Enterprise Ireland has 1,000 staff, of which only 15pc are based overseas, and yet that is the particular area that is being targeted for cuts. If anything, we need to be finding ways to expand the number of agents overseas to do great work.

Another entrepreneur, Dr Ivan Coulter of Sigmoid, said he intends to see his firm emerge even more successfully than Elan. Ambition is the ingredient.

We will need to stick to our guns on innovation investment and we will need to expand investment in areas like broadband.

Yes we face austerity measures for years to come, but the right brains should be thinking of exploiting our export performance and thinking of the kind of country we want to be post-austerity.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years