OPINION: Time to build home-grown businesses that can compete globally

12 Nov 2014

Donald Fitzmaurice, founder and chief executive officer of Brandtone, and member of the Royal Irish Academy

In the third of our Science Week series, Royal Irish Academy member Donald Fitzmaurice says we must encourage STEM and business and humanities graduates to work together to build great enterprises.

To coincide with Science Week in Ireland this week, members of the Royal Irish Academy in this series discuss various issues within and outside of the classroom that Ireland would do well to reflect upon as it looks to position itself as learning and learned 21st-century society. Donald Fitzmaurice is our third contributor.

Ireland as a small, open, knowledge-based economy faces many challenges in the modern world. These challenges include competing with similar (typically emerging) economies whose competitiveness, on occasion, is owed to the fact they have copied the Irish model successfully.

Despite these challenges, the Irish model of being a committed member of the European Union and investing in a young, highly educated, English-speaking workforce — allied to a competitive corporate tax regime — remains a compelling proposition. This is particularly true when it involves investing in young science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates and post-graduates.

It is nevertheless the case that in the future we will face greater competition for the foreign direct investment that we have been previously successful in attracting to Ireland over the past five decades. This investment includes that from leading multinationals in the technology, medical device, pharmaceutical and other sectors. 

For this reason, we will need to become even more successful in establishing successful home-grown businesses that can compete on the global stage.

Irish businesses on the global stage

These businesses that can compete on the global stage will increasingly be companies that develop new or improved knowledge-intensive products and services that embody high value and high defensibility.

There are many examples of indigenous enterprises that have successfully brought knowledge-intensive products to the market, led by teams that are comprised of STEM-trained professionals who have developed the product, and business/humanities-trained professionals who have commercialised the product.

In the future, many of our most successful indigenous enterprises will bring knowledge-intensive services to the market. Moreover, these companies, led typically by individuals with a business/humanities training, will need the expertise of STEM professionals to ensure these services are distributed and supported globally online. These professional will not just include technologists and engineers, who will develop and maintain the cloud-based platform from which these services will be distributed and supported globally, but they will also be mathematicians and scientists, who will develop the algorithms (increasingly informed by insights from advances in the behavioural and cognitive sciences) that will make sense of the vast amount of data generated in the course of providing services through the cloud.

A risk is that we will fall into the trap of thinking that we need STEM graduates with business/humanities training, or business/humanities graduates with STEM training. In fact, what we need are world-class STEM and business/humanities graduates, who know how to work together in an entrepreneurial environment with, to borrow an expression from the peace process, ‘parity of esteem’.

So this leads me to two opportunities that I would like to see universities and institutes exploit as a matter of urgency, and in a wholehearted and committed fashion.

Culture of collaboration

Firstly, to regularly expose graduates and post-graduates, from all disciplines, to entrepreneurial individuals and organisations that embody the collaborative culture that lies at the heart of successful knowledge-intensive enterprises. 

Such individuals and organisations have used the combined expertise and experience of STEM and business/humanities professionals to innovate and to bring new knowledge-intensive products and services to the market. Through this exposure, graduates and post-graduates will come to better understand and respect the roles and contributions of their peers from other disciplines. They will also come to appreciate that such organisations only recruit the best — so they need to get a good degree — and to understand that buying into this culture of collaboration and respect is non-negotiable if they seek to achieve corporate success.

Secondly, to similarly expose academics of all disciplines to such individuals and organisations by ensuring that they sit alongside their graduates and post-graduates as peers and participate fully in these and other related activities. 

In proposing the above, I am allowing for the possibility that the greater challenge and need relates to the experiences and attitudes of academics of all disciplines in our universities and institutes. Specifically, those attitudes characterised by the absence of mutual appreciation and respect for other disciplines; acceptance of mediocrity from students; and, most significantly, a culture that raises the achievement of the brilliant individual above all other considerations.

In drafting this piece, I reflected on the structures of the academy, and how it institutionalises many of the above-mentioned issues. On the other hand, I also reflected on the fact that while this represents a challenge with respect to remaining relevant, it equally represents an opportunity to show leadership.

Donald Fitzmaurice is a founder and chief executive officer of Brandtone, a mobile marketing company headquartered in Ireland. Since founding the company five years ago, Donald has led Brandtone’s expansion from one market to 10, establishing offices in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, the United States, India, China and Indonesia. Prior to this, he was a partner with DFJ-ePlanet Capital, and a professor of chemistry at University College Dublin, where he taught and researched nanostructured materials.

The Royal Irish Academy is an all-island independent body that brings together the worlds of academia, government and industry, to address issues of mutual interest. Drawing on its Members’ expertise, it contributes to public debate and public policy formation on issues in the humanities, science, technology and culture. Election to membership of the academy represents the highest academic honour in Ireland.

The views and opinions expressed by authors in this series are their own and do not reflect the position of the academy, but are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse academy membership.

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