A test bed for start-ups

13 Jul 2011

Over the past 10 years or so, Cork has built up a reputation for nurturing high-tech start-ups, with Cork Institute of Technology playing a key role in the general ecosystem.

Paul Healy, CEO of the Rubicon Centre on the campus at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), says one of the things that sets Cork apart as a hub for start-ups and technology transfer is its proximity to a large number of multinationals.

“Cork is a good test bed for a lot of technologies as there are multinationals here in hardware and software development, such as EMC, VMware and Apple, as well as companies such as Motorola and Harris Semiconductors.

“These have spun out high-calibre individuals involved in best practice in developing products with experience in the global marketplace. This gives them the edge to start their own ventures.”

Set up in 2006, the Rubicon Centre came about from the need to develop campus-based businesses in institutes of technology, which would support the knowledge economy in Cork.

“We started out with 10 companies in a range of ICT areas and growth has been quite rapid, even during the recession,” explains Healy.

“We now have 50 companies and have since expanded the facility. There is also a new research and development facility adjacent to us. The whole campus has come alive with an innovation ecosystem and the Rubicon Centre is one part of that.”

The 50 companies now in the centre employ more than 200 people and a lot are trading internationally. “About 70pc of our companies are ICT focused. We also have a number involved in biotechnology, environmental energy, as well as a few food companies. Our capacity isn’t limited to the constraints of our physical location as we support many companies located off campus on a virtual basis,” Healy notes.

One company which was set up by former multinational executives and started out at the Rubicon Centre recently secured €5.66m in funding for research into the treatment of critically ill premature babies suffering from hypotension.

Set up by former Elan executives two years ago, BrePco Biopharma is now based at the Fota Business Park and has collaborated with a consortium of university research centres led by Cork University Maternity Hospital to get the funding from the European Commission’s Healthcare FP7 Programme.

“This is a significant milestone for our company, as well as for the researchers in Cork University Maternity Hospital, with whom we have been working for the last two years,” says co-founder and chairman of BrePco Biopharma, Paul Breen.

“As this is a European and North American project being sponsored by an Irish company, it speaks volumes about the strength of our indigenous pharmaceutical industry and what we can offer to a global audience. Just to add to this, of the eight clinical trial sites, four of them are based in Ireland.”

BrePco is going through the clinical trial approval process and expects to commence clinical trials in Europe and Canada late this year.

Paul Healy

Paul Healy, CEO of the Rubicon Centre

‘Spin-in’ experience

The experience at the Rubicon Centre has been more ‘spin-in’ than ‘spin-out’ in terms of the emerging companies supported there, according to Healy.

“Companies that were already formed came to us to access our resources, but there have been a number of projects where academics based in CIT would play a full or part-time role in them. In the next five or 10 years I would expect the majority of companies here to continue being spin-ins.

“One of the clever things that differentiates the Rubicon Centre is that CIT wasn’t new to this space, having operated the Genesis entrepreneurship programme for more than eight years at the time. This gave us the technology, experience and know-how needed to nurture early stage ideas, as well as a talent pool of mentors and resources to help companies bring products to market.”

CIT is the first institute of technology to have an entrepreneur in residence programme, which involves an entrepreneur being available to undergraduates, post-grads, staff and CIT enterprise development.

Last September, it appointed Kieran Moynihan to the role. Co-founder of telecoms software company Comnitel in 1999, he led the company as CEO from initial start-up through a US$30m series of fundraising with leading international venture capitalists.

After completing the Genesis programme in 1999/2000, Comnitel merged with Metrica and WatchMark to form Vallent, a 450-person global company with annual revenues of about US$65m.

“The opportunities still exist for people wanting to start a knowledge-intensive business, and at the Rubicon Centre we bring together all the facets people need to do this, such as access to venture capitalists and angel investors, as well as bank start-up capital through our partnership with AIB. As we gained momentum, all of these stakeholders came on board,” Healy explains.

Josette O’Mullane, industry liaison manager with CIT, says it has been a catalyst for innovation as ideas are continually flowing from the Rubicon Centre into the institute and vice versa.

“The innovation ecosystem is made up of fundamental research, applied research and the campus companies themselves. It is a dynamic system underpinned by technology transfer.

“In addition to CIT’s high-quality graduates in multimedia software development, we have an active research system which is industry interfacing, as well as three strategic clusters and applied technology centres associated with those.”

The best form of technology transfer, maintains O’Mullane, is the transfer of people, which CIT has been doing for a long time.

“Students and graduates bring their knowledge and innovation into companies and it is ever-fruitful. No prodding of industry has been needed in this regard – companies have approached us and find our people industry-ready.

“The patent and licensing side, which is the more traditional form of technology transfer, has been especially fruitful among SMEs, which don’t have the structures internally to develop new ideas.”

O’Mullane adds that CIT deals with both multinationals and SMEs, and often SMEs are easier to work with. “In many cases it’s harder dealing with multinationals because they’re more structured and often require US approval for contracts and other legal matters. Smaller companies tend to be more nimble and flexible.”

Josette O'Mullane

Josette O’Mullane, industry liaison manager with Cork Institute of Technology

GEP – 200 start-ups in 12 years

Eighteen new Irish companies were launched at the 14th annual Genesis Enterprise Programme (GEP) 2011 Awards & Showcase at CIT in March of this year.

The industries these new companies are pursuing include electronics, energy conservation, e-commerce, healthcare, software development, telecommunications and water monitoring.

The GEP is a 12-month rapid incubation programme designed to nurture, support and develop entrepreneurs starting innovative knowledge-based businesses in the southwest region.

During the past 12 years, Genesis has supported almost 200 people and teams in starting their businesses. More than 70pc of the start-up businesses are in operation today, employing more that 1,400 people.

More than 50pc of the businesses are trading internationally and 40 businesses have gone on to be designated high-potential start-ups by Enterprise Ireland.

This year, the winner of the AIB Genesis Emerging Business of the Year was Gareth Cuddy, DirecteBooks.com. Established in 2009, DirecteBooks.com is Ireland’s only dedicated e-book retailer, offering more than 200,000 e-books for sale worldwide.

The Business Development Achievement Award went to James Kennedy of Unified Computing, which simplifies the content creation process in the 3D animation industry by making many forms of rendering resources seamlessly accessible to studio artists.

The Market Entry Success Award was won by Daniel Bradfield of AirDryer Systems, which was set up to manufacture and distribute a new product based around an innovative new method of drying the laundry called The Marilyn.


Irish chip breakthrough could prevent cot deaths

Researchers at Cork’s Tyndall Institute have built a microchip sensor that can detect a person’s respiratory rate without any contact with the person under observation and could be a powerful tool in tackling sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The chip allows for constant monitoring of babies in cot beds, hospital patients and other people at risk of obstructive apneas, including SIDS. It can be used also for the early detection of sudden sleep of vehicle drivers.

The sensor technology also enables several other important applications, such as facilitating the monitoring of patients in their homes, sending data in real-time to GPs and first aid medical staff in hospitals. It can also be used for fitness (fatigue) monitoring and personalised healthcare for independent and healthy living. Despite its applications to the biomedical field, the microchip sensor can be applied to other civil applications requiring contactless detection of moving objects.

The sensor microchip consists of ultra-wide-band pulse radar, capable of detecting sub-centimetre movements. The radar sends short pulses towards the chest and detects the echo reflected in proximity of the skin. The output signal provided by the sensor is therefore sensitive to the chest movement.

This is the first time that such an ultra-wide-band pulse radar has been integrated into a single silicon chip. The devices also operate in accordance with the most stringent worldwide standard regulations for medical devices.

It is the latest in a series of major breakthroughs at the UCC-based labs.

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