About two weeks ago, 180 mostly fourth-level PhD graduates crowded into a hall at University College Dublin (UCD) to take on the task of assembling 3D printers from scratch within 30 hours. Divided into 40 teams, the success rate was 39/40.
The 3D printers that can just about replicate any physical part represent the emerging shoots of a vibrant new industrial and commercial age; and the PhD grads represent a multi-million decade-long bet by the Irish State on securing the country’s scientific and entrepreneurial future.
Richard Bruton, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, has said start-up businesses create two-thirds of all new jobs today. Yet, just like boardrooms and bank manager offices the length of the country, academic institutions are also places where good ideas can go to die.
For Oxford-educated Prof Suzi Jarvis, head of the Innovation Academy in Ireland, the task is to turn third- and fourth-level graduates into entrepreneurs, bridging the musty, cosy confines of academia with the ruthless cut and thrust of the 21st-century innovation-led economy.
To Jarvis, lecturers and software entrepreneurs like UCD’s Prof Barry Smyth are like an anomaly in the present third-level system in Ireland, where only a tiny number of lecturers also run their own start-ups.
Smyth co-founded ChangingWorlds with fellow UCD lecturer Paul Cotter in 1999. Nine years later, US-based customer relationship management software service company Amdocs acquired the UCD software spin-out for $60m.
This contrasts starkly with the US, where in colleges like Babson College in Boston and Stanford University in California, 96pc of academic staff members are also entrepreneurs and start-up founders.
Using techniques that include getting PhD and undergraduates to construct their own 3D-printing machines to generating business ideas by scanning a newspaper, Jarvis works with up to 2,000 students a year from UCD, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Queen’s University Belfast to shake up their thinking.
To draw inspiration, Jarvis said she reflects on the thoughts of UCD’s first rector, John Henry Newman, who believed education should transcend multiple disciplines.
"You wouldn’t think that views from a 19th-century theologian matter today but he believed in educating across multiple disciplines – in that way people would be better trained for life than a specific job," Jarvis said.
Innovation Academy’s purpose
She added that the purpose of the cross-university Innovation Academy is precisely that – to prepare graduates for life beyond the few, highly prized tenured positions that traditionally awaited PhDs.
"There’s a whole range of jobs they might go into and often they aren’t always prepared for life beyond the university environment," Jarvis said.
"The education system revolves around evaluating the individual and is focused on academic success. Unfortunately, that doesn’t train students to learn from failure – to thrive in an entrepreneurial environment you need to fail fast to succeed sooner."
The success of the Innovation Academy, which is back by the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), led to it winning funding to train unemployed graduates under the Government-backed Springboard programme.
The most recent phase, which had a 91pc completion rate, trained 180 graduates in entrepreneurship and has resulted in 74pc of students going into self- or regulated employment.
The next phase of the Springboard programme will train 355 unemployed graduates this year.
Jarvis is also expanding the academy’s efforts across Ireland with the help of the GAA to ensure graduates in rural areas overtaken by the economic upheaval can re-purpose themselves as entrepreneurs.
A good example of what may be possible through entrepreneurial thinking is Brendan Allen, a former marine biologist from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).
When he returned home to Roscommon, he found the family farm was barely sustaining his brother’s family. Allen looked strategically at what was possible, hired a chef, and a new food business was born. Castlemine Farm now employs 12 people, producing pies, sausages and prepared meats.
"In the UK, there is 34pc farm diversity where new businesses have emerged from traditional farms. In Ireland, this currently at just 2pc," Jarvis said.
Morphing from the pastoral example of Allen to that of Smyth, who still actively lectures and conducts research, Jarvis said she is trying to change the system from within.
"We don’t have our students write business plans – we work on a canvas with them. The objective is a transformational educational experience for the betterment of Irish society and the economy," she said.
“That means thinking like entrepreneurs, valuing opportunities and respecting diversity. At the core of that is decision-making, learning to fail fast and succeed faster."
If Jarvis and 2,000 graduates are correct, they could prove to be the vital link in the chain for a scientific, entrepreneurial economy hell-bent on creating jobs and getting people back to work.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 23 February