Incubators crucial to Ireland’s future

11 Jul 2003

University College Dublin (UCD) is a prime example of a third-level institute turning the fruits of its vast science knowledge base into commercial reality through incubation units. Essentially, it’s following a long line of tradition that can be traced back to the early Fifties when the success of two engineering graduates from Stanford University in California – William Hewlett and David Packard – prompted the university to set aside 579 acres for industrial development next to the campus.

Famously, the founders of corporate giant Hewlett-Packard had a makeshift garage as their premises and the patch of land became Silicon Valley.

Incubation units nurture commercial activities, often from before their birth as start-up companies. Providing help with business plans, offering legal and financial advice as well as a home, incubators are life-support machines for entrepreneurial ideas. Third-level institutions throughout Ireland are setting aside more and more space for them on campus.

Dr Pat Frain, director of NovaUCD (pictured) says that more and more, some of the most successful companies are coming from the universities.

“There is no doubt that in the medium to long term Ireland has to develop a high-technology indigenous base and these types of spin-off companies are crucial to those developments. One of the interesting things is the really successful ones are the ones spinning off from the really successful research on the campus. There is a great buzz about them, but that is because they have such huge potential. Here in UCD, we are aiming to generate at least one multi-million pound company every three years and to spin off 10 companies a year once the centre is up,” Frain says.

NovaUCD is a new €12.7m innovation centre aimed to nurture and develop high-tech enterprises, which opened its doors in the campus last February. It offers a range of facilities and programmes to stimulate entrepreneurship, technology transfer and innovation. And while UCD has a fine record in incubating successful campus companies – NTera from the chemistry department, Massana from electronic engineering, WBT Systems and Changing Worlds both from computer science, for example – the Nova project is unique in Ireland’s college experience.

For a start, it’s a major public private partnership and the largest project of its kind in the State. Six leading companies – AIB, solicitors Arthur Cox, accountants Deloitte & Touche, Goodbody Stockbrokers, telecommunications giant Ericsson and computer software company Xilinx Ireland – invested IR£1m each in the centre, which will give them a 6pc equity in the new companies. An independent board will decide the share out of that equity. Enterprise Ireland also invested IR£1m. UCD invested under IR£1m and is providing a two- to three-acre site on the Belfield campus.

“The beauty of this project is that most of the investors have an interest in seeing the project succeed and, in some cases, on the return to their own business. In developing links with the university, they would also have access to graduates and new technologies. It’s not like a renting-a-room facility. We’re trying to generate a community of entrepreneurs so we have put in place a range of supports for the companies,” he says.

Frain has been director of the University Industry Programme since 1988, but his enthusiasm for the work is undiminished, as industrialists and business people involved with UCD can verify.

NovaUCD is different because of its strategic objectives, he says. One is the provision of support for university/industrial co-operation and assisting in the transfer of technology and the promotion of innovation based on the research on the campus. The second is the promotion of entrepreneurship and new enterprise development through the provision of 40 incubation units for promoters of knowledge-intensive start-up companies and the provision of a structured business support programme.

“The new venture laboratory will focus exclusively on design and development and will offer high-speed access to data and to experienced entrepreneurs to ensure that plans are realistic and viable. Other specialist service programmes will include enterprise development, industrial liaison and continuing professional development,” he explains.

But Frain says NovaUCD has to guard against becoming a property development company, maximising rents but not turning over as many companies as it should. This is why NovaUCD will limit the stay of any start-up company to two years and nine months, although many will not need to stay that long.

Neosera Systems, a relatively new spin-off from UCD’s Department of Computer Science, was one of the first companies to take up residency in the new incubation centre. Damian Dalton, emphasises the importance of university support for start-up companies. “The NovaUCD centre is a focal point both for the entrepreneurs and the start-up companies; it is a forum for both sides that is required for any successful company to come together. Also, Enterprise Ireland run a number of programmes throughout the year here and again, the Nova centre in UCD is a focal point for those activities. People can meet up, take the ideas from the ground and take them forward.”

“We create the environment and create support services,” Frain adds, “but the real people who make it work are the entrepreneurs who even put their houses and their cars on the line.”

By Lisa Deeney