The innovation journey is a long road, but it can pay off

27 Jul 201530 Shares

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The seeming overnight successes that some companies enjoy in Silicon Valley are a far shout from the reality of researchers in university labs. It is a long road, but the slow-and-steady strategy is working for many Irish start-ups writes John Kennedy

Innovation is a journey and every start-up journey is, in fact, a long road. It is often one where the only light to guide the founder, or founding team, is the single spark of inspiration they had in the first place. The rest of the journey is one of patience, hard work, lots of knocks and disappointments, and no guarantee of success.

Rhetoric that hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created by start-ups in the first five years of their existence is meaningless if vital components like schemes similar to the UK’s SEIS aren’t put in place. In my experience, some start-ups take a lot longer than just the first five years to flourish.

And in the current ‘start-up as a lifestyle’ hype cycle, we are forgetting critical reasons for Ireland investing heavily in its science and research infrastructure — to create companies and organisations with the intellectual property (IP) to one day employ thousands of people in companies with a solid technology baseline.

Prior to Science Foundation Ireland being formed in 2002, Ireland had no credible research infrastructure to speak of. Research projects often gathered dust and tech transfer offices in Irish universities were a pen-pusher’s nirvana or just paid lip service to.

Everything has changed, so pay attention

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Mark Davies, Hooke Bio

But in the last 13 years everything has changed as literally legions of PhDs have been created across the Irish academic landscape. Technology Centres focusing on cloud, big data, education technologies and more have been established. And IP is being created and companies are being spun out of Irish universities at a rate never seen before.

A number of coincidences this year and more specifically last week have convinced me that if we talk about start-ups by incorporating what goes on in labs and not just garages, hipster coffee shops and accelerators, we might just have a more rounded picture of the real potential right here on our doorstep.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of talking with Professor Mark Davies, an academic who seems to have found his stride in setting up companies and selling them on. A lecturer at the University of Limerick, Davies came to the university 25 years ago to just lecture. However, along with fellow mechanical engineer and research colleague Dr Dalton, Davies founded Stokes Bio in 2006 to provide genetic analysis systems for the agri-food industry. He went on to sell that company for US$44m in 2010. A spinout of Stokes Bio called GenCell was sold to Becton Dickinson in the past year for US$150m.

Now, as well as lecturing, Davies and Dalton are moving on to their next venture, Hooke Bio, which has already filed five patents for newly-invented technologies that could result in novel drug combinations that could change how new drugs are discovered.

“I don’t know anyone in my field who is driven by money,” Davies said at the time. “People just love doing what they do and if you are successful, yes, you can make a load of money. The measure of success is really how good your idea is, how good an application it is, and, yes, that can only be measured by money.”

Powering up

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Eamonn O’Malley, co-founder Powervation, Jun Lida, Director ROHM Semiconductor and Mike Smith, SVP and GM ROHM Semiconductor. Picture: John Sheehan Photography 

I thought of Davies when news of another University of Limerick success story hit the headlines last week. Founded in 2006 as a University of Limerick spin-out, Cork-based Powervation was acquired by Japanese semiconductor giant ROHM for US$70m. Powervation created intelligent digital power-integrated circuits for the burgeoning communications and cloud markets. It has been backed by investors SEP, Intel Capital, VentureTech (TSMC), Braemar Energy Ventures and Semtech corporation.

Now it is in pole position to help ROHM capitalise on the US$11bn power management chip market.

During the week, a DCU-based software company called Iconic revealed a new US$400,000 seed funding round from Bloom Equity and the Boole Investment Syndicate through the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN). The investment will pave the way for 15 new jobs that will grow Iconic to 25 people in the coming year.

Glasnevin-based Iconic provides cloud-based translation solutions to language service and translation companies and targets the language industry.

Iconic was founded in 2013 by Dr John Tinsley and Dr Páraic Sheridan after almost a decade of R&D at the CNGL Centre at DCU.

Again, this backs my point, we need to remember the labs and Ireland’s overall research agenda if we are to be serious about creating start-ups that will go the distance.

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Dr John Tinsley, co-founder & CEO, Iconic; Minister Damien English TD; Dr Páraic Sheridan, co-founder, Iconic. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

This very thought was in my mind last week when I had the pleasure of being introduced to Declan Dagger from a company called Empower the User, a Trinity College spinout, during a visit to Learnovate, one of the technology centres established by the Government.

Empower the User, which is already revenue positive and provides Fortune 1000 companies with thousands of workers with technology to create simulations to train employees, is the result of a long journey that began 10 years ago as part of a research project by four PhD students

The company spun out of Trinity in 2010 and now has customers all over the US. “We spun out of Trinity in 2010 after two-and-a-half years of productisation and before that three years of incubating,” Dagger recalls.

“It can sometimes be a long journey where everything seems to take twice as long.” But it is a journey that is paying off for Empower The User through spectacular customer wins among Fortune 1000 companies.

It is a journey. If you have the conviction it is a journey well worth taking, even if it takes time.

In our conversations about start-ups paving the way for job creation, it is important that we don’t overlook the massive investment that has been made in PhDs and building a credible research ecosystem.

Look to the labs, folks. Look to the labs.

Innovation journey image at top via Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com