Time to accelerate our innovation and start-up culture

6 Oct 2011

Ben Hurley, National Digital Research Centre CEO

There is something methodical about the way National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) CEO Ben Hurley goes about things.

When I first interviewed him in 2007, it was in the aftermath of the closure of MIT’s MediaLab Europe in the heart of Dublin’s Digital Hub district, which cost the Exchequer €60m.

The NDRC, with funding of €25m, was to be the MediaLab’s successor after a consortium of third-level institutions successfully tendered for the job and, as Hurley said at the time, with a strict focus on indigenous, practical and collaborative research straight through to commercial application “all under one roof”.

Well, four years in and Hurley is true to his word. The NDRC’s LaunchPad accelerator programme for start-ups is one of three Irish accelerator programmes listed in the European top 10 of start-up incubators, along with DCU Ryan Academy’s Propeller Fund and the TechStars Startupbootcamp.

Also, the NDRC has succeeded in growing commercial follow-on investment in its companies ten-fold from €400,000 last year in one or two ventures to more than €4.4m in 15 firms in 2011.

Hurley, who has held several CEO and senior roles with companies like Innovada, Broadcom, Sepro and Ericsson, repeats the mantra as he spelled it out in 2007: “Our mission is to create market capital by accelerating research from ideas into income.”

The NDRC, which has created 36 high-growth jobs and is supporting more than 50 different research projects, turning ideas into businesses, published its annual report yesterday.

“We have always focused on start-up ventures that have a strong research base behind them and it’s our job to help them commercialise their research and create Irish companies that will provide jobs. Our view is that in commercialising research, it has to flow like a river and it has to get to the mouth of the sea. The end-game has to be the emergence of a start-up with significant commercialisation.”

Hurley says that while the word ‘start-up’ is in vogue, the methodology centres on taking projects from a research and educational background and enabling a critical outcome.

“Effectively, the focus is on getting a research project to the point where it will secure commercial investment – that’s the goal. Last year we succeeded in attracting €400,000 in follow-on commercial investment. This year we’ve got it to grow 10-fold to €4.4m, which we believe is a phenomenal outcome.”

Three structures of NDRC

The NDRC has three core structures. Its Inventorium group focused on turning ideas into products of substance; its Catalyser programme is oriented towards enabling collaboration between academia and industry; while it’s LaunchPad accelerator programme is a boot camp of sorts aimed at giving promising new start-ups the discipline, structure and product set to achieve further investment.

The key, Hurley explains, has been ensuring a disciplined structure to working on these three fronts.

“In this field, there’s enough risk and challenge without setting yourself up for a fall.

“You have to be realistic – and believe me, there’s a lot of uncertainty in this business – and then manage accordingly so that you can deliver.”

He says the road ahead is long, and paved with a lot of speed bumps. “Innovation is not a simple thing to understand, but it’s an easy soundbite for many to use. There’s a lot of interest from the political body in stimulating and supporting innovation. Most countries know this and in Ireland’s case we simply have no choice; we need to do this.

“Following the economic crash, our food sector and export base have held up well. So we don’t have any alternative but to be innovative,” he affirms.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years