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News : Innovation Last Updated: Aug 25, 2010 - 2:37:18 AM

Ireland’s universities TCD and UCD in research alliance aim to create new Nokia; Genesis of old Nokia or Ryanair wasn't in a lab
By Finfacts Team
Mar 12, 2009 - 4:44:18 AM

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Present at the launch of the Innovation Alliance in Dublon on March 11, 2009, were (l-r) Minister for Education & Science, Batt O'Keeffe, UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady, An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, TCD Provost, Dr John Hegarty, Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan.

Ireland’s two top universities, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD) on Wednesday jointly unveiled what they termed "a visionary job creation plan as part of the national recovery initiative," built around the "Smart Economy" in the presence of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen T.D. It was claimed at the launch, that a word-class company like Nokia could be created. However, it's well to keep in mind, that the genesis of successful companies such as Nokia itself or Ryanair, wasn't in a university lab.

Nokia's name comes from the river where its antecedents operated a paper mill. Nokia sold toilet rolls in Ireland, before mobile phones.

The TCD / UCD Innovation Alliance was termed "a radical partnership," which will work with the education sector, the State and its agencies and the business and venture capital communities to develop "a world-class ecosystem" for innovation that will drive enterprise development and the creation of sustainable high value jobs. By forming the Innovation Alliance the universities said, that they recognise a need to evolve and play a powerful role within such an ecosystem. TCD Provost Dr John Hegarty and UCD President Dr Hugh Brady said “This is a time of national crisis. Evidence shows that during recession, innovation thrives.  New realities bring with them new opportunities. The Government’s Smart Economy framework pinpointed the ingenuity of our people as the way forward for the country. In that context, as institutions with a relevant responsibility, we felt impelled to act and set out how we could advance the nurturing of that ingenuity”

At the launch, TCD vice-provost Prof Paddy Prendergast said it was hoped a world-leading company on the scale of telecommunications giant Nokia could emerge from the alliance. The alliance also envisages the establishment of an “IFSC for science and technology” which will be world leading. Both universities hope to establish an “enterprise corridor” along the four miles between them - - one of the most-expensive real-estate tracts in the world. This will be home to 300 new enterprises with advanced technology centres to support indigenous industry.

The new plan which brings together education, research and enterprise for job creation is said to be modelled on a similar approach, successful in the US, at both Silicon Valley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in Finland and Sweden in the 1990s.

The alliance will be supported by €650 million drawn from State, industry and private funding. The bulk of the funding will come from taxpayer funds.

“Previous successes highlight critical mass and concentration of resources, as well as partnership between the state sector, business and education as critical success factors”noted Dr Hegarty who added: “Both universities have established world standing and are national leaders in respect of PhD numbers and related outputs, such as patents and campus companies. Within this strategy our existing enterprise facilities will be part of an advanced wider national framework or  ecosystem and our graduates will flourish within it. Combining that vision with our existing commitment, we know that something of true impact is possible in an international context. We believe there is an obligation to take a lead and to grow our existing strengths to create something that will add to the national capability at a time of need.”

Dr Hegarty and Dr Brady concluded “This is an unprecedented move by our institutions that seeks to ensure that as a nation we can not again be in the position of educating students for export. Delivering on this vision will pose its difficulties but it is a new, bold and brave response that needs a commensurate response from all sectors”.

The merging of the research capabilities of Ireland's two top universities, is a positive move and is a better use of what is mainly a tax-funded endeavour.

I'm an optimist and entrepreneur but having had a dose of jargon such as "state of the art" and "cutting edge" from Ministers of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan and Micheál Martin, in recent years, which didn't even provide a veneer for their vacuity and ignorance, I'm dubious when intelligent people take the same tack.

What you may ask is a "a world-class ecosystem"?

While the development of a national research competence is important, I have highlighted in the past, that a programme, which will cost over €8 billion, by 2013, has received so little attention from members of the Oireachtas, either because of ignorance or lack of interest.

Data on amounts spent are published and last week, it was reported, that 13,900 R&D researchers were employed in 2007.

No information is published on the commercialisation of patents from university research.

There is an argument, that  universities and governments shouldn't focus all their resources on the conventional spin-off model, which is often only a relatively small part of the overall picture.

Steve Hsu, Professor of Physics at the University of Oregon has said: "Basic research tends to be underfunded primarily because the inventor seldom captures the lions share of future returns. This makes it less appealing to private investors compared to small optimizations (applications of existing technology) which lead more directly to products and profits. Therefore, funding for basic research must come from the public sector. Societies typically spend too little rather than too much, as future returns are diffuse and have no singular advocate."

UCC economists Declan Jordan and Eoin O'Leary, said in a 2007 paper, that the Government policy is based on a "science-push" view of innovation, where scientific laboratories are the source of the new products and processes introduced in Irish businesses.

"It overlooks the majority of business innovations that are non-technological, the shining example of which is Ryanair," they wrote. "It is also misguided in that business innovation is usually market-led. Historically, third-level institutes have rarely been the main source of business innovation in any country."

In their first survey of 184 high-technology businesses in 2004, Jordan and O'Leary found that the greater the frequency of direct interaction with academics, the lower the probability of both product and process innovation.

A study of a high-tech corridor in Texas found, that the growth of start-ups was higher than other regions but the failure rate was no different.

As to spawning another Nokia, no Irish tech company has annual revenues above $100 million and the general route is for promoters to cash-out at a low-scale size.

Last year, Ireland's biggest home-grown tech company Iona Technologies, was acquired by an American company of more recent vintage.

Should that have some relevance for policymakers?

Innovation; The Venturesome Economy and Ireland

The Irish Mind

Letter from Shanghai - -  Prof Seamus Grimes, NUI Galway

- - Michael Hennigan

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