Building on spirit of open innovation
INNOVATION PROFILE University of Limerick:THE UNIVERSITY of Limerick’s highly innovative Nexus Innovation Centre has exceeded all targets and expectations for its first year in operation. The centre is already supporting 76 high-value jobs in 32 newly-established companies. In addition, nine student co-operatives have been formed and 10 Jobbridge scheme placements have been accommodated.
Nexus offers dedicated office space to support new technology-based businesses together with two fully-equipped research laboratory suites, boardrooms, meeting rooms and ancillary support services. The centre aims to facilitate the transformation of new knowledge into commercially viable opportunities and seeks to create a hub or ecosystem around which regional innovation can be driven, organised and supported.
“Progress has been fantastic during the first year”, says Dr Mary Shire, UL vice-president of research. “We could never have expected to achieve what we have, it really has been unbelievable. We have 80 per cent occupancy now and this has surpassed all our expectations.
“The success of the centre is testament to the expertise and entrepreneurial support available at the university. It has been very encouraging to see international start-up companies such as iMosphere and iTrac Global base their operations here with the generation of high-value jobs for the Mid West region.”
She believes the centre has already reached the stage where it sells itself. “It is almost marketing itself by word of mouth now. And that’s the best way to do it. We have attracted a number of very exciting start-ups which are interested in connecting up with the research going on at the university.”
And part of the secret of its success is its very location within the university. “Traditionally, incubators and innovation centres on university campuses are located a bit away from things,” Shire explains.
“Nexus is right at the centre of things. The Lero, the software engineering research centre, is in the same building for example. It’s a very open place and researchers go there to engage with the companies. It is now a focal point for this engagement and we have researchers from the business school, form science and engineering and product design all going there to discuss ideas and work with the Nexus companies.”
Centre manager Andrea Deverell believes the success of the centre is as much down to human as physical or business factors. “I honestly believe it’s about building a community of people,” she says. “We are bringing companies and researchers together in one place and helping to build the human connections between them.”
This focus on people rather than the industry type or sector dates back to the very beginning. “In the early days, we decided not to tightly define the business types we wanted to attract,” Deverell explains. “We fundamentally believed that the more interesting stuff happens at the boundaries between the sectors and we have been proved correct over the past year.
“The type of company we are interested in is the HPSU type creature, the ones that are capable of trading internationally quite quickly regardless of their sector. A good litmus test of the companies we are looking for is the ones we are not interested in; we are not interested in companies just looking for space. If they just want to come into a space and close the door they are better off being somewhere off-campus. You need an open-door policy if you want open innovation.”
Shire agrees. “The attitude and the culture here combine to create openness and a willingness to work tougher. The companies in Nexus are interacting with the academic world – that is the spirit of UL anyway. I come from an industry background myself and we have always prided ourselves on our understanding of both the academic and industry cultures. We really have succeeded in creating an innovation ecosystem at Nexus. Having research with impact is our goal at UL. We want to translate our research into new knowledge with impact and Nexus is a key part of that.”
Collaboration also occurs between the companies at Nexus. “We are seeing companies exchange ideas and skill sets,” Deverell notes. “What we have found is companies bartering skills and helping each other out in a variety of ways. For example, some of the social media guys are helping out with marketing while the software companies are giving them some coding time.
“On Fridays we have an open coffee session where any of the businesses can talk about a problem or an issue they are dealing with and the others can contribute their knowledge to a solution. These are working out very well, with companies sharing their knowledge on issues such as making an application for the Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund.”
Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur Tony Leto found the Nexus Innovation Centre an ideal location for his software start-up iTrac Global. The company specialises in the development of international trade compliance software which will help companies of any size ensure their imports and exports to and from countries throughout the world meet all tariff and non-tariff requirements.
The market for global trade is expanding, with the figures set to increase to €53.2 trillion annually in the near future, while import/export regulations are becoming more and more complex. “The world’s largest 3,000 companies are spending more than $5 billion per year on government-mandated global trade compliance,” says Leto.
“And a further 100,000-plus companies globally are exposed daily to growing costs, delayed revenue, confiscated goods, fines and jail terms for executives, as well as frequent government audits. Our product aims to offer them a low cost means of complying with those regulations.
“I went to Singapore, India and Silicon Valley and everyone told me what I was looking for couldn’t be done,” he says. “Then I spoke to someone in the US who put me in touch with an Irish developer from UL called Oisín Lavery. I contacted him with my vision and idea and he said it hadn’t been done yet but didn’t see a reason why it couldn’t be. Within six weeks he was back to me with a prototype of what I had envisioned.”
After that they put together a team of other UL graduates to continue the development of the product and were then introduced to Deverell who informed them that the company qualified as an Irish HPSU and could located in the Nexus Innovation Centre.
“The knowledge base we need and the supports required for a start-up company are all available at the Nexus Innovation Centre. We could not be happier with the decision to headquarter here”, says Leto. “I really couldn’t say enough good things about the centre.”
The centre’s success is presenting challenges for the future, however. “Our biggest challenge now is to find more space,” Shire points out. “We are also revising our targets upwards in terms of the number of companies we want to support and jobs we want to see created.
“There is also the question of what happens to companies when they move on from here. We want to make sure that they stay connected with UL and remain part of the innovation ecosystem here.”
Deverell also sees greater international reach being part of that future. “The future is about building a community of great lean, agile businesses and helping them build the international connections which will see them grow. The first 12 months was about building that community, the next 12 will be about deepening the links between them and then assisting them to internationalise.”
To learn more about the Nexus Innovation Centre at the University of Limerick, go to nexusinnovation.ie.