A helping hand for entrepreneurs

Mon, Oct 8, 2012, 01:00

Ireland can boast some world-class centres for innovation and support for start-ups, the ‘Irish Times’ Innovation Roadshow was told

FOR ALL THE economic problems we face at a macro level, Ireland can boast some world-class centres for innovation and support for start-ups. That was one of the key messages from the first of this year’s Innovation roadshow events, held at University College Cork last Friday morning.

The college itself has been at the forefront of research and innovation to date, according to Prof Anita Maguire, vice-president of research and innovation at UCC.

Maguire outlined the remarkable rise of Irish research up the international rankings in the past 25 years and highlighted the investment from various bodies that has led to Ireland’s recognition as a centre for excellence on a global scale.

“We are now starting to see the delivery of nearly 25 years of work and development in terms of successful commercialisation and start-ups. Here at UCC we created what I believe was the first campus company back in 1985. Since then 18 firms have been created on campus, 10 in the last five years. Of these, 15 are still in operation, employing over 100 third- and fourth-level graduates,” she said.

UCC boasts four dedicated centres for research: the Tyndall Institute, the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, the Environmental Research Institute and the recently announced Maritime and Energy Resource Centre. The first two have already spun out internationally recognised commercial successes and there is great hope for new developments from these and the others in the near future, she said.

Given that it’s located in the national hub for pharma, it’s hardly surprising that UCC has close links to industry, particularly multinationals, but Maguire points out that while UCC was working on 35 industry-sponsored projects last year, it’s access to small and medium-sized firms is regarded as equally important.

“We top the list of third-levels with projects securing Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Vouchers programme, when SMEs can get funding to carry out research in association with academia,” she says.

The Irish Times Roadshow series aims to offer practical insights and advice on innovation and start-ups, and three workshops were given on funding, marketing and technology.

The funding strand was presented by two entrepreneurs with first-hand experience of the funding rounds and turning research into commercial success.

Joe O’Keeffe is a serial entrepreneur with 10 previous start-ups under his belt. His current firms include InfiniLED, which is bringing to market research on LEDs carried out at the Tyndall Institute. His other current business, ScienceWorks, aims to provide support to start-ups in getting to market.

O’Keeffe’s key message was that start-ups needed to define their offering and secure customer support before they complete business plans and begin funding rounds.

Declan O’Mahoney of Maywentee, which specialises in taking start-ups onto the international stage, spoke of the need for every business to have an exit strategy and consider its plan carefully before engaging with venture capital (VC) funding rounds.

He warned that while the VCs can offer great financial support at the start, their agenda and timing may be an enormous distraction to the actual business plan upon which the business was based.

“The more investors you have, the more time you spend seeking their approval and the less time you have to actually manage your business to success,” he says. “And when it comes time to exit, the business may sell for $100 million, but your share will be a very small fraction of that by the time the investors have had their cuts.”

During the marketing workshop, Deirdre Collins told the inspiring story of how she created Dee’s Wholefoods. Creating plant-based vegetarian meals, she has taken her firm from market stall to a major international food business, supplying not only Irish supermarkets but now on sale in Tesco stores in the UK.

In the technology briefing, Brian Lavery of Vodafone Ireland offered up examples of how small businesses can dramatically cut costs and improve efficiencies through the use of smart technology. He gave the example of loss adjusters Cunningham Lyndsey, who were able to dispose of a host of paper-based formats and gadgets, replacing them with small 7-inch tablets that allowed direct access to the database and electronic filing systems.

Keynote speaker and Bord Gáis chief executive John Mullins outlined how even in large semi-State organisations, innovation should be an integral part of everyday business.

He told how the firm has embraced alternative energy research with major investments in wind and wave generation, created a multimillion euro research and development fund, and are involved with start-ups in the smart-metering sector.

The next Irish Times Roadshow takes place on October 19th at the University of Ulster York St Campus in Belfast. Details for the free event and others being held across the country are available at irishtimes.com/innovation/

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