The next big thing: thinking small

Fri, Dec 11, 2009, 00:00

WITH THE right national investment in high-end manufacturing and research, Ireland has the potential to be “the hub for many breakthroughs at Intel in the future”, according to Jim O’Hara, country manager for Intel Ireland, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

O’Hara was speaking on the potential for the nascent nanotechnology industry – industrial and technological development at a microscopic level – and calling for broader research and manufacturing investment overall to produce dividends in Ireland.

Intel’s fabrication plants already produce microchips using cutting-edge nano-level manufacturing processes.

Addressing an audience of industry, research and agency speakers at a half-day conference last week at Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery, O’Hara was blunt in expressing concerns and reservations.

His take on the much-hyped “knowledge economy” that is the regular subject of Government speeches? “People won’t support the idea of a knowledge economy if it is an elitist, small, white-coat initiative,” he warned.

He also expressed concerns about the potential for research programmes to become unproductive and bloated if administrators do not take the brutal “weed and feed” approach more common in private industry, cutting projects with little promise and transferring resources to those that have potential.

“If this is not done in research, you just end up with a bureaucracy,” he said.

In contrast to comments from State agency speakers, he expressed concern that the State dropped the ball in not keeping high-end manufacturing as a central part of its research and development (RD) investment programme during the Celtic Tiger years.

“I don’t believe research and development can survive in an isolated environment from manufacturing. Ireland inadvertently communicated to the world that it was interested in RD, but the consequence was that we were not interested in manufacturing. I think that’s a very dangerous approach. I think advanced manufacturing in its various forms is the building block and foundation from which wonderful RD can thrive,” he said.

Jim Lawlor, Enterprise Ireland’s director of industrial technologies commercialisation, accepted there was truth in the criticism.

“We have a challenge: how to recover manufacturing and materials from what I consider to be a mistake,” he said, referring to the slowdown in investment while the Government and agencies waited for a report from its the newly established Irish Nanotechnology Forum.

Ireland initially put £650,000 (€825,000) into nanotechnology research in 2000, he noted. “In my opinion, it is one of most successful things we’ve ever done. But then we lost our way. We stopped as we waited for a report. Often we just stop – we need to stop doing that. It was only in 2004 that we picked up again.”

Between 2004 and 2009, the Government invested €10 million back into nanotechnology, he added.

In an interview, former IDA Ireland chief executive Seán Dorgan, who chaired the conference, said Ireland was beginning to see a small but significant industry coalesce around nanotechnology at research centres in Cork and Dublin, but the time had come to solidify that into a national nanotechnology strategy.

“A lot has happened since the first Science Foundation Ireland investment in nanotechnology,” he said. “There’s a recognition growing about the importance of nanotechnology and its significance, but there’s still a vagueness. We need to start getting the different pieces talking to each other. There’s a need to translate that research, to pull it out of the pipeline.”

A key direction is to start looking at ways of getting value out of nanotechnology research, he said. He highlighted the partnership between TCD’s Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (Crann) and computer maker HP, which is investigating using advanced nano materials for producing display screens, as an example.

Leonard Hobbs, engineering research manager at Intel, said in an interview that the new Competence Centre for Applied Nanotechnology, launched last month at the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, would take on the role of looking for commercial applications of research in the nanotechnology area.

“It’s not just that you have the good science and good ideas. You have to shape them and send them in specific directions,” he said.

IDA Ireland chief executive Barry O’Leary said he felt Ireland had much possibility in nanosciences and needed to be focused on the sector because of its high growth potential.

“It is an area that’s programmed for absolutely spectacular growth and this is a space that Ireland wants to be playing in,” he said in his address, noting that analysts predict the market to grow from $147 billion (€100 billion) now to more than $3.1 trillion in five years.

“The race is well under way and we have left the starting blocks behind,” he said, but added that many other countries were also eyeing the sector, ranging from the manufacturing powerhouses already established in the area – the US, Germany and Japan – to newcomers – the smaller, more direct Irish competitor states such as Singapore, Taiwan and Israel.

Intel’s O’Hara again expressed a cautionary note.

“We’ve only just started in this whole area of nano research. It is disconcerting to hear people talk of jobs tomorrow for what we’ve only just invested in. This is a long road and we have to invest in the infrastructure. It’s very early days to be expecting putting a dollar in here and then expecting two dollars out there.”

More positively, he added: “We have short-term impediments which we will fix one way or another, maybe with outside help or maybe without outside help.”

Overall, all speakers at the conference concluded that the sector, and commercial applications growing out of Irish research within it, was promising for the State. “The basis of nanoscience is the basics of science – maths, physics and chemistry – so it’s not entirely new. But it is the next big thing,” said Hobbs. “You definitely want to be involved in it.”