Colleges must foster campus entrepreneurs

Mon, Oct 1, 2012, 01:00

Innovation is not a nice-to-have element, it’s an imperative if jobs are going to be found for graduates, says Dr Charles Wessner, a US government adviser, writes FRANK DILLON

IRELAND NEEDS TO avoid complacency about its education system and develop much stronger links between businesses and colleges to foster entrepreneurship.

That’s the view of Dr Charles Wessner, a leading US government adviser on innovation policy. Wessner, who is director of technology innovation and entrepreneurship at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, spent a week in Ireland recently where he visited colleges, research facilities and multinationals and addressed the TCD/UCD Innovation Academy.

“Ireland faces some serious challenges and one of those is around its education system. You have to ask yourself why there are now over 60,000 unemployed graduates here,” he says. “Innovation is not a nice-to-have element, it’s an imperative if you are going to find jobs for your graduates.”

Wessner says that the feedback he received on his trip here from businesses was that graduates were lacking in essential skills to hit the ground running for employers. “There has to be more work done on business and entrepreneurship on campus. Businesses need to be spending more time in the colleges and there’s a role here for government in leading and facilitating this.”

As well as turning out more rounded business focused graduates, there needs to be more campus-based entrepreneurship.

Changing habits and mindsets is important. Wessner says that in talking to the heads of colleges in Ireland, there is frustration about the so-called “audit culture”. “‘Don’t misspend a penny and do like it’s always been done or don’t do it at all’ seems to be the default position.”

Wessner says that there are many myths about expanding faculty entrepreneurship. There is no evidence to suggest that this type of activity undermines the core mission of knowledge generation and dissemination or that commercial motives shift effort away from fundamental research questions.

Ireland has some good models for developing innovation including TCD/UCD’s Innovation Academy, but needs to ramp up what it does dramatically if it is to tackle the country’s crippling unemployment problem. “Ireland has invested in human capital, and needs to maintain that commitment as talent is very mobile.”

On a more positive note, Wessner says Ireland has some excellent installed assets in terms of research facilities, and that leading companies here had a very positive view of Ireland. As a Google manager, adapting the famous adage about buying from IBM, told him: “Nobody gets fired for investing in Dublin.”

However, foreign direct investment is also mobile, he adds, and Ireland need to avoid complacency about its

base of multinational who may not be as embedded here as we seem to believe.

Asked about the comparative performance of the Israelis and ourselves, he replied that they bring more focus to the game; they are very united in driving their innovation strategy as well as well integrated with funding sources in New York.

Wessner believes Ireland can also learn from President Barack Obama who, he says, understands the importance of innovation and has “arguably the most comprehensive and well-thought out innovation policy put forth by a US president”.

Among the key elements of the president’s innovation strategy are a ramping up of RD investment, renewing the manufacturing base, clean energy innovation and reform of the patent system .

Wessner says that Ireland should look to the US model of supporting innovative early stage start-ups. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme has been running since 1982 and was extended for a further six years by President Obama earlier this year.

SBIR provides grants to small firms in a number of stages. The first stage covers feasibility to provide proof of concept with a second stage funds research towards a prototype and a third stage supports product development. By the time the business reaches stages two and three it can attract venture capital because it has already established some feasibility, so this system can work to attract both public and private sector funding to small business start-ups.

You don’t have to be a company to apply – many on-campus initiatives are supported, for example – and the application procedure is light on red tape and paperwork.

“New ideas, because of their very nature, often cannot attract support, so they face a major hurdle in their development and fall into the valley of death. This programme provides a bridge,” Wessner notes.

One of the ways in which the Irish Government could assist this process is in opening up its procurement system to encourage small innovative enterprises to bid for public contracts. This has been one of the cornerstones of the SBIR programme in the US, he points out.

Wessner also believes that Ireland is not exploiting the potential to win public sector contracts in the US in areas such as health and military procurement.

About $32 billion is spent in the area of health research, he notes, and Ireland should be getting a much bigger slice of this than it currently is.

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