On the road to innovation


INNOVATION ROADSHOW:INNOVATION IS AN individual pursuit not best suited to teams or committees, where the character of those involved is often as important to its success as the idea itself. The key roadmap to all successful innovation remains identifying a problem and attempting to solve it. These were some of the key lessons from the series of Innovation Cities Roadshow events organised by Innovation magazine in association with several leading innovative partners this autumn.

For all the macroeconomic woes, on a microeconomic level at least, innovation seems very much alive on the island of Ireland.

A common thread running through the events, held in Belfast, Derry, Galway, Limerick and Dublin, was that, despite the difficult trading conditions for many, there is still a host of inspiring entrepreneurs out there prepared to push their ideas forward. Similarly, there are the support networks in place to assist in bringing those ideas to fruition, from the various universities prepared to lend expertise and services, through to national organisations and venture capitalists eager to finance good ideas.

At the opening event at the University of Ulster’s campus in Belfast, investor Bryan Keating, managing partner at CIP Partnership, spoke of the numerous small businesses on the island that go unrecognised in the national or international innovation rankings, but are the backbone of their local economy.

He said that on many trips across Northern Ireland, he found small engineering firms fulfilling international contracts, sometimes with major blue-chip companies. However, because they go about their business quietly and have little interaction with the business or consumer markets on the island, their success can often go unrecognised.

In our efforts to spot the next potential start-up coming through third-level or competing for foreign direct investment, we shouldn’t discount the role played in our economy and society by these small, indigenous, innovative firms, he said.

Keating also underlined the importance of the individuals behind the innovation as much as the idea, a view supported by the college’s director of innovation, Dr Tim Brundle, and Brian McKimm, who manages E-Synergy’s £10 million fund for start-ups in the North.

Once the idea is in place, it’s about getting your message out, and the importance of managing the brand was highlighted by professor of marketing research Stephen Brown, when the roadshow moved to UU’s Magee Campus. In a thought-provoking presentation he underlined the need to have a clear, concise and easily understood message for both customers and clients.

A similar marketing theme was taken up at the early morning briefing at UCD’s Smurfit Business School in Dublin in late October, where speakers including Prof Damien McLaughlin and John Fanning outlined the potential for agri-business and Irish food companies to co-operate in creating a single message that the Irish food industry is open for business and has the quality to compete on the world stage.

McLaughlin also spoke of the massive potential of the African market during the questions and answers session, saying that in many ways the Chinese market has already been tapped by global players, and small firms should perhaps look to the undeveloped markets on the African continent for new opportunities, even though they may seem incredibly challenging at first.

At the University of Limerick, the debate focused on how Irish cities and their respective industry communities and economic development agencies can best develop more competitive and sustainable regional and local economies through innovative business practice. Speakers included Dr Stephen Kinsella, lecturer in economics at the university, Donal O’Connell, managing director of Chawton Innovation Services and Dick Meaney, vice president at Analog Devices.

Dr Kinsella highlighted the conditions for innovation needed in the midwest. “Limerick could be a city thriving on innovation in the 21st century. What we require is the correct approach to encouraging genuine innovation, rewarding success, but also encouraging failure. New ideas don’t always work out, but the economy as a whole gets better if we get the conditions right where talented people can set-up, try something new, fail, and start again, this time wiser and better for it, he said.

“The criteria for innovation are clear: climate, context and credit. I believe that Ireland has the climate for innovation, the context is dependent on the individual context of the industry you are involved in and credit, without it you can’t stay alive.”

Kinsella said that of the things to be positive about the current economic climate, it’s that the Government is finally getting tough with banks.

Donal O’Connell, author of Inside the Patent Factoryand former vice president of R&D at Nokia, said: “Innovation starts with thinking differently. It is a process of questioning, experimenting, learning and adapting. Innovation consists of a number of different phases. It can impact not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘where’.

However, the innovation process involves ambiguity, controversy and non-linearity, and this poses a challenge for many.”

Moving back to Dublin and the focus was on reinventing public sector reform when the roadshow took to the headquarters of PwC, where Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin announced the appointment of former Eircom executive Paul Reid as programme director of the new Reform and Delivery Office within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Mr Howlin reiterated that the need for greater integration of the public sector in areas such as human resources, payroll and pensions was required to reduce costs and improve efficiencies.

During the discussion, Paul Wickens, chief executive of Enterprise Shared Services, described his role in leading the introduction of shared services for the Northern Ireland civil service.

Despite a degree of initial resistance, he said his “experience of rolling out shared services to all 12 departments in the Northern Ireland civil service demonstrated it’s possible to deliver a positive change in service quality while also generating significant efficiencies across government”.

Niamh O’Donoghue, secretary general of the Department of Social Protection, said management in the public sector was open to reform, and significant changes are already well under way, even if they had not yet caught the public’s attention.

The online revolution in consumer relationships formed the basis of the discussions held at the offices of consultancy firm Accenture Ireland, where Colin Ryan, the head of the firm’s operations and innovation consulting practice, focused on the rapid growth of social media and the need for companies to be wary of ignoring its power.

“Consumers take comments and criticisms on social media, via friends and contacts, very seriously and firms need to be focused on monitoring the commentary and reacting to the critics in the social media sphere.”

He highlighted several case studies where big-name firms that didn’t promptly react online suffered severe financial and reputational repercussions.

This event was followed by a roadshow briefing on one of the most innovative areas of the economy, the Cleantech sector, hosted by law firm ByrneWallace. Here one of Ireland’s leading serial entrepreneurs in the sector, Norman Crowley of Crowley Carbon, outlined his firm’s policy for investing in ideas and the enormous potential of tapping into the wasted energy from production facilities across the country.

“In every business we’ve ever had, product innovation has been the key. Innovation isn’t really a team sport. It needs somebody to lead it, somebody to decide what the product should be and everyone else to roll in behind it.”

Crowley argued the key to innovation, learnt from the likes of Apple, is to look to solving problems. One of his firm’s latest products is used for recovering waste industrial energy.

“The most available renewable energy in the world is waste heat, which is 40 times more available than solar energy. For example, one major Irish firm dumps 70 megawatts an hour of heat through its production process,” he said. “Imagine how may one megawatt windmills, which in reality generates about 300 killowatts an hour, would equal the energy generated by capturing all the wasted energy.”

Crowley says his firm has a new device that turns low-grade heat into electricity. The current rivals convert about 8 per cent of heat into electricity, but Crowley’s latest product claims to convert 27 per cent of heat into electricity.

“Innovation is about solving a problem for someone and the minute you do that the customers will come to you with chequebooks, even in the worst recession we’ve known.”

Ronan Furlong of Dublin’s Green Way outlined plans for the city to become a Cleantech hub. “Cleantech investment is up 25 per cent and encompasses everything from meat plants to mining and is probably the most important venture capital operation out there. In the US venture capital market, it’s now bigger than pharma investment. “

Part of the Greenway’s efforts involves linking businesses with start-ups and research here through third-level institutions, and Tom Flanagan, head of the DIT’s Hothouse incubator, referred to the focus on this sector already under way with firms in the college’s facility.

“Every year we have about 32 new entrepreneurs entering the hothouse and over the last decade we’ve held over 270 start-ups, of which over 160 of those are still in business. These firms have attracted €87 million investment and over 1,000 jobs.”

Deriving “big knowledge” from “big data” represents information technology’s key challenge, according to one of Ireland’s leading researchers.

Such is the pace of information generation that in ten years’ time there will be 44 times the current amount of data in the digital space, Dr Stefan Decker of NUI Galways Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) has forecast. He was speaking at the final roadshow event, hosted in Galway by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Commenting on social media and future technology trends, he sad some 90 per cent of data in the world today has been created in the last two years, according to IBM. Open data sets with more than 25 billion facts, interspersed by 400 million typed links, are doubling every 10 months alone, Dr Decker pointed out.

However, millions of different information sources are of limited value without interconnections which can help to solve key global challenges, such as climate change, Dr Decker said. He outlined DERI’s work on the semantic web, which provides a common framework for sharing, reusing and “adding value” to digital information.

Ireland’s size is such that it could be far more competitive in research, development and deployment of such technologies, but there is a current shortage of qualified graduates to fill vacancies in the sector, he said.

Dr Decker’s colleague at DERI, Dr John Breslin, noted that the next generation of web encompassed the notion of “linked data”, whereby it was not only pages that were linked on the web but also data with an “associated meaning”. The world was “going hyperlocal”, he said, in that one’s geolocation could be tied strongly to activities online.

Dr Breslin is a founder of New Tech Post, which publishes technology articles, and a co-founder of one of Ireland’s largest discussion forum websites, boards.ie, which began as a gaming forum in 1998 and now has over two million visitors a month.

During questions, Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) interim director-general Dr Graham Love said one of the major problems facing social media outlets was application of “filters” to ensure information could be trusted.

Traditional media, such as The Irish Times, had such filters, he said. If both traditional and social media merged eventually, he took the “Darwinian approach” that human judgement would still be required – albeit by a small number of editorial people at the top.

Asked if it was worth a small business’s time to use social media for marketing, Dr Breslin said that “even 30 minutes” spent daily on targeting customers was worth it. However, it should be part of an integrated strategy, he said.

He advised businesses to choose their platform carefully, and to avoid spreading themselves too thinly. “Be part of the conversation,” and “acquire engaged followers”, he counselled, as there was “no point being a standalone broadcaster”.