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Geoscience companies drill down to collaborate

A network of 25 Irish engineering companies is delivering expertise in more than 50 countries

A network of Irish engineering companies set up in 2010 as a response to the economic downturn has helped member companies win a series of high-profile contracts across three continents, creating 250 jobs in the process. Geoscience Ireland (GI) comprises 25 companies that deliver integrated expertise in water, minerals, environmental and infrastructure development to clients in more than 50 countries.

"Geoscience Ireland is essentially a government-to-business initiative supported by the Geological Survey of Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, " says GI business development director Seán Finlay. "It is somewhat different to other support models in that it involved the establishment of a collaborative network of Irish companies in the geoscience area with a view to winning work overseas."

The initiative has its origins in the economic collapse. “Infrastructure spending in Ireland shuddered to a halt,” Finlay says. “A lot of geoscience companies suddenly found themselves with no work, so the two organisations got together to address that. It was clear that the firms involved had a lot of transferable skills which had international appeal. An initial reference group of five companies was established to discuss the issue in 2011 and preliminary market research was commissioned from Neary Marketing.”

That researched confirmed the potential of and support for the creation of a collaborative network designed to win business in international markets.

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“It was decided that a formal structure with a full-time manager was required”, says Finlay. “That initial reference group of five has now grown to 25 firms providing design, consultancy and contracting services to multilateral agencies, governments and the private sector in countries around the world.”

The collaborative approach has been central to its success. “Trust-building has been key to the success of the programme. Most of the companies involved were competitors in the Irish market but international projects are very large and even the biggest Irish firms can’t compete for them. They need to collaborate if they are to win those contracts.”

Five main areas of expertise

GI member companies operate in five main areas of expertise: geological; geotechnical; water services and infrastructure; environmental; and drilling, civil and mining engineering. They are also experienced in fossil and renewable- energy management such as oil, natural gas, geothermal sources, and geo-engineering of wind and wave energy sources.

The network targets a number of business development avenues. It seeks out appropriate tender opportunities in the developing world that are supported by the major multilateral development organisations and international financial institutions. These include the World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, as well as European Union and United Nations development agencies and bodies.

Activity is not confined to the developing world, however.

“We also target the UK, Scandinavia, and the Middle East”, says Finlay. “There is a lot of infrastructural development going on in those countries and they have capacity shortages that we can exploit. We don’t purport to attempt to dislodge the large international engineering firms. We are targeting niche areas and subcontracting opportunities.”

Working abroad is nothing new to the 25 member companies involved, given that they have worked in more than 50 countries and have offices in the UK, Africa, the Arabian Gulf and Australia. Projects worked on since the establishment of GI include a wastewater scheme in Abu Dhabi, a nickel mine in New Caledonia, a gold mine in Saudi Arabia, a water supply project in Ethiopia, and an audit of gold mining in Mali.

The geosciences sector received a major boost late last year with the announcement by Science Foundation Ireland of the establishment of the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience (Icrag). Icrag will bring together all of the main geoscience research units in Ireland and will have a total value over six years of €24 million, jointly funded by SFI and 53 industry partners. Led by University College Dublin, the centre also includes principal investigators from TCD, NUIG and UCC, with academic collaborators at DCU, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and NUI Maynooth.

The Icrag research programme spans a broad spectrum of application areas linked to applied geosciences, including raw materials, marine, groundwater and hydrocarbons, according to Icrag director John Walsh. "Associated research spokes are built around four enabling platforms which include geophysics, geochemistry, public perception and understanding and a 3D model of the subsurface of Ireland," he says.

Generic insights

Icrag research will provide generic insights on issues across the geosciences by capitalising on Ireland’s unique geological resources, including its world-class base metal deposits, its unusually extensive and highly prospective offshore basins and its world-class lowland karst and fractured bedrock aquifers. The principal goal is to embed the outcomes of our high-quality research within industry practice in Ireland and internationally.

The economic value of the new research centre could be very significant. "In terms of raw materials we all know the value of aggregates for roads and buildings but many people don't realise that Ireland is the largest zinc producer in Europe. In the offshore exploration sector the more top quality research which is carried out here will make it easier for us to attract major companies to come and invest huge amounts of money in the search for hydrocarbons."

For the future, Finlay sees the GI network continuing to create and sustain jobs in the Irish geoscience sector. “Engaging with overseas markets by means of developing and maintaining high-level networks with multilateral development agencies, foreign government bodies and private sector clients creates the opportunities required for winning business. We will continue to foster and facilitate the collaborative approach to winning international projects by our members.”