Cork and Tralee institutes of technology build on decades of industry collaboration
Regional higher education institutions have long supported local businesses and harnessed the power of external links for success
IT Tralee hosts two technology gateways, Shannon ABC and IMaR, which offers expertise in ICT and engineering to Irish firms. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Working with external partners on research and innovation projects has helped Ireland’s Institutes of Technology have a real economic and societal impact, particularly in their local regions. Dr Siobhán Mac Sweeney, head of research at Institute of Technology Tralee, and Dr Niall Smith, head of research at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), describe the importance of research partnerships and how their institutes have collaborated successfully to establish the new Munster Technology University (MTU).
External partnerships are the main driver of research and innovation across Institutes of Technology and Technological Universities (TUs), according to Mac Sweeney. “This can be traced back to our origins,” she explains.
“Institutes of technology were never traditionally core funded within the higher education funding models to conduct independent research like the universities. So they always looked externally, to collaborate and to address the needs of our partners. For almost 50 years now, we have collaborated with partners across the full spectrum of local, national and international organisations and with enterprise, community partners, universities and other research performing organisations.”
She points to the Enterprise Ireland funded Technology Gateway programme as an excellent example of institutes partnering with industry on research projects. “The Technology Gateways are located in institutes right across the country and provide open access to all sizes of Irish companies to engage in research and innovation and offer enhanced training on emerging technologies,” she says.
“IT Tralee hosts two Technology Gateways, Shannon ABC, which supports Irish companies across a range of life sciences projects, and IMaR, which offers expertise in ICT and engineering to Irish companies.”
“CIT hosts two gateways,” Smith adds. “The Technology for Embedded Computing (TEC) Gateway with expertise in ICT system level solutions, and the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Process Analysis (CAPPA) with expertise in the generation and exploitation of light.”
The vast majority of the research ongoing in IT Tralee is collaborative with external partners, Mac Sweeney points out. “Our research activity has grown exponentially over the past five to 10 years, aided by successive institutional research strategic plans that placed an emphasis on supporting research collaborations across multidisciplinary departments and growing our external partnerships to drive our research and innovation activities.”
CIT’s research income directly from industry has shown a steady rise year-on-year with the 2019 figure of €2.64 million representing a significant increase over the 2018 figure of €896,299. “The CIT figure represents 46 per cent of all of the direct industry funded research for the sector,” says Smith. “This level of support indicates the value of research to our partners.”
The local impact of research efforts is very important. “The institutes are constantly looking for ways to have a positive impact on the regions where they are located,” says Smith. “This includes improving quality of life, increasing employment, and making the regions more attractive for investment.”
Mac Sweeney adds that “our researchers work with micro businesses right through to MNCs, supporting local and regional enterprises to grow and create new jobs and attracting new skills and expertise into the local region.”
One example of this work is the RDI hub in Killorglin, Co Kerry. A partnership between IT Tralee, financial services company Fexco, Kerry County Council and Enterprise Ireland, the hub supports members to scale their fintech business through new product development, increased innovation and finding new market opportunities. The RDI hub aims to create 305 new jobs by 2024 and support the establishment of over 35 high-tech start-ups to drive economic growth in the southwest of Ireland and beyond.
In Cork, DENiM is an €11 million project funded by the European Commission through the Horizon 2020 Technologies for Factories of the Future programme and led by researchers from the CIT Nimbus Research Centre. This is a four-year initiative to address the need for energy-efficient manufacturing system management. The DENiM project will provide a novel technological solution to support a collaborative approach to energy management across various manufacturing sectors.
“DENiM will ensure that the southwest is a leader in a field that has implications for the region and its distributed population,” Smith adds.
Other examples of enterprise focused regional partnership initiatives at IT Tralee include the BioTech and IAGTech Clusters. These are supported by Enterprise Ireland’s Regional Technology Clustering Fund which promotes engagement between institutes of technology, TUs and SMEs and enterprise at a regional level.
In 2019, IT Tralee was awarded about €700,000 in regional technology clustering funding to establish bioeconomy and agritech clusters in the southwest of Ireland. The clusters bring together Irish companies operating in similar fields and offer them supports through education and research to enhance their capabilities and to drive their competitiveness to win business in international markets.
We are also seeing our alumni starting to appear in very senior positions in industry. This is helping us expand our networks
The nature of the collaborative research projects being undertaken has evolved over the years, according to Smith. “The focus of research in the CIT Technology Gateways in particular has shifted from a large number of small projects with industry to a smaller number of larger projects funded by industry and a greater development of long-term partnerships,” he says. “CIT has now moved into strategic multi-annual research programmes with external partners. Those partners are influencing our research activity and we see how we are simultaneously influencing them.
“We are also seeing our alumni starting to appear in very senior positions in industry. This is helping us expand our networks and we have gone from cold calling looking for partners to working with influential alumni directly.”
The ground has been prepared for the establishment of MTU by the long history of research partnership between CIT and IT Tralee. There is significant alignment already in the research activities of the two institutes, as is common across the institute of technology sector. Both institutes are recognised for their strong research and innovation capacity in Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) areas, particularly in working with enterprise.
“Our research activities are aligned to the national research priority areas particularly in the areas of ICT and advanced and smart manufacturing, food, climate action, health and wellbeing,” says Mac Sweeney.
The two institutes are partners of the UCC-led Bridge Network Technology Transfer Consortium. This partnership between the Technology Transfer Offices in UCC, CIT, IT Tralee and Teagasc is funded by Knowledge Transfer Ireland. “The collaboration is a key driver of technology transfer in Ireland, facilitating the outputs of publicly funded research to be transferred into our partner’s hands for the benefit of Irish people,” says Mac Sweeney.
IT Tralee and CIT are also established partners in the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme. The two institutes support early stage entrepreneurship in the Rubicon and Tom Crean incubation centres in Cork and Tralee respectively. These incubators offer comprehensive support to entrepreneurs to help them grow and develop their ideas into successful start-ups. Since its inception, the Rubicon Centre has helped companies to create over 1,100 jobs and raise more than €83 million in private and public funding. It currently houses 60 start-ups.
“These are two excellent examples of our institutes partnering together for the benefit of our regional partners and driving economic growth in Ireland,” says Smith. “Combined, CIT and IT Tralee cover the typical rural and urban landscape distribution in Ireland. This provides our researchers with opportunities for in-situ implementation in a manner which is not available to many other higher education institutes and represents an exciting opportunity for the future.”
That opportunity is reflected in the vision for MTU’s research and innovation strategy articulated by the research communities in CIT and IT Tralee: “To build a globally connected region that is an exemplar for sustainable, healthy and responsible living.”
Mac Sweeney concludes: “MTU is underpinned by almost 50 years of many thousands of successful partnerships forged between current and past staff of IT Tralee and CIT and external partners.
“We have reached the limits of our growth potential as institutes of technology. Enabled by technological university designation, MTU has unlimited capacity to expand and grow as a new vibrant multi-campus Technological University strongly positioned to boost the economic, social and cultural development of the southwest of Ireland, and beyond.”
To read more about research and innovation stories from the Institutes of Technology, visit thea.ie/Impact2020