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Innovators in search of problems to solve

A course teaches entrepreneurship and innovation in both theory and practice

Graduates of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School’s MSc in innovation, entrepreneurship and design gain more than a much sought-after Smurfit masters: many of them will also have created their own technology business as part of the degree.

That's the best way to sum up this unique course, according to academic director Dr Bruce Martin. It combines the "academic rigour and theoretical grounding of a traditional masters with extensive practical experience involving the creation of actual new ventures or new lines of business inside a firm".

The course, he says, “is ideally suited to those with a strong STEM foundation and considerable work experience, who want to play a role in creating new knowledge-based businesses.”

Participants on the two-year part-time course learn the theory and practice of innovation and entrepreneurship. The programme involves an academic component of seven taught modules and a major paper, and a practical element involving a 20-month practicum where students create new standalone ventures or new business lines within the companies where they work.


Students work in teams to create the new venture or business line. They receive input and mentorship from an entrepreneur- in-residence and are given the opportunity to interact with researchers in Science Foundation Ireland Centres and UCD STEM faculties. There is also formal review and input at the end of each term from experts from the NovaUCD industry incubator.

“A big part of what we are doing is helping to link the students up with researchers who are working on cutting-edge technologies in their field,” says Martin. “These include areas such as mathematical modelling, materials science, data analytics, digital games, mechanical engineering – it’s a very broad spectrum.

“The course involves a collaboration between three institutions: the UCD Smurfit School , with its strength in core business and innovation management; the National College of Art and Design’s design-thinking and industrial design expertise; and NovaUCD, with its expertise as a leading incubator of technology firms.”

To those who question whether entrepreneurship and innovation can be taught in a classroom setting, Martin says the theoretical element could be the most important component.

“When you are being entrepreneurial you are using different thinking and logic than when you are being managerial,” he says. “We explain the differences. There are a whole set of repeatable processes that can increase the likelihood of progress and success, but this is not the same as being entrepreneurial. It’s a case of factual reasoning versus causal reasoning.

“Factual reasoning is means- focused rather than ends-focused,” he says. “Managerial thinking is ends-focused. You develop a plan to reach a goal. This is great when you have an organisation and are looking for reliability. When you are in entrepreneurial mode, however, you are more interested in looking for the problems that might not be addressed at the moment and finding solutions for them.

“Entrepreneurs are means-focused – they look at the limits in their resources and their knowledge and work within them.”

This means finding ways around resource constraints rather than simply accepting them. Martin cites the development of SpaceX by Elon Musk as an example of this thinking.

“Elon Musk started with the idea that humankind would need another planet to live on and he looked at the idea of colonising Mars. He learned about that subject and asked if we could send mice there as a first step. It was only when he started interacting with Russian aerospace people that he saw the sad state of rocket technology and decided to build his own rocket ships.”

Affordable loss

Musk saw the SpaceX project as a necessary step on a path and was willing to take a risk on it. The resources in terms of rocket technology weren’t available to him, so he created them himself. This willingness to take risks is known as “affordable loss”.

“This is almost anathema to traditional managerial thinking,” Martin says. “It’s the difference in how you go about taking risks. It means you are willing to take a risk on something if you can afford the loss rather than simply trying to minimise risk all the time. This means entrepreneurs walk around with their arms open willing to listen to and share with others. They build alliances and are open to unexpected encounters and opportunities.”

Also vital is the practical end, where the support of the entrepreneur-in-residence comes in.

Majella Murphy has a wealth of experience with start-ups and entrepreneurships after working in a number of early-stage, high-growth firms and spent seven years with the NDRC, where she helped created the LaunchPad programme, Ireland's first digital accelerator.

“Whether they have an idea already or want to be an entrepreneur and don’t know what they want to do specifically,” Murphy says, “I work with them during their practicum to assist them on their way. I link them to the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem – researchers who have expertise in various domains, the investment community, the accelerators, the full spectrum.

"Students visit Science Foundation Ireland research centres such as Adapt and Insight during their first semester. This allows them to link up with researchers who may be working on new technologies that are at an advanced stage of development. In one case, this ended up with a student doing a project to commercialise a piece of research.

The overall aim of the course is to produce innovators in search of problems to solve.

“Students ask themselves what problems they experience in their day-to-day lives or witness in other spheres, and this could be the basis of a business idea,” says Martin. “They also understand that they can go down the path of creating a solution, only to find that there is no market for it and that they will have to go back again to find another problem to solve.

“This is not failure. It is all part of the learning experience. There will be a lot of stops and starts on their journeys.”

Places on the course, which begins in September, are limited to 15. See Smurfitschool.ie.