Ireland Notebook: A Look at National Labs and Research Centers

Xconomy National — 

A main challenge facing Ireland as it seeks to remain competitive in a global economy is its ability to be more than a tax haven or place for low-cost manufacturing and call centers—especially when other nations are offering stiffer competition at this low end of the innovation spectrum.

One critical way to do this is by strengthening the country’s homegrown science and technology base—offering multinationals new reasons to do business in Ireland when costs alone become less attractive. In fact, just after my mid-October visit, the country announced the creation of five new national research centers—bringing the total to 12, all created since 2013.

Jon O’Halloran is general manager of the Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre (SSPC), which is based at the University of Limerick. As he puts it: “What we’re trying to do is shift the paradigm.” In the past, a multinational’s Irish operations might run into problems that had to be solved elsewhere. The goal with the centers, he says, is that “instead of being an exporter of problems to corporate, we’re an importer of problems—and an exporter of solutions.”

I have spent much of my career looking at research and development issues in industry, academe, and government, writing four books about this important subject. In Dublin, I sat down with Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland, which oversees the national research centers, to learn more. I later took a trip to Cork and Limerick, visiting one national institute and two national research centers focusing on three different fields: biotech and pharmacological research, information and communications hardware, and software. What follows are some notes and impressions of what I found.

The Backdrop and Model

First, a disclosure: Science Foundation Ireland and SSPC are sponsors of Xconomy’s Innovation in Ireland report. So is University College Cork, which is also mentioned below. Xconomy’s ethics guidelines preclude sponsors from having any special say in our editorial content. I decided to write about the research center program because I find it extremely relevant to Ireland’s future in the global economy. This notebook covers not just what I think is good about the effort, but where I have questions.

The aim of the centers is to build world-class expertise in core fields where Ireland can compete globally—from software to hardware, computing to pharmaceuticals, energy to marine research. You can find a list here, although the five new centers are not on it as of this writing. Rather than fund them entirely from national coffers, the government requires industry participation to help ensure the work is both scientifically important and relevant to business. The five new centers each got 155 million euros from SFI and 90 million euros in cash and in-kind contributions from industry (funding for the first seven was a bit higher: 200 million euros from government, 100 million euros from industry—bringing the total Irish government commitment for the centers to nearly 2.2 billion euros). Basically, two-thirds is covered by government, one-third by industry, with plans to win additional funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program (this is a nearly 80 billion euro program from 2014-2020 to fund research initiatives designed to keep Europe competitive: a few center projects have already been funded).

There are too many layers to Ireland’s program to detail here. One key point is that the centers are not housed at any one institution. Rather, a lead institution functions as headquarters, with researchers spanning multiple institutions. Ireland is just too small in most cases to house a true, world-class operation at any one place—so these are virtual operations. Other key details:

—Centers operate on a hub and spoke model. The hub is the core research area and all industry partners get access to that work. Spokes are additional projects funded on top of the core, either by individual companies or consortia, allowing the centers to expand into new areas.

—Government funding isn’t permanent. Centers are funded for six years, with a review in Year 5 to determine if funding will continue past the sixth year. This review is based on output such as papers, patents, and spinout companies, as well as impact: were patents exploited, did spinout companies get funding, etc.

—Projects must get past two review committees to be funded. First, they are peer reviewed for scientific worth. Then, if they pass muster, a separate panel reviews them for real world impact. The first group of reviewers are scientists, the second group R&D directors, venture capitalists, etc.

—No one from Ireland, including the government, is allowed on either panel.

The point of the above, sums up SFI director Mark Ferguson: “We only fund research that is scientifically excellent and we only fund research that is impactful.”

The Tour

My first visit, on a rainy afternoon, was to Tyndall National Institute on the grounds of University College Cork. Tyndall is the largest scientific institute of its kind in Ireland, with some 460 scientists, researchers, students, and support staff. The core focus is information and communications tech, with deep expertise in microelectronics and photonics (it is also headquarters of the Irish Photonic Integration Centre, one of the national centers). It’s a hardware place—sensors and other enabling … Next Page »

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