In the 21st century, it will be the innovators that generate the jobs and wealth. They need to be encouraged, writes John Kennedy.
On a sun-showery spring day in 1999, I had a conversation with an academic at UCD Business School in Blackrock. It started pleasantly enough, but set alarm bells off in my mind. He said that “tech transfer” – the conversion of academic research into industry and, ultimately, businesses that create jobs – at that time in Ireland was virtually non-existent and that most research projects just gathered dust on professors’ shelves.
This contrasted with the US where tech giants such as Cisco had emerged as campus companies, only to become industry giants laying the plumbing of the internet. Around this time, people were starting to use Google for the first time. The company was founded on the campus at Stanford University in California by two PhD students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, just a year previously in 1998.
‘The world is changing and higher education is facing a disruptive revolution, and we need to make sure that we are ready by pushing the boundaries and creating an integrated ecosystem, where civil society, industry and academia collectively participate in the process of economic development’
– PROF WILLIE DONNELLY
It was a surprise revelation by the professor because at that very time, Iona Technologies – a company founded on the campus of Trinity College Dublin that bootstrapped itself most of the way –was the darling of Nasdaq, and inspired other tech founders to pursue the IPO dream.
Remember, this was four years before Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was created and given a war chest of around €1bn to correct the anomaly, whereby the Irish academic landscape was a cosy, sleepy career path for lecturers, and PhDs pushing boundaries were in the minority.
In 2003, SFI came onto the scene and laid the foundations for a turnaround that can only described as miraculous, if such a word can be used in the scientific community. In the intervening years, thousands of PhDs have been created in Ireland. Proof of the pudding, if there were such metrics, can be seen in the continuous cycle of breakthroughs from various research centres around Ireland.
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