We had our third plenary meeting in Government Buildings yesterday, chaired by Dermot McCarthy. I’ve previously posted on the first, second and consultation meetings. The members of the task force are listed here, and most of the public submissions to date are here.
Almost everyone attended, but two of the private sector members were overseas. Junior Minister Conor Lenihan also attended for the entire day, along with staff from the Department of the Taoiseach. The meeting was scheduled from 10.00am until 3.30pm, but ran over by a further two hours.
Dermot McCarthy noted that he is now also chairing an inter-Departmental group to co-ordinate followup to the various recommendations emerging from the diaspora event at Farmleigh.
The meeting started with a presentation by Peter O’Neill of the DCENR on the current status of our broadband infrastructure. I’ve posted on this separately here. It was followed by a short presentation by Adrian Devitt of Forfas, in which he reported on current international comparisons, and the role of State investment and regulation in facilitating the next generation network roll-out.
Frank Ryan of Enterprise Ireland then presented on a second infrastructure topic, that of the provision of “wet labs” that could be leased by life-science start-ups and spinouts, as well as perhaps by larger commercial companies. A report by Biggar in July 2007 to both Enterprise Ireland and the IDA identified a national shortage (I cannot find the report online to link to it, please post me a comment if you have the link..) of such laboratory space in Ireland, and suggested strategies to address this. Frank reported that since then, ten different sites in the greater Dublin area had expressed interest in hosting a 5,000sq.m. facility, available as individual leasable modules of 300-350 sq.m. Approximately 12Meuro would be needed for construction (such space requires facilities for chemical gas management, bio-waste management and so), and depending on location and planning permits, between an 18-24 month lead time. During the Q&A there was considerable discussion about the demand for such facilities, particularly nationwide, and potentially co-located on academic campuses, and/or with the Cork life-science cluster and/or with the Galway medical devices cluster. The possibility of private investment, multi-national and/or investment funds was also discussed. Some believed that there could be a national demand of 5,000sq.m. per year for at least five years.
It was also noted that there are probable further infrastructure investments to catalyse an innovation economy, including clinical labs and a genomics database. In turn, there can be immediate benefit beyond the direct innovation economy via job creation for construction works.
Each for the four working groups then gave a status update, approximately one hour each including extensive discussion. In my view each has made good progress, and there are a number of specific recommendations emerging. Rather than report on each one, I list below a summary of some of the discussions, to give you a sense of the deliberations.
Investment funding for start-ups was discussed at length. There was a view that multinationals may well also invest in the strategic innovation fund, under certain conditions. Alternative philosophies of the role of State investment in start-ups were discussed, and the need for a holistic view of the return to the State via payroll, corporation and capital gains taxes. The weak deployment of the State-catalysed seed funds was examined. The need to attract overseas entrepreneurs into the economy to create further companies and employment was also explored, as was the role of exits to allow acquiring companies to scale.
Technology convergence is seen as a major opportunity, and can play to our strength as an island nation based on our indigenous companies and multinationals already here. Public procurement can also have a role in this regard. There may well be training and education implications to encourage innovation in cross-discipline and convergent technologies.
There was a lengthy discussion on the secondary and primary educational system, with focus on what outputs and results we might reasonably expect from the changes being made in the educational system, over the next five years.
The current status of the TCD-UCD alliance, including future plans, were presented and discussed. I was particularly interested in the projections for job creation and new company starts, which by my calculations showed a ratio of approximately 6 per 100Meuro of research funding per year – thus roughly twice the rate quoted by Michael Hennigan which I discussed in my earlier post here.
There was a discussion of the role which design can play in innovation, and how some US universities have design programmes in their engineering faculties which are entirely funded by commercial firms paying for innovative designs, and re-designs, of their products.
Concurrently with all these discussions, various suggestions and recommendations from many of the public submissions were also included.
But: the rubber has to hit the road. The task force has to report to Government before the end of the year (and subsequently to the public). The contributions from the four working groups, and from the public submissions, must be brought together in what we all hope can be a cohesive and pragmatic document.
Yesterday, we agreed a basic table of contents for our report. All agreed that 2 or 3 editors must now be allowed to take all the inputs, and synthesise these into what will become the report. There are some volunteers, and a final decision on who the editors will be will, I believe, be taken very early next week.
The next plenary meeting of the task force will be in early December, and the draft of the final report should be available for the entire task force at least a week beforehand. The meeting can then hopefully be used to take final amendments and suggestions.
So: a lot done, a lot discussed, a lot of input, but much more to do to bring things cohesively together. The next four weeks or so are going to be a busy time.