On the evening of Friday 22nd March next, at the magnificent Titanic building in Belfast, the winners of the Irish Times Intertrade Ireland awards will be announced for 2013. This brings to a conclusion a process started early last December when over a hundred companies submitted their entries; followed by an evaluation to produce a short list of eighteen finalists; and then a finalists’ judging day in early February.
There are six innovation categories, with a prize in each category: creative industries; agri-food; life sciences; business services; green tech, and social innovation. There is also special recognition award, for the best North/South collaboration. Finally, an overall ‘Innovation of the Year’ will be announced from amongst the six category winners.
I had the privilege of chairing the finalists’ panel of six judges. A few weeks earlier, we had been sent the submission from each of the three finalists in each of the six categories, allowing us plenty of time to read through the entries. Four of the eighteen are from Northern Ireland. The judging day itself was hosted in the board room of the Irish Times in Dublin, with each of the three teams in the various categories in turn making a short presentation to the judges and answering questions. In addition, the various independent referees cited by the eighteen finalists were also contacted and the veracity of each submission confirmed.
The six category winners will individually receive a media deal from the Irish Times worth €10,000, and an iPad. The overall Innovation of the Year will in addition receive a communications and advertising package from the Irish Times worth €150,000; an executive education programme from UCD; a high end laptop, and a consultancy package.
It would be unfair of me to specifically comment on any of the eighteen finalists in advance of the awards ceremony on the 22nd next.
The variation in business focus amongst the eighteen finalists was broad, and it was certainly challenging to compare and contrast them. One criterion we used was the extent to which each submission already had satisfied customers, who were more than happy to act as references for further sales prospects. By contrast we considered any prototype which had yet to be sold as a weak entry for the competition, not matter how exciting its potential (but as yet unproven) market prospects. We also considered the sustainability of each innovation: if a new offering did not have a viable business model, and a clearly articulated competitive positioning, then we also deemed it a weak submission. One or two entrants however apparently mis-understood ‘sustainable’ solely to mean energy-efficient, and did not consider these issues of market survival. Yet another consideration for us was to what extent the innovation was defensible. Could it be duplicated by a competitor, and what barriers to entry (such as specialist know-how, market leadership, technical complexity, and patents) were in place to reduce this risk?
An important deliberation for us was whether an innovation was potentially a world-first, or instead an idea already well-proven elsewhere and just imported into the Irish market. This in fact was one aspect for us for a sustainable entry: could the innovation be exported globally? Or could it become under threat even in the home Irish market by a foreign entrant with an essentially similar idea? Some may counter that Ryanair successfully brought the American carrier South West’s proven business model to Irish market and to Europe. However for us as judges, for an imported foreign innovation there needed to be a clear articulation why there was nevertheless a viable and sustainable opportunity.
For me, the most encouraging conclusion from the eighteen finalists was the breadth of entrepreneurship and innovation across many different business sectors, both North and South. Despite a challenging fiscal backdrop in the South, and despite the large public sector dominance of the Northern economy, there is clearly a determination to innovate and compete, whether it be in new products, services or novel business processes. Established companies are successfully reinventing themselves, and new ventures with significant innovations are being successfully launched. There is also a strengthening interaction between companies North and South, and it was noteworthy how many of the finalists have formed collaborative clusters of expertise.
For those government ministers and officials concerned with economic development, there is clearly much to give encouragement. InterTrade Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland are each demonstrably strengthening the indigenous base. What policy opportunities are there to accelerate the momentum? There is much in the Republic’s 2010 Innovation Taskforce Report which remains unimplemented in the South, and much of the report could also be duplicated in the North. Leveraging public procurement to accelerate enterpreneurship does not happily sit alongside innovation, since the former is risk averse and the latter is inherently riskful. Nevertheless the leadership by the Irish Times and InterTrade Ireland in recognizing and rewarding successful innovation is one which governments on both sides of the border could augment and deepen without endangering procurement policies and rules. Collaborative innovation which is not only commercially viable with export potential, but which also positively impacts society at large, should be explicitly sought out and publicly rewarded.