I chaired the final judging panel for these national awards again this year. Here’s what I wrote about them for the Irish Times for April 7th last..
On the evening of Wednesday 9th April next, in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham Dublin, the winners of the Irish Times IntertradeIreland awards will be announced for 2014. The process started early last December when over a hundred companies submitted their entries; followed by an evaluation in January to produce a short list of eighteen finalists; and then a finalists’ judging day in mid February.
There are six innovation categories, with a prize in each category: agri-food; bioscience; creative industries; energy and the environment; IT and telecommunications; and manufacturing. There is also a special recognition award, for the best North/South collaboration. Finally, an overall ‘Innovation of the Year’ is chosen from amongst the six category winners.
I had the privilege of chairing the finalists’ panel of seven 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 based in 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 with one year subscription to the Irish Times. 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; and a high end laptop (with an Irish Times subscription).
It would be unfair of me to specifically comment on any of the eighteen finalists in advance of the awards ceremony on the 9th next.
It certainly was a challenge for the judging panel to compare and contrast the very varying business focus of the eighteen finalists. We were keen to establish that each entry already has satisfied customers, rather than just being a prototype with as yet unproven market prospects. We also wanted to establish the sustainability of each innovation: if a new offering does not have a viable business model, and a clearly articulated competitive positioning, then we deemed it a weak submission. Yet another consideration for us was to what extent the innovation is defensible. Can it be easily duplicated by a competitor, and what barriers to entry (such as specialist know-how, market leadership, technical complexity, and patents) are in place to reduce this risk?
An important deliberation for us was whether an innovation is potentially a world-first, or instead just an idea already well-proven elsewhere which has been imported into the Irish market. Does the innovation have export potential?
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. I saw a determination to innovate and compete, 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.
The annual Irish Times InterTradeIreland Awards are so valuable because they celebrate the determination and courage of individual innovators and entrepreneurs. The short-listed finalists all show how belief, persistence, and teamwork can transform people into leaders not only respected by those who work with them, but also by society at large. Leaders become inspirations for others: if my family relative, if my friend down the street, if my colleague in my sports club, can achieve so much, then maybe I can also do so. Entrepreneurs are ordinary people who have developed extraordinary conviction.
The economy of the Republic is still dependent on the benefits received from a relatively high proportion of multinationals operating here. The economy of Northern Ireland is still dependent on a relatively large public sector. Changes in global regulations for corporation tax, led by the OECD, are imminent and almost certainly will have detrimental consequences for the Republic’s economy. The economy in Northern Ireland needs to substantially strengthen its private sector.
Both North and South, we need to revise our economies to bring innovation to the fore. We need to revise economic policies so that entrepreneurship is more proactively rewarded. I have written before in this column on how public procurement and taxation policies could be augmented to this end. Both economies need to rapidly evolve so as to attract and retain foreign direct investment primarily based on the creativity and inventiveness of the indigenous sector, providing a torrent of practical innovations primed for the global market.