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Saturday 18 July 2009

Innovation Task Force - first meeting

The first meeting of the Taoiseach's Innovation Taskforce took place yesterday at Government Buildings from 10am to about 4.30pm.

As has been noted elsewhere, the taskforce is relatively large. There are representatives of various Government agencies and Departments, and the presidents of TCD and UCD. In addition there are a number of individuals who collectively have personal experience in innovation, enterpreneurship, start-ups, multinationals, academia, and venture financing. The taskforce is chaired by Dermot McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach.

The meeting was opened by the Taoiseach, Junior Minister Lenihan, and Dermot McCarthy, confirming the terms of reference and duration of the taskforce. The Taoiseach then withdrew, but Minister Lenihan stayed for the full meeting. It was followed by a presentation by Sean Gorman, Secretary General of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, on a summary of the progress and results to date from the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, initiated in 2006, and issues which he perceives at this point. There then followed a joint presentation by Hugh Brady and John Hegarty, from TCD and UCD respectively, on the TCD-UCD Alliance and the aspirations for their Innovation Academy. Next there was a presentation from Burton Lee, from the European Entrepreneurship and Innovation programme at Stanford University, on his perspectives and observations on innovation in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, as compared to the US and particularly to Silicon Valley. Finally the meeting concluded with assignment of work for the next plenary meeting of the taskforce in September.

The atmosphere was informal, participatory and collegiate. The line of questioning and dialogue was always professional, if sometimes tough.

During the concluding session, four working groups were identified. Further working groups may be needed in due course, and each working group may not be needed for the full term of the taskforce. Every member is assigned to one working group, but is free to participate in others should she or he wish.

The initial four working groups have been asked to submit a summary of their analyses and initial recommendations to the September plenary. The groups are:

  • Incentives, intellectual property and venture capital: identifying measures to increase innovation, commercialisation and entrepreneurship including changes to incentives, venture capital arrangements and intellectual property strategies. This group is chaired by Anna Scally, an IP expert at KPMG;
  • Commercialisation, technology transfer and converging technologies, including examining institutional structures for R&D funding delivery, how to maximise commercialisation of research, increase technology transfer and promote innovation in converging technologies: chaired by Mark O'Donovan, of Raglan Capital (and I am a member of this group);
  • Achieving the Innovation Island - how to position and promote Ireland as the innovation island including attracting entrepreneurs, FDI, international start-ups and private sector R&D investment: chaired by Bryan Mohally, of Johnson & Johnson;
  • International Innovation Development Hub (Dublin) - supporting the development of the TCD/UCD Alliance including identifying necessary supporting policy measures: chaired by Steven Collins (ex-Havok).

Several of us collectively promoted an open and proactive engagement with the innovation community, both Irish and internationally, and the general public at large. It is likely that a web site will be put in place soon [post script: the web site is operational as at end of July here; in addition the Twitter stream #itaskforce is also now active], which will include all presentations and submissions to the taskforce (including yesterdays). Further, each working group can invite submissions from interested parties, and also has the right via its Chairperson to co-opt additional individuals who can actively contribute to the work. Finally, each member of the taskforce can discuss, at the same time respecting a collegial work ethos and private confidences, the work of the taskforce with the public and media, as appropriate, to ensure the best possible outcome of the work.

I naturally invite any comments, suggestions and submissions via this blog (or directly to me) and will forward them into the taskforce as appropriate.


oisin said...

Chris, do you have some more information on or a reference for that final group? I'm suffering from a little confusion as to what they are chartered to do.

The Lal said...


Sounds like a good start.

Heres hoping this leads to some pretty radical actions (as 'as we do now' ain't gonna hack it).

Good luck


chris horn @chrisjhorn said...


Last March the presidents of TCD and UCD jointly announced that they are going to merge their 4th level (post-grad) activities in engineering, science and technology; merge their technology transfer offices; and introduce compulsory business/entrepreneurship programme for all science/engineering PhD students.

As I understand the 4th group, headed up by Steve Collins, they are going to examine and make recommendations to Government on how to get the best out of the TCD/UCD alliance, plus also consider implications for the remainder of the university sector.

Hope this helps ?


Brian O'Donovan said...

I read your interesting post about China's mixed attitude to Open Source software.

I wonder if it would make sense for the innovation task force to recommend an emphasis on growing the Irish usage of Open Source technologies.

A short term benefit would be that it might allow the government to save some of the money that is exported in paying for licenses for desktop software. A longer term benefit would be that any expertise that is built up in Ireland would probably remain in Ireland and build our long term competitiveness,

neil c said...


I am, hopefully, about to finish a PhD in DCU funded by IRCSET.

I have followed the past to commercialisation from '4th level' research before.

There is a substantial mis-match between the PhD process, which is essentially all about the blue book, and the overhead of the patent & commercialisation process.

There is no clear benefit to the researcher to follow commercialisation. It is viewed as a distraction from the main event.

Usually the 'idea' comes on stream late in the PhD. almost certainly the 2nd half. Given the patent process is an involved 2 year process. What often happens is the patent is in mid-process when the researcher needs to finish up and leave.

Patents, owned by the university, end up in come filing cabinet of someone who can't actually understand either the technology nor the commercial activity in the area.

There needs to be some better RoI to the researchers to take this path. Better remuneration, future or shared ownership, 'credits' to the PhD etc.

/Neil C

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Thanks Neil.

Is the patent even being followed through to filing by the University ? I suspect that frequently intellectual property is not captured because of filing costs and turn-over of key staff (such as a PhD candidate) ?


Brian O'Donovan said...

The key aim should be to exploit the idea and not to patent it.

Based upon experience with other universities I suspect that the patent is being filed, but the technology is not being commercialised. If this is the case it is the worst of both worlds because the existence of the patent scares others from commercialising the idea.

I believe that all significant research projects should have a parallel commercialisation effort. As technologists we tend to believe/hope that if we invent a wonderful technology then the money will automatically begin to flow in, but the reality is much more complex.

The process of building a business out of new technologies requires different skills than those required to invent new technologies. If Ireland is to be successful in growing an innovation led economy we will need to grow both skills.

neil c said...

Yes I think that would be correct.

To be fair to the University they followed the process as best they could but in our case there wasn't immediate (2 year) demonstrated commercial returns. They also had an idea that all research costs should be paid up front to any potential licensee
The unwritten metric seems to be how many patents filed rather than the '100 * 10M companies' they should aim for.

I'd agree with the way you put it.

There is good support if you are willing to attempt commercialisation.

But it needs to be structured in a way to encourage the researcher to take on the extra workload it involves.
one that matches the researchers

be this shared ownership, business mentors, or matching the researchers with someone who will run with it in some fair way.

From what I have seen is that the goal/metrics of the researcher (publication, the blue book), the university (number filings), EI-gov ('Knowledge Jobs') are not lined up.


chris horn @chrisjhorn said...


thanks again for following up, very helpful.

Do you happen to know whether the university has had any "successful" patents at all in its portfolio -- ie patents which have in fact been commercially licensed and generated or are generating fees for the university ?

best wishes

neil c said...


I am afraid I don't.

To be pessimistic, I suspect that in the best case they get a percentage of a startup run by the researchers turned entrepreneurs (not always good idea!). I think it is unlikely that there is revenue on patents sitting in the universities filing cabinet. There just isn't the staff to chase that.

To be even more pessimistic !
They probably get pushed out along with any small angels (friends&family etc.) as any substantial VC investment arrives.

Is this doom & gloom affecting me ?

In my previous post I was missing the phrase 'value system'.
Everyone assumes the researcher is in it for the money. Not so. Often there is a different value system at play. The key driver is publication and getting the technology out there.

Years ago I did work at a multi-national. In a budget review that was to cut R&D staff I followed the money (5M$ annually) to see what the black hole of IP was doing. 5M$ annually in maintaining a large IP portfolio that had annual revenues of 1M$ from just one patent. That one patent was one simple idea, in a non-core technology, that tripped up our competitor and extracted the highest bounty from them.



chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Much appreciated, thanks Neil.

IMHO in general successful patent licensing requires a proactive business development team, probably operating internationally. Ideally their own remuneration and jobs are tied to their ability to generate new revenue.

Thus patent licensing requires investment, and its own business plan, and an ability to execute it.

Siobhan O'Dwyer said...

Before I set out some of my own thoughts below, I just wanted to make a point about the current conversation thread.

We tend to come in to a project at the very end of the R&D process. We frequently see products that in our opinion have come to market without giving sufficient consideration to what the market actually wants or needs. There may a very strong core idea but someone with sharp business acumen and very good market knowledge should take a look at the very early stages and make sure the idea is shaped in a way that has the best chance of success. This clinical business approach may however conflict with the motivations of a researcher who is perhaps more interested in scientific/technological breakthroughs than with the more prosaic reality of a product that will have commercial success.

However my real question is this: has the Taskforce jumped too quickly into operational level before debating what a “Smart Economy” actually is?

We’re at a really interesting global inflection point both economically and philosophically. Perhaps the Smart Economy project is a timely opportunity to rethink how we do things for the better? A chance to give consideration to where innovation efforts should be focused, not just to catapult our economic recovery, but to rebuild a better, greener, leaner and more equitable Ireland while evolving our unique cultural heritage.

To take a simple example, I was struck recently by the irony inherent in two newspaper articles. One celebrated an investment in a life sciences company with an innovative new healthcare solution. The other was an interview with the head of the WHO where she expressed her worries about the rise of so-called lifestyle diseases (cancer, diabetes etc.). Wouldn’t our efforts would be better invested in finding innovative ways of creating a healthy society (which would also reduce the financial demands on our health service) rather than in companies who are inventing solutions for health problems that could be prevented?

This is a very specific example but I'm just making a general point about thinking long-term about where our innovation efforts should be focused.

I also feel that without taking a step back and looking into the future, we’re in danger of investing in short-term quick-return projects instead of looking over the horizon. There’s a lot of emphasis on alternative energy at the moment. To draw an analogy, that’s a bit like putting all our efforts into the infrastructure behind the internet when the real and lasting opportunity is in powering a global online society. There’s a whole wave of opportunity out there for powering a low-carbon society but very little “big-thinking” going on in Ireland at the moment. This sort of thinking should be shaping the Smart Economy strategy.

To me, the nuts and bolts of how you build a successful innovation infrastructure is an easier challenge than creating the vision for what we want it to achieve.

I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the Smart Economy concept by the way and am very appreciative of the time and energy that the Taskforce is giving for the common good. I just hope that we seize this moment and steer innovation in a far-sighted way that benefits everybody.

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Very thoughtful post, thanks Siobhan.

I personally am a strong supporter of the "industry guided" research approach, which helps give, as you say, "sufficient consideration to what the market actually wants or needs". I am personally unconvinced that at this time of fiscal recovery, the State should be putting any strong emphasis on scientific research purely for curiosity's sake. At the same time, there are some constraints for industry led research, including in particular the EU State Aid rules for industry - I don't see a major issue here, but the rules do need to be taken into account.

The big thinking in the Innovation Task Force - and remember, it has only had one plenary session so far - is whether Ireland can become an international innovation hub - ie as well as encouraging indigenous innovation, whether we can attract other nationals (from the EU and further afield) to also initiate new, export-led innovation companies. The question being considered is what can we do (eg policy wise) to create an "inflection point" - rather than a 100 new innovative start-ups a year, a 1000 per year, and re-cycle talent and finance...

I also think Ireland should play to its natural strengths, including its environment (which includes its electromagnetic spectrum...); artistic and cultural heritage; and, traditionally at least, its reputation as a caring society. These in part can then all help Ireland differentiation its innovation, and location as an innovation hub, from other competing alternatives.

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Just a reminder that there is also an active twitter stream on the Innovation Task Force, at #itaskforce

Simon said...


As far as industrially-guided research is concerned, Sean (Baker) and I have been pushing for an EngD programme in UCD. Slow process, nowhere near completed yet, but would hopefully give us a way to connect people doing research in industry more effectively with the universities.

-- Simon

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...


thanks - I wasn't aware of the EngD initiative at UCD.

The UCD-TCD Alliance (led by Hugh Brady and John Hegarty) intends, as I understand it, that all engineering & science post-grads (MSc and PhD) from next September (again, as I understand..) are given business/entrepreneurship training during their program of study - is there a role for industry guidance/input there ?

Also note that from 2013, Engineers Ireland will require all new Chartered Engineers from that date to have obtained Masters level of engineering (rather than bachelors as at present), or approved equivalent experience. The EngD programme would help play to this.


Siobhan O'Dwyer said...

I think business/ entrepeneurship training is very important but I have often wondered if there is an even simpler and more practical approach that would help researchers to think commercially about their idea rather than trying to turn them into business-people.

Would it be possible for example to construct a relatively simple checklist model for new innovations that would maximise the potential for their success (potential market size, ROI, easy of market entry, ease of adoption etc.). Might be too difficult to create a one-size-fits-all model.

In terms of a strategic approach to generating ideas that have maximum potential for market success I would really recommend reading Blue Ocean Strategy. Given the profile of the readers of this blog, I'm sure many people have already read it but if not, it is very well worth reading. Perhaps it would be more useful for researchers to be equipped with the tools for finding and assessing market opportunities rather than general business skills.

To follow up on your comment about building on Ireland's natural qualities, I have thought about whether or not we could harness our international reputation for friendliness? In an age of social networking, combined with our reputation for creativity, we would surely have a story to tell.

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Siobhan (and everyone),

what I am pondering over is what should be the role of the Irish state in all of this..

For example Siobhan, who should apply your checklist (based on Blue Ocean or equivalent) ? Enterprise Ireland and the county Enterprise Boards (and maybe they already do do so, I don't know..) ?

Silicon Valley is a long way from Washington DC, and federal support for start ups and innovation isn't very common. Equally, many founders and entrepreneurs in the Valley in general appear not to be very enthusiastic, in my experience, in chasing federal business.

I wondering about new policies in Ireland which can accelerate private investment. I'm wondering whether the market should be applying the checklist, rather than the State and its agencies ...

I'm wondering how we encourage success. Grant aid is nice, but unsuccessful start ups may have been grant aided, and the investment thus lost. How can the State instead foster more outcomes, rather than fiscal input through State aid ?

These are some of my musings at the moment...


Brian O'Donovan said...

>Silicon Valley is a long way from
>Washington DC, and federal support
>for start ups and innovation isn't
>very common.

This is true, but in Ireland most of the large multinationals do get grant support from the government so providing grant support to start-ups is only leveling the playing field.

Government grants are highly addictive. I don't want to start a flame, but if you look at the agriculture sector in Ireland you can see clear examples of the harm that can be caused by such addiction.

chris horn @chrisjhorn said...


Sorry, I didn't mean to focus solely on start-ups. Apologies for misleading. My musing is: is there a more effective way to stimulate and help start-ups than just grant aid...

In my view, grant aid to multinationals operating here also needs review: are there even more effective ways to assist multinationals operating in Ireland to successfully innovate for international markets ?...


Siobhan O'Dwyer said...


In response to your question a couple of days ago I’ve been thinking about what role the state could/should play in all of this.

That's a huge question and I suppose the starting point is to set out the framework of objectives for what the Smart Economy project should achieve. Individual actions/initiatives should fall out of that and the next phase would be to decide how best to structure State support to deliver them.

Just as an aside, I wonder if splitting the Taskforce up into groups might make it more difficult to create a cohesive vision and corresponding series of objectives? Perhaps the group has already covered this off.

I’m not as directly involved with the innovation sector as others will be and I’m coming at it from a shamelessly commercial perspective but here are a few thoughts for starters:

Objective 1. Enable the transformation of existing research/ideas into marketable propositions and build suitable teams to commercialise them

Objective 2. Ensure that existing research efforts are being directed into areas where there are global opportunities and where companies located in Ireland can maintain a long-term competitive advantage (of course not all research should have a commercialisation goal and that has to be recognised too)

Objective 3. Identify from an early-stage the research that is intended for commercialisation and ensure it is developed in a way that maximises the potential for market success

Objective 4. Stimulate the thinking that will generate leapfrog and visionary innovation, not just in the technology and science sectors, but across every facet of Irish business by opening up the latest global future trends/thinking to everyone for free and by bringing people/businesses/sectors together

Objective 5: Stimulate innovation among successful Irish companies with a particular focus on engaging with CEOs and showing Irish companies how to fully integrate a good innovation eco-system into their work structures and become innovation-led

Objective 6: Make Ireland the global hub for research/knowledge/skills in key areas where we have natural advantages. This will attract world-class researchers, high-potential new ventures and innovation arms of multi-nationals. Support it with incentives, legislation and competitiveness that makes doing business easier.

These may be a bit simplistic and of course there are many more but these are the ones that spring to top of mind.

Can I just make a couple of points on the human side of all of this?

We’re very good at growing small businesses (perhaps up to about 30 employees) in Ireland.

It has to be recognised that people who want to grow and lead large companies are a rare breed. It takes huge personal sacrifice, risk and bloody-minded determination. Growing good ideas does not necessarily equate with growing good businesses. The ambition to grow is just as important a factor for success as the quality of the idea. So how do you extract the maximum potential from an innovation if the senior management team themselves don’t want to do so?

Also, it’s relatively easy (and having sweated blood over our own small business I use the word cautiously) to grow a smallish business. To scale a business takes a whole new set of skills. You cannot teach these skills, you have to experience them. There really is no substitute for experience and if the ambition to grow is there, we need to support our indigenous businesses with seasoned scaling expertise as well as grant aid (which I think is very necessary in the current economic climate).

Just to make another human observation, there are successful business-people around with a few quid in their back pockets who might well invest in a good business idea. They just don’t know about them...

(sorry if this turned into a bit of a rant)


chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Hi Siobhan,

again, thanks for a very thoughtful post.

I personally think I agree with the general thrust of your objectives: the question is what specific actions can be taken at the policy level, in a holistic way, to give them effect. I also agree that the angel investor structure and supporting policies in Ireland needs re-consideration.

Re splitting into working groups at the Taskforce, I think our next plenary meeting (in september) will give us a sense of how well the working groups are proceeding and liaising with each other.

best wishes

Brian O'Donovan said...

I agree with Siobhan's comments which are very insightful.

In relation to Siobhan's comment that many innovators are not interested in growing their companies beyond 30 people, we need to keep in mind that building large scale employers might not be possible. While manufacturing operations often employed thousands of people in a single manufacturing facility, an innovation led economy is much more likely to feature a large number of smaller operations.

One of Ireland's strengths is the fact that the various sectors are tightly interlinked. It is more common in Ireland than other countries for the industrial leaders to personally know the academic researchers active in their area as well as the leaders of other companies active in the same area. We need to encourage this type of interaction by events such as OpenCoffee and BarCamp etc.

In relation to what supports other than grants that we need to provide to multinationals, I think a key aim should be to facilitate the transfer of the fruits of government sponsored research into companies who can make productive use of it. We need to ensure that we don't fall into the trap of putting excessive effort into patents and other methods of protecting our intellectuall property. Especially in the software arena it often makes sense to build a business by giving away things as described in Chris Anderson's new book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price"

We also need to agree a more meaningful metric for the IDA and other government agencies than the number of jobs created. If we focus simply on the number of jobs created it is inevitable that these agencies will focus on projects which can rapidly deliver a large number of jobs even if these jobs are not sustainable. We need to focus more on the quality of the employment instead of the quantity.

Ciaran Dynes said...

Hi Chris,

Do you feel that any time/effort will be devoted to discussing business ethics? The following article from BusinessWeek is worth a read -


chris horn @chrisjhorn said...

Not specifically, at least it has not come up yet.

The main focus so far has been policies and actions to foster and nurture an innovation led economy.

IMHO successful innovative companies by and large have good HR policies and culture, because their chief assets are people (rather than buildings or plant or whatever). Business ethics are important, but perhaps they are almost taken as a given (not least because of the law) in many people-led companies.


Aidan said...


The elephant in the room as far as developing a Knowledge Economy is lack of access to capital for early stage ventures. We have networking events, advisory services, conferences but no capital!)

During the boom years investors were only interested in asset backed investments - so much so, in fact, that Trinity VC moved into private equity and bought a hotel group. So, now, while it is a relief to see that people have realised that property speculation is a mug's game we are left we a shattered economy and very few are willing to invest in the type of ventures that would get us out of this mess. In Ireland we have an uneducated, risk-averse, chastised investor population. We (probably) have as good ideas as any other nation but they fall on barren ground here. More than anything we need to change the tax system here so that regular taxpayers are incentivised to invest in the Irish Knowledge Economy rather than investing in apartment blocks in Bulgaria.


chris horn @chrisjhorn said...


Its a top issue under discussion at the task force - but if you wished, you could post in a similar comment to the task force (so that it is formally registered by the "system") - see