Nurturing Homegrown Talent In Ireland

Situated in the heart of Dublin, the imposing campus of Trinity College has long been a tourist magnet. The 400-year-old university is the alma mater of luminaries such as Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, and home to Ireland's prized Book of Kells, a ninth-century manuscript of the gospels. But lately, Trinity's reputation as an entrepreneurial hotbed is what's luring visitors from overseas.

Ireland needs the boost that Trinity and other universities can provide. After a decade of unprecedented economic growth, the country is at a crossroads. Its well-educated, English-speaking workforce and low corporate tax rate of 12.5% once drew technology giants such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) and Intel Corp. (INTC ). But rising wages, price inflation, and poor infrastructure are eroding Ireland's competitiveness and highlighting the vulnerability of an economy built largely on the back of multinationals.

In response, the Irish government is shifting gears. To continue attracting foreign investment, officials realize they must also foster homegrown talent. "Investors won't come here unless there is a base of labor that can do research and development," Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney told the press in October.

That's not just political chatter. The government is spending nearly $3 billion over a six-year period through 2006 to stimulate R&D. Over $750 million of that is allocated to the Technology Foresight Fund, managed by Science Foundation Ireland sfi), an independent body created in 2000. The rest is distributed through organizations such as Enterprise Ireland, dedicated to promoting indigenous industry. As government investment has grown, so too has the number of Irish universities engaged in the commercialization of research. "There is a growing recognition on the part of the government that universities, not multinationals, have been the real seedbed of company formation," says Gerry Hennigan, an analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin.

Seven of the first 11 research projects to receive grants from the SFI belonged to Trinity researchers such as John Boland. Born in Ireland, Boland spent the past 23 years in the U.S. working with IBM (IBM ) and teaching chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a $1.5 million SFI grant that lured him back home. Boland's team of nanoscience researchers is working on ways to produce smaller, faster chips. He had been at Trinity only a few days before employees from Intel dropped by to discuss the possibility of collaborating. "Once you have the intellectual property, the key is to partner. This is where both Trinity and the government are helping make a difference," Boland says.

Trinity has nurtured homegrown enterprises since 1986, when it set up the Innovation Centre to commercialize academic research. Without the center's support, campus startups such as Allegro Technologies Ltd. might never have been created. Begun three years ago by Russian Igor Shvets, a professor of physics at Trinity, and his German researcher Jürgen Osing, Allegro develops equipment used by pharmaceutical companies to screen potential drugs. The company, which has a staff of 14, has filed a dozen patent applications and hopes to break even next year.

Trinity offers startups office space on campus and provides access to a university seed-capital fund as well as introductions to investors and commercial partners. In exchange, the University owns all the intellectual property developed by employees, gets a 15% stake in the company, and shares any royalties. In the past 17 years, 50 companies have been created by university staff and students. One of Trinity's first startups, Iona Technologies, is Ireland's leading software developer. "Without such university support, the academics and students with promising research would leave the university and, more often than not, leave the country," says Eoin O'Neill, director of Innovation Services at Trinity. Nowadays, this 400-year-old institution is as dedicated to preserving Ireland's future as it is its past.

By Kerry Capell in Dublin

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