When the Public Accounts Committee recently called Frank Ryan, the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, I took the opportunity to ask him about its position on university-led indigenous job creation.
I began by noting that Mr Brendan Murphy, the president of Cork Institute of Technology, said last summer that creating a vibrant technological university sector is the most important significant recommendation in the national strategy for higher education to 2030.
Mr Murphy highlighted how higher education can make a major contribution to the development of indigenous enterprise by pointing to CIT's association with Enterprise Ireland in operating the Genesis programme, which has resulted in 200 start-up companies, over €100 million in investment and the creation of almost 2,500 jobs.
The HEA and the Department of Education and Skills are adjudicating on applications for the creation of more technological universities, including the joint application for just such a designation by Waterford and Carlow ITs. "If that is where Mr. Ryan thinks the emphasis should be, what role does Enterprise Ireland, with the Department and the HEA, play to deliver on that?" I wondered, saying "the creation of these technological universities is important when it results in such figures."
Mr Ryan said in reply: "We have a long history of working directly with universities and the institutes of technology which we see as an engine of growth in their regions. It is not Enterprise Ireland's responsibility to direct Government policy. We are required to implement it."
"The Deputy is absolutely right. Waterford is a shining example of how co-locating the incubation centre with the institute has led to the establishment of a software industry that probably should not have existed in Waterford..."
::: Gearóid Mooney, Enterprise Ireland
The CEO handed over to Gearóid Mooney, EI's Director of ICT Research Commercialisation, to expand on the New Frontiers programme and the spin-out levels the agency is experiencing from universities and institutes of technology in business start-ups.
Mr Mooney confirmed that third-level institutions "are absolutely vital. One of the significant investments of recent years has been to ensure that each institute and university has a fit for purpose campus incubation which was co-funded by Enterprise Ireland. We also helped the institutes of technology fund the professional management of those incubation centres.
"The Deputy is absolutely right. Waterford is a shining example of how co-locating the incubation centre with the institute has led to the establishment of a software industry that probably should not have existed in Waterford. Unlike the normal impacts of business around there, this industry has been driven from the educational facility.
"Also in Waterford one sees the flow of graduates and researchers into local industry and start-ups. It is vitally important to equip the institutes properly for incubation. In 2011 and previous years there was a programme aimed specifically at linking companies in the region to the institutes and funding those projects. This evolved in 2012 into the Technology Gateway programme which was set up specifically to give the institutes the resources to reach out properly to industry and to engage with it.
"Rather than wait for industries to show up and ask for research, the institutes actively market the research," Mr Mooney added. "This is having quite a strong influence. Approximately 150 projects a year are completed between the institutes and companies. More and more the companies fund these, particularly the smaller projects, without an incentive from anybody else because the infrastructure exists with which they can interact."
Mr Mooney concluded: "Whatever shape the technological universities take, our main emphasis is to make sure that the infrastructure exists for us to get the maximum commercial impact out of them. Even if they are re-shaped with the infrastructure between the technology gateways, we do not see any reason they would not survive any kind of restructuring or re-shaping. We will continue to have the means to get the researchers engaged with companies in a commercially productive way."