Tech centres bridging the gap between research and industry

With joint Enterprise Ireland and IDA sponsorship, companies are benefiting from R&D

For the past five years Irish-based companies have benefited from market-focused strategic research and development carried out by a network of technology centres jointly sponsored by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. The centres allow Irish companies and multinationals to work together on R&D projects in collaboration with research institutions.

The 10 technology centres span a range of sectors including pharmaceuticals, food, manufacturing, microelectronics and composite materials and can tap into the expertise of highly qualified researchers based in universities and institutes of technology around the country.

The centres operate on a five-year funding cycle and they are now at various stages of the funding process for the second period of their activity. This process involves evaluation by independent experts and the submission of detailed business plans for the next phase of activity.

Two of the centres have recently been approved for second-phase funding: the Ceadar centre for applied data analytics and machine intelligence and PMTC, the pharmaceutical manufacturing technology centre, based in UL.

“The role of the technology centres is to bridge the gap between academic research and industry,” explains Kevin Flynn, policy, operations & technology centres programme manager with Enterprise Ireland. “The programme is one of the main mechanisms for that. We reached out to industry and asked groups of companies to identify shared problems. We put those out to the academic research community, and they pooled their capabilities to address the needs identified by industry.

The initial focus was on data analytics, but it is now broadening out into AI and machine learning
“That’s how the centres got started. It’s been a process of continuous engagement since then. The companies are involved in the boards of the centres and help set the direction of travel for them.”

Analytics
Ceadar’s work focuses on the development of tools, techniques and technologies that enable companies to use analytics and machine intelligence for better decision-making and competitive advantage. The centre’s main outputs are prototypes, demonstrators, contract research projects, and in-depth reviews of the latest technologies in the space.

The demonstrator projects have proved particularly useful to industry. The centre has translated innovative technologies into 48 demonstrators that use live company data and are sophisticated and integrated enough to operate behind company firewalls. These have been used extensively – over 600 times to date – by companies to discover, adapt, adopt and deploy new innovative solutions and gain competitive advantage.

“The centre’s initial focus was on data analytics, but it is now broadening out into AI and machine learning,” says Declan Mc Gee, programme manager with Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Partnership Programme. “It started with 12 companies involved and has grown to more than 80 from a broad range of sectors including manufacturing, food and financial services.”

A full-impact evaluation of the centre was completed in 2017 and the outcome pointed to an “exceptionally well-performing centre, exceeding their core metrics and impact ahead of schedule.”

This ultimately resulted in the centre being approved for €12 million in Enterprise funding over the next five years. “The centres are very lean operations,” Flynn points out. “That €12 million will leverage a lot of industry money and the centre will also apply for Horizon 2020 and other research funding.”

Patent cliff
PMTC was originally established as a result of the patent cliff which faced the pharma industry some years ago. The centre executes world-leading, industry-relevant research in advanced technology solutions to address manufacturing issues for the sector. It has now been approved for €5 million in funding for the next five years.

“There is a huge pharmaceutical industry here in Ireland and it needs to be as efficient as possible,” says McGee. “One of the centre’s major successes was in the area of cleaning. It developed cleaning technology that has saved millions of euro for the industry. It reduces plant significantly and has been hugely beneficial. This enables companies based here to compete for new mandates against other plants around the world.”

Another benefit of the centre is that it puts SMEs in direct contact with multinationals
In PMTC’s case the evaluation found a projected economic value add (EVA) by 2022 of €17.24 for every euro invested by Enterprise Ireland. New efficiencies are expected to be major drivers of this impact, with a number of companies reporting potential savings of millions of euro per annum due to the centre’s suite of efficiency and competitiveness improvements.

PMTC is probably the ideal version of a technology centre, according to Flynn. “It takes existing strengths we have in the country – strong FDI, a good number of SMEs, an excellent academic research base – and melds them together for the benefit of all. Another benefit of the centre is that it puts SMEs in direct contact with multinationals and will help them get into their supply chains.”

Looking ahead, Flynn says the Enterprise Ireland investment will leverage additional funding from both industry partners and other sources. “As we go into the next phase there is a requirement to move towards a situation where one third of funding comes from Enterprise Ireland, a further third from industry, and the remainder from competitive research sources. This will help ensure excellence in the research outputs.”

This story first appeared on the Irish Times website on Feb 21st 2019