The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has recently announced its sixth call since 2018 for projects seeking funding under its Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF).
Proposed projects can seek at least €1.5 million of public funding over three years. Each proposal should have at least three independent partners in Ireland, including at least one small or medium enterprise (SME) and at least one larger company. The closing date for submissions is May 31st.
The DTIF has a €500 million allocation under the 2018 and 2021 National Development Plans. It aims to reduce the financial risk to collaborative initiatives which could disrupt a global market, transforming the way in which we work and live in the future. A secondary goal is to protect existing companies from the impact of anarchic technologies developed elsewhere, by suitable preparation.
As background, the State has invested relatively heavily over 20 years in research and development via Science Foundation Ireland into the Irish academic system and industrial research collaborations, with a budget of €222 million in 2021 alone. The public commitment to world-class research is doubtless one reason for continued interest by the multinational sector in Irish operations, tapping into a talent pool of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as into advanced outcomes and results.
Recipients of funds from the DTIF potentially can exploit this foundation to pull innovation through to significant global commercial impact.
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More than 80 projects with a total public investment of €275 million have been supported in the first four calls. The announcement of the results of the fifth call, which closed in July 2022, are expected imminently.
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The department highlights some of the funded projects in its YouTube channel. These include real-time monitoring of water quality in a collaboration between TechWorks Marine (an SME) and Dublin City University, and a sound and vision platform for voice-enabled toys involving Soapbox Labs (an SME), Xperi (a Californian public company) and the University of Galway. Others include laser-based transmission systems for situations where physical connections (eg fibre optic cables) are unfeasible, involving Pilot Photonics and mBryonics (two SMEs), Dublin City University and Trinity College Dublin, and a novel approach to screening candidate drugs for clinical trials, with Hooke Bio (an SME), Munster Technical University and the University of Galway.
Further projects highlighted in a February promotion in this newspaper include a device to help reduce heart arrhythmia, with Atrian Medical (an SME) and the University of Galway, and a machine for improving the final quality of 3D printed metallic parts especially for medical implants, with SME Blueacre Technology and Trinity College Dublin.
Successful disruption requires an insightful understanding of the dynamics of a given market
I believe that, so far, disruption to any specific global market has yet to materialise from the DTIF investments. The department briefing materials note that ideally a venture would have commercial impact only after a period of between three and seven years of completion of a funded project, so perhaps it is as yet premature to expect visible market impacts. Achieving commercial success takes time. An innovative offering generally requires cultivating adoption by a market, bringing customers and partners on a gentle evolutionary journey beyond the comfort of their current solutions.
By contrast, a truly disruptive contender into a market revolutionises current approaches, totally transforming the dominant solutions. Most markets are naturally cautious and conservative to adopt new solutions, particularly from young companies. To be acceptable, a disruptive entrant must dramatically improve efficacy or efficiency, or both.
Successful disruption requires an insightful understanding of the dynamics of a given market, and especially of the incremental values added by its various suppliers and partners.
[ ‘These are not business-as-usual projects, they are focused on the development of disruptive, game-changing technologies’ ]
Commercial innovation and disruption are thus related, but are not the same. The DTIF designation uses both “disruptive” and “innovation”, arguably conflating both in its mission. But in either case, the department is catalysing technology development to strengthen the economy.
Given the maturation of the early DTIF-supported ventures, what more could the State now do? The DTIF says it aims to “transform the way in which we work and live in the future”. Five years into the DTIF, it seems an appropriate point to consider seriously how the department and its first DTIF recipients meet this expectation from their use of public funds.
An obvious step is to adopt and deploy commercial results in the public sector now. By being an early adopter of at least some of the technologies successfully built as a result of the DTIF, the State can demonstrate its foresight, not only in identifying significant initiatives, but also in verifying practical use for society at large.
The unfortunate resignation of the Health Service Executive’s head of digital transformation in January, citing significant resistance to change and to new approaches, delivered a very unhelpful message throughout the applied research and commercialisation sectors. An intelligent and strategic action to “join up thinking” of industrial policy across the public sector would clearly be opportune, to both develop new technologies and more importantly to prove their benefits in the market.