Why is Ireland so poor at innovation?

We could learn from Denmark

Letter of the Day

Sir, – Fintan O’Toole’s article on Irish innovation performance is to be lauded (“Ireland is poor at innovation, but a world-class producer of complacency and self-satisfaction”, Opinion & Analysis, May 28th).

He is quite right to call out our national complacency and self-satisfaction with our economic performance while rating low on the international scale in indigenous innovation.

Our overdependence for our prosperity on foreign multinationals has been highlighted repeatedly yet, in spite of multiple government initiatives to address this, it seems that very little progress has been made.

As someone who has worked in innovation management in public research for many years I have been acutely aware of the contrast in innovation performance between us and the other small nations mentioned in the article, of which Denmark is an outstanding example. When we look at that country, which has the same population as us, we find that its wealth is largely based on its own companies rather than on foreign multinationals.

READ MORE

A feature of Denmark’s success, in my experience in the food sector, is the number of companies active at the forefront of science and technology, often with deep roots in a family business and having a strong research and development base.

A notable example is Novo Nordisk, now the largest pharmaceuticals company in Europe.

That company had its origins a century ago in producing insulin from pig pancreas and it got to its current exalted position by continuous incremental development, always at the forefront of emerging technologies.

An interesting feature of the company is that its major shareholder is a philanthropic foundation which must show that profit motive alone was not the only driving force.

A more recent example is wind energy in which Denmark has achieved a leading position internationally and now exports as much as Ireland’s food industry.

Its development was stimulated by government action after the 1973 energy crisis which showed how vulnerable the country was to imported energy, just as Ireland was. Their arguments for wind energy, based on its environmental attractiveness and Denmark’s windy climate, parallel those of Ireland’s today, yet while we were busy at that time objecting to a nuclear option, they were adopting a strategy to grow an indigenous wind energy sector.

I recall, about that time, that the ESB pursued a programme of wind energy assessment by placing pilot wind mini- turbines throughout the country but with no follow-through that I am aware of.

Does our failure to develop an innovation-based indigenous capability, as Denmark has done, in spite of many initiatives to achieve this, point to some fundamental weakness in our national psyche that permits us to have great thoughts but prevents us from meaningful follow-through? – Yours, etc,

WILLIAM DONNELLY,

(former managing director,

Moorepark Technology Ltd),

Clybaun,

Galway.