Wacky inventions and ideas dry up with patents slump
The number of patents filed for clever wheezes has fallen, leading to big problems for the smart economy, writes John Reynolds
OUR ability to create a 'smart economy' depends on whether we can pioneer new inventions, technology and widgets. But as the recession worsens, figures released last week suggest the pace at which we're doing this is slowing.
There were only 318 patents granted here last year -- almost half the number granted in 2002, according to the Patent Office's 2008 annual report published last week.
Furthermore, the Sunday Independent has learned that the number of new Irish inventions this year may drop by as much as 10 per cent, judging by figures for patent applications in the first half of this year -- 448 against a total of 1,007 made last year.
While UCD churns out one invention every week on average, Nicola Field, founder of the now defunct Inventors Association of Ireland, says other activity outside the realms of business or academia is slowing.
Despite building a network of about 350 inventors, her group struggled to get government grant support in 2006. She then formed a smaller advisory service called the Inventors Garage, but that too is now struggling.
"I've now taken a year out from the business. At its peak, I'd get about two or three serious enquiries by email a day, but now I might get one a month. Perhaps people are sitting on their inventions until there's a chance again that they might get financial backing," she says.
Since the 18th Century, Irishmen and women have been responsible for an impressive variety of inventions: a compound that led to a cure for leprosy, the world's first guided missile, high-speed photography, the electrocardiogram, the dynamo, the heat exchanger, the rechargeable battery, the world's first submarine, the Ferguson three-link tractor, the rubber tyre, the hypodermic syringe, the ejector seat, the steam turbine and the caterpillar track.
With such a strong tradition of science and invention, and although we lag behind countries like Holland, Denmark and Finland in terms of the number of new inventions we patent, we actually seem to punch above our weight.
"We're very good at valuable inventions for niche markets. Our indigenous companies have a ready market of multinationals here that they can supply," says Richard O'Connor, manager at Cruickshank patent attorneys.
What we're not so good at is taking new inventions through the investment cycle to IPO stage for example, where investors can exit. This can discourage early financial backers, according to Joey Mason, partner at venture capitalists Delta Partners.
Although the government topped up Bank of Ireland and AIB seed capital funds by €30m in February, early stage funding for ventures outside life sciences, pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors -- where investment is strengthened by multinationals here -- has become difficult to secure.
"There aren't too many funders for ventures outside those areas. Private money, from friends, family and through stockbrokers appears to have dried up, so the pot of money available here is now a lot smaller," Mason adds.
"Venture capitalists were always cautious, but now they're more risk-averse than ever, although early stage funding, especially for technology ventures, has always been difficult to secure," says Maria Johnston, operations manager at DCU's Invent Centre, where the latest discovery is a technology of interest to solar panel manufacturers.
One innovative way of boosting software and technology start-ups in particular would be to create an internet-based exchange for seed funding that operates like a stock exchange but facilitates the raising of smaller amounts of money, internet entrepreneur Patrick Collison argues. He and his younger brother had to go to San Francisco to get just $15,000 in start-up funding for their software venture Auctomatic.
Now millionaires, having sold their business to Live Current Media for an estimated €3.2m, they are among a number of role models that may inspire more scientists, engineers and other inventors in farms, factories, laboratories, offices and sheds around the country.
Offaly native, inventor and engineer Stephen Grant's home heating boiler-manufacturing business has dozens of patents granted and pending. It turned over €75m last year and employs 270 people.
George Young successfully patented energy-efficient power supplies for electronics such as laptop computers. He sold his company, Commergy to Texas Instruments, last year for an undisclosed sum.
Graham O'Donnell and Ian Flitcroft of Orbiscom found similar success after patenting their electronic payment software. They sold the business in January last to credit card issuer Mastercard for an estimated €73m.
Thanks to seed capital and support from state agencies, electrical engineer Mike McCormack's firm FMC Tech has been granted eight patents, has raised €3.5m since 2003, and plans to raise a further €5m next year.
With pilot projects currently running with the ESB and several UK power companies, the firm is focused on perfecting a system of electricity sensors and related software. By helping them reduce power cuts and manage electricity generated from wind farms, it will be a fundamental component of smart power grids that will be built throughout Europe and the US.
Meanwhile, as swine flu spreads around the globe, serial Mayo entrepreneur Leonard Moran's biotech firm Ovagen has patented a way of producing the germ-free chickens and eggs which are vital to pioneering research into viruses and illnesses such as cancer. To date the firm has raised €12m in its bid to build a hi-tech factory in Ballina, from where it aims to supply pharmaceutical giants around the world.
While Ireland's enquiring minds continue to hatch new discoveries like these, perhaps there's some hope yet for our smart economy.