Business Irish

Monday 19 March 2018

We're great at bright ideas: let's put them to work

Economic recovery depends on innovation, writes European Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn

Cartoons about bright ideas often include a light bulb. The old-fashioned kind of light bulb, not the newer, environmentally friendly kind. The cartoons offer a neat link to inventor Thomas Edison.

What's important about Edison is that he didn't just have the idea for the light bulb. He also had a lab in which to test it, allowing him to select the best version to put on the market. The end result was that he made a lot of money out of his bright idea, created a lot of jobs, gained credibility for investment to allow research into many other ideas (he eventually held over 1,500 patents) and put his country at the forefront of innovation and industrial development.

Right now Ireland has the potential to make money and jobs out of bright ideas. We need to use new ideas, new processes and new research so that we can develop novel goods and services that people worldwide will use.

Ireland and Europe are in fact excellent in the bright ideas department. A third of all patents in the world emanate from the EU. We're much less good on the follow-through.

American companies have successfully developed the MP3 encoding standard and Skype on the back of European inventors. Great for the US. Not great for the EU countries which came up with the original ideas.

We simply must get our innovation and research act together, and quickly, to let us effectively compete against the rising capacities of economies such as China, India and Brazil.

That's why President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso asked me last year to develop a new European Union Innovation Flagship Initiative. It's going to be one of the most important elements of the Europe 2020 programme, the key economic plan of the EU for the future.

I am responsible for the operation of the seventh EU Research and Technological Framework Programme 2007-2013, better known by the acronym FP7. Already, Irish companies, third-level educational institutions and research centres have drawn down €300m under this EU initiative. The next two big opportunities to bid for funding under the FP7 initiative will take place in July 2011 and in 2012 and will be worth over €18bn.

Sectors backed under FP7 include agriculture, food, fisheries, biotechnology, nano-technology, information communication and technologies, transport, energy, health, environmental services, climate change, security and space. I would urge all interested parties, whether in the public or private sector, to look very carefully at these next two FP7 calls to see what opportunities might lie open for participation.

Examples of Irish projects that have secured funding under FP7 include working to tackle cardiovascular disease in newborn babies; using nanotechnology to find alternative methods to animal testing; promoting new solar, tidal and wind energy programmes; developing improved strategies to reduce food risks across Europe; and testing new materials that activate agents to kill MRSA on textiles that are used in hospitals.

In fact, Irish small, medium and large companies, third-level educational institutions and our research centres are all uniquely placed, at this point, to benefit further from a range of different EU and national initiatives in the fields of research, innovation and science. This is vitally important if the Irish economy is to become more competitive and it must be a central component of our strategic thinking at all times.

Bright ideas shouldn't be hampered by bureaucracy, and so the EU must make regulatory and political changes. We must also give public procurement a kicking so that it actively encourages innovation while securing the best products and services that are value for money.

We must have programmes to financially support new ideas -- and this means backing 'incubator' enterprises, that can in turn be supported by the venture capital sector and turned into successful and modern companies.

The private and public sectors must work together -- in a spirit of partnership -- learning from a variety of best practices, so as to develop the products and services of the future. I support a number of public-private partnerships that are operating within the European Union at present in the fields of innovative medicines, building the next generation of cleaner aircraft, replacing petrol engines, and devising more practical applications from the use of the internet.

Investment in science, technology and innovation programmes has gone up in Ireland this year by 12.5 per cent to approximately €380m. Investing in these areas will help complement the strategies that are being pursued by both multi-national organisations and indigenous small- and medium-sized companies in Ireland. The recent decision of LinkedIn -- the online business networking site -- to locate in Ireland is testament to the fact that Ireland is still very much open for business when it comes to attracting top talent and investment into our country. The fact that Dublin will be the European City of Science in 2012 should be thought of in light-bulb terms. It's a golden opportunity to showcase to the world how the skills and talents of our people put Ireland at the front edge of global research, innovation and science.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn is a member of the European Commission with responsibility for research, innovation and science

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