Sunday 17 December 2017

We've enormous untapped potential, so let's work it

We have to steer our talented young people away from the more traditional areas of medicine and law and into maths and science-based endeavours

There has been under-investment in Irish STEM since the 2001 dotcom crash, says David Moloney
There has been under-investment in Irish STEM since the 2001 dotcom crash, says David Moloney

David Moloney

We Irish have always put great store on traditional values. The theories and practices of the past have stood us well down through the years.

But there inevitably comes a time for change and, if the last near-decade of upheaval has taught us anything, it is that the world does not stand still forever. Changed times require changed thinking and nobody needs reminding about the old adage of doing the same over and over and expecting a different result.

But let me go back to the beginning. When I set out on a career path 30 years ago, the technology space and all it promised was so radically different to what confronts us today as to be almost unrecognisable.

I've spent my working life to date operating in the semiconductor industry, including taking time to work on a PhD at Trinity College Dublin for research into high performance computer architecture.

Together with Sean Mitchell and Martin Mellody (our first VP of software, who died tragically in a car accident in 2009), we established Movidius in 2005 and this year we are celebrating ten years in business. We are a fabless semiconductor company-we design and prototype microchips for the fast pace technology world; we don't fabricate the chip but outsource that part of the operation.

Our core business is the production of a software programmable multimedia processor technology for the computer vision sector. We deliver high-performance computational imaging and visual awareness in severely power- constrained environments.

This technology essentially gives connected devices human vision capabilities. It is used in smartphones, tablet cameras, wearables, action cameras and electronic eyewear, as well as in embedded devices.

Earlier this year we raised US $40m in funding and over the next three years we will create 100 high tech jobs focusing on our Dublin design centre, the nerve centre of the company.

Movidius will use this financing to further drive software and hardware product innovation in visual sensing for the next wave of emerging applications, including virtual reality headsets, drones, home automation and wearables.

Our technology will transform how devices and users interact with the world around them through intelligent, vision-based technology.

In short, our latest chip, which is a world leader in and going to revolutionise computer vision technology, is roughly the size of a finger nail. It is the best device of its class on the world market; three times more powerful in terms of computational ability, has five times less power consumption so the device battery lasts longer and is physically ten times smaller than any other chip of its kind and can, therefore, be housed in tiny pieces of equipment with very enhanced technology.

In addition to Dublin, we also have offices in Silicon Valley, Romania and China and the additional investment will allow us to push our research and development efforts forward and hire more engineers in particular.

The inclusion of Romania in that list may surprise some people unfamiliar with the world of multinational IT companies - but that is where this 'One Good Idea' comes from.

Over the last 20 years, international giants including Microsoft, Oracle and HP have set up back office and development operations in Romania, where they now employ tens of thousands of people.

In 1996 Microsoft came to Romania, starting with just four employees, and now has over 600. Oracle arrived in 1992 and now has more than 2,700 employees in the country, making it the biggest US employer in the country.

During those last two decades, native Romanian companies, including software developers and providers of outsourcing services, also took off.

The people who lead all of these companies are unanimous in pointing to the availability of skilled workers as the main reason for the emergence of Romania as an IT hub.

Companies come to Romania to find the most talented engineers in the fields of software development and research and development - and the country has the highest number of engineers per capita in the region.

The reason for this is the direction they wanted to take in the education of their young people. While we in Ireland have consistently cherished careers in medicine and the law as the classic ideal for our smart school-leavers, Romania has taken a very different approach.

They primarily promote careers in high-tech engineering - and there is no gender split, with female workers making up half the staff numbers in most IT departments.

In Ireland the approach from IT companies has generally been to try to hire skilled IT workers from the open market, rather than fulfilling the requirement nationally through our education system. The reality in Ireland is that there has been under-investment in STEM (it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) since the start of the dotcom crash at the start of the 21st century.

In a nutshell, we are behind the curve when it comes to producing the kind of talented engineering and IT graduates that the industry is crying out for.

The assumption still lingers that we can run a modern economy without a proper supply of STEM graduates and that it's perfectly fine for us to hanker after careers as doctors and lawyers for our sons and daughters. In my view, we have to steer talented young people away from these traditional areas and into STEM courses. It is past time for Ireland to take stock of where it places its chips on the roulette table of the world economy-far too many of them are in non-STEM areas and we need a new, rebalanced playing field.

In order to achieve this, we need to make STEM education more attractive with incentives such as no third-level fees for STEM under- graduates and even provide a form of financial incentive, even a small stipend, to get them into the field. And when they graduate, we could take a leaf right out of Romania's book and introduce tax breaks.

As someone who has personally or jointly been responsible for close on 20 US patents, I would urge the Government to quickly revisit the issue of the abolition of the tax exemption for patent royalties. It has seriously damaged the potential for investment in intellectual property rights here -Ireland has one of the lowest rates of patent filing in Europe. We could do worse than look at our nearest neighbours and their patent box regime for a start.

Long term, we need to develop a strategic plan to encourage talented people to become entrepreneurs. The lack of availability of seed capital and BES restrictions automatically make this a non-starter for many of our brightest people pursuing careers in high-paying jobs, but with enormous untapped potential to make a real difference if they got a real shot at doing their own thing.

David Moloney is chief technology officer at Movidius

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