Ireland risks sending a dangerous message to its innovators: Charlatans win

In Ireland risks sending a dangerous message to its innovators John Kennedy makes good points and Willie Donnelly says the right things; research and commercialisation should be supported and innovators should be given honest chances to succeed with reasonable reward.

What’s not right were the practices of the TSSG and how a few benefited from the sale of FeedHenry.

We can support the principles, processes, and policies of research and commercialisation while criticising specific bad actors who abuse the system and the thousands of people across Ireland involved in it.

I’m not chopping down tall poppies. I’m pointing out the rampant weeds that choke innovation. Good innovators will be further enabled when charlatans are called out. There is no upside to allowing charlatans to continue for the sake of a good story.

After 14 years a few key people at the TSSG have got rich from FeedHenry while the TSSG is as unsustainable as it ever was. The hundreds of people at the TSSG will continue to fight for funding every year. We’ve got good at it in Ireland as John Kennedy mentions. In my mind, outside of basic research, being good at proposal writing is a lot like being good at getting venture capitalist money; you’re going into debt and it’s not success but a tool to achieve your goals. Eventually you have to return financial results or kill the project.

After 14 years the TSSG is not Stanford or MIT, it’s not Trinity either. There is little to no stream of revenue coming from the commercial world, no lucrative patents to bank on, and the most successful (by numbers only) commercialisation returned a once-off €1.3m to WIT while taking out intellectual property generated over 5 years.

€1.3m sounds like a lot but that supports just 21 researchers on a salary of €60,000 (about what I was earning when I left the TSSG) for one year, and that’s just basic salary. You still have to fund the benefits of buildings, computers, heating, infrastructure, travel, etc.

More importantly one person, Willie Donnelly, gained almost as much as the public college he is the president of did. Did Willie Donnelly create FeedHenry? I can name over 75 people involved in FeedHenry. Did Willie Donnelly contribute “science whizz” to FeedHenry? Not that I can tell.

I can point out how Cathal McGloin, not from the TSSG, took it from early spin-out to acquisition in a few short years. I’m quite fine with a business person smartly working a nugget into a success. Jobs have been created, commercial investment brought into the area.

But it is not good for anyone involved to point out just how little Willie Donnelly had to do with FeedHenry until very late.

After 14 years of interference and blunted innovation the TSSG has success for a very few.

I have spent 5 years each on both sides of this innovation debate. 5 years in a public research and commercialisation centre and 5 years at a private start-up. Neither have the monopoly on the successful model. Both have successes and failures. Both have charlatans.

Luck, persistence, and authentic people play the biggest role in innovation that can benefit a wider area.

(Please note that the TSSG is a complex place. There are several layers to it with funding from many bodies over many different time periods. There are students trying to earn their degrees, people trying to do fundamental research, and people trying to commercialise ideas that usually would require upping sticks to Cork, Galway, or Dublin. Unfortunately the bad actors sat at the top of all of this and interfered with and blunted what could be an even more successful centre.

I co-wrote the first Enterprise Ireland Proof of Concept fund that was called Henry. I then co-wrote the Enterprise Ireland CFTD that was called FeedHenry. I was involved in other proposals that kept the FeedHenry project afloat inside the TSSG when it ran out of dedicated funding. I left the TSSG before FeedHenry spun-out. FeedHenry began as a consumer RSS web-application then pivoted to a Netvibes-style customisable portal aimed at telecoms companies. It then began targeting “mobile solutions for enterprises” but I had stopped working on it by then. I claim nothing from the success of FeedHenry itself. I did benefit financially from the sale of FeedHenry through a minimum requirement policy of WIT.

I also object to NearForm being caricatured as graduates of the TSSG. The TSSG was the only game in town if you wanted a job in IT in Waterford. People put up with it. NearForm now offers an alternative in the area and can stand on its own, not be painted as having to pay dues to the TSSG.)

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