Entrepreneurship and Innovation - Key Drivers for Success Future 2012 and Beyond

Ann Horan, CEO DCU Ryan Academy

When I arrived at the DCU Ryan Academy three years ago, I worried that the timing and environment for entrepreneurship and innovation within Ireland could not have been worse. The Ryan Academy is a partnership between Dublin City University and the family of the late Tony Ryan (Ryanair) established to promote entrepreneurship and innovation,

In January 2009, with the country in the midst of collapse of the property market and immediately following the crisis of the bank bailout, it was with trepidation that we opened our doors. However, the old adage that ‘every dark cloud has a silver lining’ has proven to be the case and we did not anticipate the strength of the appetite for innovation in difficult times, and the willingness of Government to provide supports for entrepreneurial activity as a means to encourage job creation.

Ireland is currently trying to show the world that despite the economic downturn and its financial difficulties, the country is still very much open for business. During the 1990s, it could be argued that little or no formal Government entrepreneurship policy existed in Ireland. That situation has changed and the new coalition Government appears committed to developing and implementing policy to enhance the enterprise environment in Ireland.

To support the Government in delivering on this renewed commitment, the DCU Ryan Academy’s mission is to promote an entrepreneurial mindset as well as a real innovation focus among existing Irish businesses and start-ups through training, supports and investment. At the DCU Ryan Academy, we offer these supports at all stages of the commercial food chain on a practical and as well as a policy level; whether upskilling unemployed professionals, providing support to fledgling startups, facilitating mentoring between entrepreneurs and angel investors, or by working with the Government to develop a national strategy for entrepreneurship.

As an example of the type of work we do in promoting innovation at every level of Irish society, two of our core programmes include; the Business Innovation Programme, targeted at experienced but unemployed professionals and the Propeller Accelerator Fund, which provides seed capital, mentoring and support for both Irish and international early stage technology startup companies.

Both of these programmes are real success stories. After one year in existence over 60 per cent of participants from the Business Innovation Programme are back in the workforce, or have started their own companies. The second year of the Business Innovation programme, kicked off in September and we received almost double the number of applications compared with our first year. We are absolutely delighted with the quality of the applicants.

Our aim with the Propeller Venture Accelerator Programme is to find good people with good ideas, and give them all the tools and support they need to take their ideas to market. Ireland is awash with entrepreneurs, and we feel that it is our job with Propeller to help nurture and foster innovation.

This programme, which provides €30,000 capital investment and a three month intensive mentoring programme for entrepreneurs has taken the successful US accelerator model and adapted it to the Irish context. It is amongst the most competitive accelerator funds in Europe. It was ranked 7th best in Europe in an independent study of accelerator programmes commissioned by the Kauffman Fellows Program and is a charter member of the Techstars Network.

The six inaugural companies in the Propeller programme have seen their companies’ rocket to success. The startups are now in the process of closing seed funding deals totally over €1 million. The companies, who include Associate Mobile, Fantom, GreenEgg Technologies, Healthcomms, Simple Lifeforms and VendorShop, each employed two people when starting the programme, and have now created an additional 18 jobs since finishing the programme.

There is always a space for entrepreneurial spirit, and now more than ever in difficult economic times, companies must embrace change to adapt and survive. The Academy embraces this philosophy and the innovation outlook for the coming year is very positive.

However, there are gaps that must be filled and opportunities for those organisations, like the Academy who seek to fill them. In Ireland, at a business and policy support level, a gap exists between companies who are in their infancy and companies which have had great successes. We must look to support these fledgling companies to get from the starting line to the solid ground of consolidation and success.

This is achieved through supporting companies to move beyond product development into external markets. It is widely agreed that exports will be the linchpin on which Ireland’s economic recovery is balanced. On the micro-level organisations such as the Ryan Academy are doing everything they can to bring companies together with international partners to encourage collaboration and partnership.

But this focus on change and evolution cannot just be in the space of tech geeks working in their garages – we need to change the way we approach innovation, at every level and in every organisation, large and small. Innovation is not necessarily about one great idea – that ‘light bulb’ moment with which we are so familiar. It is about constantly looking for ways to work better, to make improvements, and to not be afraid to change when necessary.

Many of the difficulties Ireland faces now came about because we as a nation got stuck in a certain way of doing things, and we assumed because it worked for a short period of time, that it would keep on working forever. We should have stepped back, taken stock, and looked for opportunities, looked for new ideas, and looked to see how best to cultivate these ideas. If we had asked the right questions, perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with the level of problems that we have today.

The way we as a nation will recover is by developing and nurturing our best and our brightest people. Our aim at the Academy is to work with individuals and entrepreneurs to help them achieve their potential.

For individuals and companies who want to make a change, asking for help and seeing what is out there is so important. Even at the Academy we were surprised from the outset at the support networks, financial assistance and fundraising available in this country. We have been truly humbled by the range and stature and generosity of successful and highly qualified people willing to act as mentors and play their part in helping to promote ideas that will ultimately create jobs in this country.

Perhaps even more importantly, people and companies need to work together to collaborate and bring together skills, ideas and expertise that are simply beyond the capacity of individuals acting alone.

Finally, we must track, audit and measure our progress at all stages. As part of our work for the coming year, we plan to develop an Entrepreneurship Index in order to track our progress and see what areas we need to improve.

About the Academy:

The DCU Ryan Academy, which unites the best of academia and entrepreneurial practice, is a not-for-profit, joint venture between Dublin City University and the family of the late Tony Ryan (Ryanair). It was established with the overarching aim of being the leading supporter of entrepreneurship and innovation in Ireland. Our vision, which has never wavered, is for an Ireland where entrepreneurship and innovation are viewed as key drivers of successful business and the Ryan Academy as a leading catalyst in helping to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

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