Does Ireland Need a Network for Innovators?

The post I wrote a couple of weeks back –  Is Ireland Really and Innovation Island? – received more interest than usual and in particular generated a very interesting discussion in the comments that is worth checking out. The conversation around the need for an online network for innovators and entrepreneurs continued offline with Michael and Johneric. I’ve volunteered to articulate what I see as the essence of that conversation to see if there is potential in developing something practical out of it.

No Shortage of Irish Innovators

All are agreed on this at least, even if some think that IDA, EI and multi-nationals need to do more to support and foster budding entrepreneurs. The Internet is now facilitating a whole new breed of lazy entrepreneurs. However there are many innovators that for very practical reasons will probably never bring their great ideas much further than a few scribbles on scraps of paper.

Many are in full-time employment, jobs they enjoy, yet which don’t fully satisfy their appetite to innovate. With families to support and mortgages to pay, many others simply hand in their notice and face the prospect of months or years without a stable income. It is true that the most successful entrepreneurs are often natural risk takers, but it is also true that many of the most successful innovators are part-timers.

There are people out there with ideas and expertise in a wide range of areas but wouldn’t know the first place to start. There are also start-ups with business plans but with gaps in expertise that they simply cannot afford to fill with paid consultants. There are retired people with a lifetime of business acumen, eager to find projects that they can get stuck into.

A Network for Innovators

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a forum that could bring all these entrepreneurs and budding innovators together in a manner that was mutually beneficial. Start-ups with specific skills gaps could tap into the expertise of people who were willing to put in significant amounts of their spare time to help bring ideas to market. Innovators could find out how to progress their ideas and identify suitable entrepreneurs to help make them a reality.

An online network, similar in part to the Innovation in Ireland group that the IDA have established on LinkedIn, would be a very practical first step. All participants would have their resumés already in place on their profiles. Members would be able to share ideas with others and seek advice on the various aspects of the innovation process. Individuals could showcase their expertise by providing articles and advice with others. Public and private conversations will help to bring people together in a supportive environment.

There is nothing like face to face contact, and the network could be taken to venues around the country throughout the year. Networking events would see innovators pitch their ideas and outline the kinds of support they are looking for. Not unlike a Dragon’s Den or the First Tuesday Club of years gone by, entrepreneurs could pitch their business plans, not seeking capital investment, but human investment in terms of time and effort from subject matter experts. In return, partnerships would develop where start-ups would grant small amounts of equity in potential future successes in lieu of time and effort put in by their new partners.

Protecting intellectual capital and providing suitable legal frameworks would be an important consideration in establishing and managing such a network. Innovators will rightly be wary of sharing their ideas for fear of others stealing them. Would we, for example,  get people to sign NDA’s or other legally binding agreements in advance of being allowed to participate in the network? Are there models in place in other spheres that could be applied here?

Would YOU Join an Innovation Network?

The bottom line here is whether there is appetite out there for people to join in such a network. Are you an entrepreneur that needs specific skills, cannot find them but would be happy to share a small amount of equity in lieu of this expertise from a part-timer? Are you bursting with innovative ideas but lacking the framework to bring them beyond your garage or living room and would love the opportunity to hook up with others who are not risk averse?

Would you participate in such a network? Critically, if you are one of the types of people listed above and would NOT participate, tell us why not so we can see if it is viable or not before we go any further.

Have your say by voting here or leave a comment below, anonymously if you like. If you’d like to get involved in bringing this forward let me know in the comments below or here.

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28 thoughts on “Does Ireland Need a Network for Innovators?

  1. Great idea Brendan and my name is now on your list !

    As it happens I am about to announce ‘Connector Launches’ event on the 26th Nov. @7pm (Venue TBC) where startups or where other fledgling businesses get the chance to pitch their new web site or app.

    I am planning to do this quarterly as there really is not much other opportunities out there for innovators to launch their ideas to their peers.

    See you at the iia on Tuesday !

    Be good,
    Conor

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  2. We don’t need YAN (Yet Another Network).

    I think the existing innovative networks should be asked to expose an API or an RSS feed that could be cobbled into a sidebar or aggregated onto a high-traffic site.

    Then start-ups and failed entrepreneurs should validate the quality of the aggregate.

    Then that aggregate, with its feed and API, should be presented to every State agency giving funding to entrepreneurs in Ireland. That would get the word out.

    It’s very difficult downing tools to attend networking events, unless people know there’s something to be gained by hitting the pavement to meet up in person. I’ve cut back my face-to-face meetups because of competing time pressures and it will take a major shift in priorities to change my focus. I doubt I’ll resurface for YAN.

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  3. Hi Brendan,
    First of all – consider me onboard.

    Two ideas that I would throw out there for comment.

    Make it easy for people with ideas to find those who can help. Some kind of a “yourlocal” innovation resource map. So if you want to find a someone to do innovation training near Kilkenny you can find them as easily as a personal creativity coach near Trim.

    Second, the “Dragon’s Den” format makes entertaining TV but is not that attractive to people with fears about IP or presentations. Creating a “safe mode” is crucial to allow novel ideas to be acclerated and not so new ideas to be put on the right path.

    Good start
    Ed

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  4. Brendan,
    I think you are right on the money with this idea. So much so, that I have presented the idea of a National Irish Innovation Network to the Minister for Innovation and other cabinet colleagues as part of a potential route to the Innovation Island vision they often articulate. I have also pitched this idea to the Innovation Taskforce. My idea for this stems from the fact that innovation is collaborative and requires diversity. It is no longer the provenance of the lone inventor and hence innovation works best in networks. In fact, I am so keen on this idea (having spent several years as global head of innovation excellence for GlaxoSmithKline) that I have set up a company ot make it happen – see http://www.inovationfoundation.ie – and do let me know if you get much traction with your group.

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  5. Super idea. Count me in. I take Bernie’s point about there being many networks. But you never know which is the one that’s going to send something aloft.

    I will participate. I’ll share and sharing will sharpen me up. These days I spend a lot of my time wondering how best I can put something back for the next generation to take forward.

    In my short experience of Ireland, since I came back from UK @end2005, I’ve formed the impression that native Irish don’t do collaboration easily. So I hope to meet up with people who’ll confound that impression.

    Thank you for your initiative.

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  6. Brendan,

    I’m partly with Bernie but the core issue that you identify is a blockage and I’m definitely for oiling the wheels and working out what is and isn’t / does and doesn’t work while actively trying to do something.

    I’m working with another initiative at the minute that will also feed into this space and while it is not sufficently up and running yet to talk about, it will complement rather than cross existing initiatives.

    I’m in if I can be of any assistance.

    Padraig McKeon

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  7. I see the votes are so far 95% “Yes (I’ve got lots of ideas and skills)” which is expected given this is a blog post. Being one of those 95% though I wonder is this reaching the people we need in on YAN? You are dead right that I, as someone with ideas and tech. skills, doesn’t know where to start in turning ideas and skills into a business. Business plan? Contacts? People with money? Validation? Need it all. But then so do the other people who voted “Yes (I’ve got lots of ideas and skills)”

    I think people like me can sail through “connector” events and networks without making any connections.

    I was at the first Ideagen event in Waterford and that is exactly what happened. I sailed right through it without making a single connection with the business people around me. Fault of the event or of me? Bit of both I think.

    A Dragon’s Den like pitch scares me. It puts me in a “where do I start” position and the idea remains just an idea. I have raw ideas, how do I pitch those to get the help I need to turn them into refined ideas that become a business? A good many steps before Dragon’s Den.

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  8. PaulMWatson,
    What a fine challenging comment you add.

    I too clicked the option about ideas & skills. But I have connections too. Don’t assume that all the people who said they had s&s have revealed all their assets.

    You add a valuable report on what happened at that networking event. Of course I like it because it clicks with my experience. My earlier comment said that I’d found that the native Irish don’t do collaboration easily. It’s normal to go to a networking event and leave without having set up a single subsequent meeting.

    In order to do it, you have to do it. Go in intent on making a valuable connection even if that means saying to a complete stranger “I overheard your conversation and I’d like to meet your next week in Cork.”

    Perhaps people like talking in Ireland… and are worried about rejection. Maybe the country is full of fragile egos masking as confident.

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  9. I believe there is always a gap for those ‘wanting’ to startup.
    However Bernie’s point is also valid and there are several “groups” within IRL that help facility this – some private, some ad-hoc, some vendor related/sponsored and some via local/government backing.

    A ‘combo’/maskup of all of these (partly along Bernie’s idea) would seem to be the best bet. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
    How to achieve this is the tricky part and it would still need some sort of face-2-face meetup ability.
    Pitching I believe should be left to other groups.

    My 2 cents.

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  10. A few observations:

    1. There are already a number of networks out there that are specifically addressing innovation. Bernie has highlighted this well and Edward is doing a good job of collating them.

    2. The readers of this particular post – those that have responded to the poll at least – are overwhelmingly individuals that are not in the start-up mode just yet, but are eager to get involved in innovation proccesses or in bringing their ideas further.

    3. The existing networks don’t serve this group well, with 100% of that group confirming that there is a need for a new type of network.

    4. Enterprise Ireland’s Ideagen roadshow is seen as a good model, yet as Paul M Watson points out it doesn’t seem to be great at bringing people in from the cold.

    Is there a way of taking the best aspects of all the networks and pooling them into a single effort that could become a focal point for innovation?

    Are there already enough supports in place for start-ups and that’s why they’re not engaged here (or perhaps they’re too busy getting on with doing rather than talking??)?

    Who should pull this together? In my mind it should be supported or driven by Enterprise Ireland or the County Enterprise Boards at a local level.

    What is the purpose of such a network? My view is that it is about creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to meet and develop relationships. Whether online or offline it should be structured in such a way as to foster the development of one-to-one relationships.

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  11. Good responses. Specifically on the Ideagen event, this is the feedback I gave them; too many presentations where the room sat and listened to one speaker. Not enough structured networking. Too much unstructured networking.

    Structured networking I think is key. At Ideagen there was some but not enough. I was in a group of very interesting people but 5 out of 6 were ideas people and only one was in a position to help the ideas people. And he just happened to be in a very different space to where I am. What would have been good is if the structured networking had continued and groups were re-mixed throughout the evening. Eventually I would have bumped into a business person in my space. It happened in my group with two people, which actually killed off the group in the end as the rest of us were left to chat without much direction.

    Unstructured networking (in the canteen, at a bar, in a hotel lobby) is deadly for an ideas person like me. I find people I know and stick with them. Even if I do eavesdrop and try and introduce myself and ideas I find the lack of structure non-conducive. You likely won’t find the right person on the first go. You have to “work the room” which takes time and lots of buttock-clenching. Normally I get stuck in one group for too long, whether or not they are able to help me. It is hard to say “nice talking guys but you aren’t the droids I’m looking for” and move on.

    I agree that there needs to be pre-event communications too. At Ideagen I had no idea who was going to be there. Not their industries, not their companies, nothing. Pre-event comms would help me walk into the event and look for the person I wanted to talk to most. Then second and third, all with names to introduce myself too and a common starting point between us “I hear you know a lot about lead-generation business, I have this idea but it needs validation, could you help?”

    Some open and transparent pre-event comms would be good too. A Twitter if you like for ideas and business skills. Let people pitch their initial idea in a forum and then let whomever is scanning over the forum pick up on it. Don’t try and set up blind one-to-one email comms. Emails are secure and business-like but they can easily miss exactly the right person. Keywords aren’t always accurate, people call the same thing different names.

    Structured networking works though. It gets ideas people out of their shell and before they know it they are talking to complete strangers. Odd that.

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  12. My experience of situations like this (which are tricky to turn into something sustainable) is that you have to depend on no one. Not Enterprise Ireland or anyone. You need to be clear about what you’re after and then go get it.

    paulmwatson’s description of experience is invaluable material. It points the way forward. Almost every event organiser I’ve met is so concerned with the operation of the event that they fail to drive it all by the purpose. So often they disappoint participants who are too polite to protest. People sit for long presentations for the platform. Platform speakers hog the floor when questions are raised, and the whole thing depends for salvation on what happens in the breaks.

    The extroverts like me love the breaks. We prowl the room looking for new contacts and stimulating conversations. Introverts hate the unstructured time. Collectively it’s a bit of a disaster.

    Perhaps this isn’t your experience.

    The good thing about this forum now is that there is time for foreplay. We can use this space to express desires. Eventually we’ll have to meet face to face and someone will take responsibility for the opening process.

    It’s hard to tell who’s serious at this stage. We all have other agendas. We’re all sussing each other out.

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  13. Hi Brendan,

    Following Edward’s trawl of on-line innovation networks in Ireland I have joined the Big Ideas Network from Enterprise Ireland.

    This appears to be a forum for identifying skills and wants but as Paul M suggests this is highly subjective in terms of the use of key words and identifiers. On this site I have mentioned that I am interested in medical technology and green tech start-ups; however anyone who logs on will see most of my experience is Automotive based. Whatever capability I have in the other two fields will probably be dismissed with my being able to discuss where I believe I could assist.

    I concur with your suggestion that most of the respondents on here are in a pre-incubation mode, but are eager to get involved. What Michael, you and I have discussed is the ability to interface on a specific product or service on-line to the point where it makes sense to meet and develop the idea to an incubation stage. I think this would address some of the concerns raised by the Ideagen and P2P networks. These have their place later in the process but some of us feel the need to bounce around ideas before a.) finding people we could work with, b.) finding people with the appropriate skill set and c.) receiving general and genuine peer support.

    Peter I was interested to log onto your website to see how you have pitched your company however the link does not appear to work ? I have considered the notion of setting up a non-profit company that would support innovation networking. I stress the “non-profit” aspect as I would be skeptical of a company set-up with the intent of harnessing the innovation thought process of contributors.

    Brendan, Michael and I have been fighting with how to create a format for innovation networking. The non-profit company concept would ensure that people sign up to a set of terms and conditions that would include IP protection, the ability to spin-off companies (once an idea has come to fruition) and allows some regulation in terms of its goals and achievements.

    I agree with Brendan that this could be an entity set-up by Enterprise Ireland or the County Enterprise Boards at a local level.

    I would stress again the importance of an online forum from the point of view of
    – facilitating contact between people across Ireland
    – for people who may have personal or business commitments that prevent them from
    attending face to face meetings.
    – and for people who would prefer an on-line exchange before committing more time to an
    idea.

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  14. It must be a Cork thing Paul! I am a native Cork woman living in Dallas, by way of london and Chicago! Since starting my business,(which by the way was started to change peoples perception of Ireland)The following comments may not go down too well but here it goes…….. it is the Irish people that have been the least helpful and the least collaborative. …PLEASE PLEASE PEOPLE DONT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY………..by virtue of you being on this site,then obviously not you! I am now however meeting a new generation of Irish here…New blood. Thank God. A special shout out to Karen Coyle (Bord Bia NY) and Dr Tim Roche (Enterprise Ireland NY) They are indeed what Ireladn desperately need over here. Really good, hard working,collaborative people!

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  15. Rachel,
    It’s great to have the names of Irish people who have proved they can do collaboration. Not for one minute do I think they’re alone. But those you refer to are out of Ireland. Yes in the Diaspora.
    The native Irish, who live here, and have spent only brief periods out of Ireland – mainly on holidays – these are those who find collaboration foreign to them.
    Give them half a minute and they’ll show they’re skilled at knocking ideas and people down.
    I trained as a sociologist, and have an anthropological interest in this. “Why do Irish people find it hard to collaborate with each other?”
    Here’s hypothesis:

    closeness to (rural) clan culture correlates positively with aversion to the risk of doing business with a stranger (outsider)

    I must google you.

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  16. Absolutely Brendan and it’s needed immediatly.

    I saw a very good example recently of where private sector wind energy entrepreneurs, who have been putting their own cash on the table, are having to wait 10 years for the ESB to give them a connection to the grid and in the meantime the ESB has got government support for a €300 million loan to go into the wind energy business.
    The alternative energy sector is very fertile ground for irish innovative entrepreneurs, but there is a clear need for a ‘Network for Innovators’ to organise and counter the very obvious conflict-of-interest action by the ESB.
    This is just one example of where the ‘network’ would be very useful, another which comes to mind is finance and venture capital. As our too-greedy-to-fail bankers deprive the ‘real’ economy of operating finance venture capital is going to be a very important area in the months and years ahead. Some entrepreneurs are going to have more success in this area than others and the ‘network’ idea would be a very good way of disseminating information by those who have have been successful.
    Another benefit would be in liaising with other similar international networks for the purpose of identifying joint-venture opportunities etc.
    It’s an excellent idea and the sooner it’s set-up the better.
    Cearbhall —-
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/ireland/article6907745.ece
    .
    .

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  17. Paul, I certainly hope this wasn’t a flash in the pan. The question is whereto from here. My own view is that one or both of IDA and Enterprise Ireland should be the ones to drive this. I am certainly willing to get involved in helping to progress as are others who have posted here and on the Innovation Ireland group on LinkedIn. To get the broadest support this should be a collaborative effort by all stakeholders. Coincidentally I did have a conversation today that was geared at moving this along. Stay tuned for updates.

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  18. We could certainly do this on our own, but I do think that it would be a much stronger proposition with the support of the agencies. Perhaps not led by them though?

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