Limerick transformed into business incubator

Dr Fergal Barry, Cha


Dr Fergal Barry, Cha

Group at Nexus Innovation Centre. Picture Michael Cowhey.
The timing of this Limerick Leader feature could not be better, as the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation digs deep to review how conducive the overall environment in Ireland is for entrepreneurship – identifying gaps, opportunities, weaknesses and untapped potential.

The timing of this Limerick Leader feature could not be better, as the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation digs deep to review how conducive the overall environment in Ireland is for entrepreneurship – identifying gaps, opportunities, weaknesses and untapped potential.

The process that will bring this about, including public consultation and stakeholder engagement, is already under way. The energy, innovation and initiative that has exploded – perhaps by necessity because of our economic crash – needs to be harnessed and nurtured. In short, innovation and entrepreneurship will be a cornerstone of this emerging new Ireland so we need to do everything possible to ensure it is helped along the way.

The Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation review will contribute significantly to the delivery of a National Entrepreneurship Policy Statement for Ireland which will set out objectives, targets, tasks and responsibilities for promoting the emergence of new entrepreneurs and facilitating new business start-ups.

It is regrettable, of course, that such a policy was not in play five years ago when skies came crashing in on our economy, or so we thought. Probably here in Limerick, we were disproportionately hit, with a high rate of joblessness and emigration triggering from the economic collapse.

But if there is one thing that we can always stand proud of here in Limerick is that, if it is not being done for us, we will go and do it ourselves.

Of course, we have had plenty of inspiration of that kind in the Mid-West from the past – think Peter Tait, who back in the 1800s was probably the first global textile entrepreneur; then there was Brendan O’Regan who was synonymous with Shannon Airport and gave rise to so much of what has held this region together over 50 years; more recently we had Ed Walsh, an entrepreneur in education who is the very reason why UL has been Ireland’s fastest growing university.

Their example has been seized upon here in Limerick since 2006 and while we may have been without national policy, we have not been without local support.

Our third-level entities have in many ways taken on the role of entrepreneur development agencies, with the support of Enterprise Ireland and others. You will read on these pages much of what is being achieved at UL, incredible success and support for start-up companies.

At LIT, where I ply my day-job, we have also boosted the innovation infrastructure of Limerick. Through our Enterprise Ladder programme we provide practical support to high potential start-ups through the New Frontiers programme (funded through Enterprise Ireland and run jointly by the University of Limerick, IT Tralee and LIT) but also to micro businesses in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. The broader venture work of Enterprise Ireland supports roughly nine percent of the employment in Ireland and this is significant when one considers the scale of funding available for venture capital in larger economies such as the United States where eleven percent of employment is venture backed. A little known fact is that Enterprise Ireland is the largest venture function in Europe in terms of deal flow.

Since 2006 the New Frontiers programme in Limerick has resulted in more than 100 companies and 500 jobs being created.

In your typical incubation centre such as the Hartnett Centre at LIT or the Nexus centre at UL, one can expect the following support; office Incubation with wrap-around supports including mentoring from current or former companies; peer mentoring; learning from other entrepreneurs; guest speaker slots and academic mentoring, with insights into international research.

The centres offer fully and modern serviced small office and research environments which help to stimulate business success.

We have learnt that it is important not to ‘babysit’ entrepreneurs too much, they need to be challenged and feel the competition or they will ultimately become too comfortable in an enterprise centre setting and not scale. Once the companies we work with graduate from our incubation facilities they very often do not have a place to go where they can still benefit from being around like minded people and the competitive environment that can work so well. The work of the Innovation Hub as planned for Limerick City as part of the 2030 Economic and Spatial Plan will be crucial in this regard.

In the very early stages start-ups bear very high risk and often find it very difficult in Ireland to get enough start-up funding. Start-ups need access to a pre-seed and seed fund to fill the crucial gap between their own funds, getting a bank loan and getting investment or a grant. This therefore can only be purely philanthropic in a lot of cases.

It is appreciated that the government currently offer initiatives like the tax incentive scheme and the grants from a variety of agencies but our experience is that there is still a gap in funding as funds from family, friends and founders has gone down considerably in recent years therefore widening the gap between own funds and what they can get from banks/government/investors.

Still, the future is bright. Since 2006 Limerick has become one great incubator for new business ideas. Now, five years on from hitting bottom, we can see just how much the spirit of entrepreneurship has taken flight.