Promoting Industrial Development in a Peripheral Rural Region

Chris O'Malley
Institute of Technology Sligo

Sligo Institute of Technology is located at the hub of the Northwest region of Ireland. This region is the geographically most peripheral and the most sparsely populated region in the state. While Ireland has made great strides over the past 18 years in building up an industrial research and innovation base, companies in the Northwest have as whole been much slower to develop in that direction. This is in large part because of the predominance of micro-businesses in the regional business population is roughly twice as strong in the Northwest as in the capital, Dublin. Traditionally, Higher Education has found it difficult to engage with SMEs, but in the Northwest it has been imperative for IT Sligo to be proactive in doing this effectively.

A sector that has become particularly important to the region over the last three decades has been manufacturing, which has developed strongly on both sides of the border with Northern Ireland. However, the predominance of employment in micro-companies in this sector poses the challenge that the development of Industry 4.0, with more digitally integrated supply chains, will leave the majority of the smaller companies behind. This challenge is currently further complicated by the prospect of Brexit interfering in established supply chains. The challenge therefore has been to promote a culture of innovation amongst micro-businesses in the region.

IT Sligo has responded to this challenge in a combination of ways:
• The Contract Research Unit has played a “missionary” role in organising clinics for SMEs to evaluate their current business challenges and developments, and helping them to identify areas in which they need to innovate in order to survive and grow. The CRU has so far engaged with 735 companies in this way.
• The IT hosts a nationally designated Technology Gateway, which is dedicated to making companies aware of the expertise in Precision Engineering and Manufacturing which exists within the IT, and helping them to collaborate with the research team in addressing their business challenges.
• Both arms of the IT, as well as the Innovation Office, facilitate small companies in availing of Innovation Vouchers, funded by government agency Enterprise Ireland, to pay for academic expertise to address practical issues of importance to them (typically 20 each year).
• New start-up companies are supported both through provision of space and facilities in the IT’s Innovation Centre and through participation in the New Frontiers programme which provides training and mentoring for the entrepreneurs. 314 companies have been supported in this way over the last two decades.

New developments under way which will add to this include:
• A new marketing drive will get underway in 2019 to promote research projects addressing development issues for small companies taking the form of Masters by Research degrees, whether undertaken by a staff member or by an external student. The fee for this will be €3,500 and this will represent the logical next step for companies who have benefited from Innovation Voucher support.
• Four Sector Focus Groups have been established to provide more strategic oversight of the relationship between the Institute and the four most significant partner sectors in the region. The four groups focus on Manufacturing and Computing, Culture and Tourism, Health, Society and Food, and Sustainability and Construction. Each group has representation from all three faculties, and has identified strategic initiatives designed to address some of the most important challenges facing each sector.