Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A proposal for how to help transfer of Irish University R&D into local industry

The Irish government has generally been praised for its increased investment in R&D in recent years, most notably since the foundation of Science Foundation Ireland. However, a number of commentators have criticised the fact that relatively little of the technology developed by this research is now being used by Irish industry.

In general the researchers have explained the lack of commercial spin-offs by the long time that it takes for research to advance to a stage where a company can actually build a business based upon the newly developed technology. While I do accept this explanation I am still worried that there is no special incentive to encourage adoption of Irish University research by Irish companies.

In addition there may be unrealistic expectations from some universities about how much license revenue can be gained from licensing the patents that they get from their research projects. In the pharmaceutical business some people and organisations have made large fortunes from licensing patents to blockbuster drugs, but in the ICT sector it is more normal to make money from your intellectual property by partnering with the company exploiting it rather than by selling a license.

Since the research in Irish Universities is mainly funded by the Irish government with the aim of encouraging the health of the local high tech industry, why don't we consider offering a royalty free license to any technology developed by a government funded project to any company who intends to establish or grow a business in Ireland based upon using the technology. This would have the effect of helping businesses already established in Ireland as well as helping attract new multi-national companies to establish an Irish base.

While this might mean that the universities need to forego a potential revenue scheme, I don't think that the loss in revenue will substantially effect their budgets. In addition we could have some scheme whereby someone like the IDA could certify how many jobs had been created by means of these royalty free licenses and this could be used as one of the metrics used to justify the funding awarded to the university(ies) in question.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are network neutrality laws a good idea?

I used to be a big supporter of network neutrality legislation. However, after reading an interesting paper by Tim Lee of the Cato institute I a have changed my mind.

Tim's main point is that what supporters of network neutrality really want is what he calls the "end to end principle" i.e. that the network operator should not concern themselves with the content of traffic over their network and that they should leave such concerns to the users at either end of the network link (typically the service provider and the consumer). He argues that network operators who operate such an open content-neutral service have a natural economic and technical advantage which ensures that they will dominate even without government regulations backing them up. He further argues that whenever governments get involved in regulating rapidly changing markets like ISPs they are almost certain to make a mess of this. He gives several historical examples of where government regulation which was intended to support consumers ended up protecting poverful vested interests instead.

I am now veering towards the view that market forces can be an effective way to disuade misguided network providers from unfairly restricting the use fo their network. However, I still have two significant caveats:

  1. Competitive forces only work where there is real competition going on. In many parts of the world consumers have no choice of broadband provider. In fact there are many examples where a telecom incumbent has an exclusive license to provide services but they don't cover their area fully. These companies then use their license to stop other companies from offering alternatives to the unlucky consumers who are left off-line.

    I think governments should aim to ensure that all citizens have at least three broadband providers to choose from. The recent growth of a number of innovative wireless broadband technologies should make this feasible even in rural areas.

  2. The competitive forces argument also falls down when the discriminatory network routing is being done in response to government regulation since that regulation will apply equally to everyone in the market. I am specifically thinking about "The Great Firewall of China", but the recent court cases trying to force ISPs to block traffic to the Pirate Bay web site gives an indication that if we are not vigilant this kind of network censorship could become much more prevalent.

    In Tim's paper he mentions that there is a general consensus that blocking virus attacks is a generally accepted legitimate deviation from pure network neutrality principles. However, blocking copyright abuses is an area where there is much less consensus.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jes reunion on 17th of October 2009

Jes Class Photo
Originally uploaded by Brian O'Donovan
I was surprised to realise that 30 years have passed since I left school. This class photo reminded me of how long ago that seems. I know that I have changed quite a bit over the years and I would love to meet up with my former classmates to see how much they have changed (if I even still recognise them).

A few of us got together and have arranged an informal reunion event. If you were at school in the Jes at the same time as the guys in this photograph, here are the details for your diary.

Location: Wards Hotel, Lower Salthill
Date: Saturday, 17th of October
Time: 8:30pm -late

We will be meeting up for drinks and finger food. There is no need for tickets and all are welcome. Even if you were not in the class you can come along if you want to meet any of the guys in the picture.

If you are not able to come in person, maybe you might like to leave a comment here and we will circulate your comment at the event.

You can click here to see a few more photos of our school days. Cameraphones had not been invented 30 years ago so we don't have as many pictures as we would like. If you have any photos or memorabilia it would be great if you could bring them along.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How will we know if we are making prgress towards building a Smart Economy

Everyone seems to be in agreement that we need to transition towards a Smart Economy in Ireland. Although there is some vagueness about what is meant by a Smart Economy , there does seem to be a consensus that when we achieve a Smart Economy we will observe the following facts:
  1. Our economy will be vibrant (i.e. strong GDP growth and low unemployment).
  2. Most of our workforce will be working in Jobs which require high skills and involve a high level of innovation.
  3. Business leaders in other parts of the world will look to Ireland for new ideas and innovation.
Once we have these success factors agreed, the government should try to measure the impact of every initiative/investment taken to see if it helps us make progress towards achieving them.

The trouble with these success factors is that it difficult enough to measure the overall achievement and virtually impossible to judge the impact of any individual initiative. However, we should not allow the difficulty of accurate measurement to be used as an excuse to abandon all metrics.

What I would propose is that every investment proposal (e.g. to fund a new research group) should include a section where the proposers of the investment would include:
  1. Their estimate for the economic impact of making this investment. I know this will be open to some interpretation, but perhaps the forthcoming economic forum in Farmleigh will give us ideas of a standardised way to do this estimation.
  2. Some concrete metrics (e.g. Patents filed, scientific papers published, newly established companies etc.) that will give us an early indication that the hoped for economic impact is being eachieved.
It would be in the best interested of the people proposing a new investment to put in a realistic estimate for the economic impact achievable. If they underestimate the impact their proposal will not be likely to get funding, but if they overestimate the impact they risk making it very likely that their project will be cut off after the first review because they won't be able to meet the unrealistc targets they set for themselves.

The other advantage of this approach is that it emphasises the fact that the metrics are not an goal in themselves, but merely an indirect way of estimating whether or not the economic goals are being achieved. If you pick a single metric (e.g. number of patents filed) you will get people focussing on quantity over quality - this is one of the reasons why IBM felt the need to lanuch the Patent Value Initative.

Note: Is shoudl disclose that I work for IBM. While I am proud of the fact that my employer is the organisation has field the biggest number of patents per year for the last number of years, I must admit that I can't say I am proud of the quality and validity of all of the patents filed.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is a Cruise an ideal hoilday?

I was luck enough to go on two cruise holidays this summer. They were both very enjoyable, although they were very different types of cruise.

At the start of august I hired a cruiser from Emerald Star lines in Carrick-on-Shannon. I was worried how this trip would go because I was not very confident in my ability to successfully navigate around the complex Shannon waterway (an my crew mates were even less experienced) and the weather forecast was for a typical wet Irish Summer.

Luckily we had no major safety incidents and the weather was quite OK once you dressed suitably. We got a lovely view of the Irish countryside from a different angle than I am used to. The kids even went swimming a few times - but the risk of hypothermia limited the amount of time they spent in the water.

At the end of August I went on a Thompson's Cruise around the Aegean. This was a completely different experience. The weather was hot and sunny all the time. The accommodation was luxurious in the extreme and the staff did a great job of keeping us entertained. We had an "all you can eat" option and it would have been possible to spend the entire time eating and drinking on board the ship and never left the ship (thankfully I resisted this temptation - otherwise I would have been barely able to waddle off the ship)

I took more pictures of the Greek cruise than I took of the Shannon cruise partly because I found the scenery more worth photographing when I was further from home but also because my navigational responsibilities for the Shannon cruise meant I could not feel free to snap away with the camera.

Click on the links above to see my photos. However, my other half insists that I set privacy restrictions on any photograph that features any family member. Since most of my pictures feature one of the family this means you won't be able to see many of the pictures unless you are signed in to Flickr and listed as a friend of mine.