LEAP: The Business of Producing Businesses

“There’s a thought process that we’re a small country, we can’t really produce a Fortune 500 company, we won’t produce a Facebook, we won’t produce a Twitter. There’s a mentality that says we can’t do it, and I don’t know why. If you look at the heads at some of the biggest corporates around the world, they’re Irish. 39% of directors in the UK are first generation Irish. You have to turn around and say, “Why do we not have our own cluster of home grown Fortune 500 companies?””

These are the words of Graham Royce, Limerick Enterprise Acceleration Platform (LEAP) Programme Manager. He goes on to say, “We don’t have any indigenous Fortune 500 companies here, because a company gets to a certain size and traditionally, they’ve sold out.

“They’ve sold to America or Europe and so on and so forth. Because nobody has sat down and said, “Hang on a second. Instead of selling these companies out, if we’d have hung on to some of those, they’d have gone from the €14m companies to the €400m companies quite quickly and we had one recently, which came out of UL (University of Limierick) which was sold for €40m. Quite frankly had they not sold it and hung on to it, they could have turned it into a Fortune 500 company, whereas it got lost to America and is creating employment elsewhere.”

Graham’s remit is to find high potential startups which he defines as companies that have ideas that can grow from nothing to €1m by year three and potentially employ ten people. He has mentored over 200 companies since 1995 and since 2007 from his ground floor office at the Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre at the Limerick Institute of Technology he has been putting between 20 and 30 startup companies through their paces as part of the LEAP programme.

The LEAP programme exists because, “Ireland Inc needs to create and develop new businesses to continue its economic growth.”

“It’s a year long programme so basically you get me for a year, and in that one year, if a business is not trading, we want it commercialized and training within the year, so it’s a really intense year.”

A basic quality that is deemed necessary for acceptance on the LEAP programme lies in the character of the candidate. “Does that individual have an ambition? Ambition — not passion. There’s a difference between ambition and passion. Ambition has been knocked out of people. It’s all very well educating somebody, but if you knock that ambition out of them, you can educate them as much as you like, but it isn’t going to work.”

Closely following on ambition is determination. According to Graham, “You have to be determined. You have to be clear about what you want to do in your mind. You have to be clear that there’s a market there. You have to go out and ask the question. “If I do this, will you buy this?” You have to go out and talk physically to the people. You have to get a really clear definition of what you’re doing, a really clear definition of the market.

Implied in the process of investigating the market for a product is having the necessary willingness to change and adapt as new information becomes available. Graham explains, “To me it’s the individuals, not the project. there are very few projects that come in here which are right first time. All of the projects that have come in here have changed at some time during the course of their journey within the LEAP programme.

“Money does not make a business work, this common mistake of thinking, “Give me the funding, I’ll make the business work,” is rubbish. You do need funds to get the business going. You need to fund yourself correctly at the right time. However, if you don’t have the other things in place, all the money in the world won’t make it work.

“Do we need the government to help us? Yes, and that’s not by giving us money. It’s by clearing some of the red tape that’s around the place in terms of getting things done.”

LEAP is not purely concerned with getting startups off the ground. There is a much bigger picture to take into consideration which concerns Ireland’s economic growth as a whole. “To my mind, I have the tools to take someone to 20, 30, 40 million, [but] we also need to put the tools in place that helps a company grow to 400m.

“There’s a whole different set of tools required for that level which we’re trying to put into place. We’re going for it. We want a Facebook, we want a Twitter, and we’ll find one. I am of a complete belief that before I finish my work we’ll have at least half a dozen Fortune 500 companies here in Ireland.”

If you are interested in enrolling on the LEAP programme you can visit the website for more information.

Visible Light Communications: A Greener, Broader Spectrum for Data Transfer

“We can thus, without a conducting wire as in electric
telephony, speak from station to station, wherever we can project a
beam of light” — Alexander Graham Bell, 1880.

One hundred and thirty years after Bell invented the photophone, a Professor at the University of Edinburgh is once again proposing using light as a means of data transmission.

With an estimated 5 billion cellular phones currently in existence worldwide, and the proliferation of data-hungry smartphones and tablet devices in recent years, the strain on the wireless networks that carry our data is growing.

As the increasingly-congested radio frequency (RF) spectrum bends under the weight of the data demands of the human race, more and more energy inefficient radio base stations are deployed. There are currently 1.4 million of these masts dotted around the globe, many of them diesel-powered.

Professor Harald Haas is Professor of Mobile Communications, at the Institute for Digital Communications. Based in a building named after Bell at the Edinburgh University, Professor Haas has been studying Visible Light Communication since 2004, in an attempt to solve what he sees as a data “bottleneck”, with a more energy-efficient method of wireless data transmission.

Although the idea of transmitting data via the visible light spectrum is not a new one, the development of the light-emitting diode, or LED light, has allowed Professor Haas to create technology that can transfer vast quantities of information across a spectrum 10,000 times wider than the radio frequency spectrum.

Professor Haas’ spatial modulation and SIM/OFDM (subcarrier-index modulation/orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) technologies allow the LED light to modulate at a rate so fast as to be imperceptible to the human eye but which can be picked up by receivers such as smartphone cameras at speeds of hundreds of megabits per second.

“If you use already-installed lighting equipment as an infrastructure”, explains Professor Haas, “we just piggy-back on the existing illumination functionality, and provide additional data communication. It’s data communication through illumination; two functionalities combined”.

“Our technology even works if you dim down the lights to a level where it appears to be off. You can still transmit data, so even during daylight it can work in buildings, so there’s a big energy-saving advantage.”

Visible Light Communication also has the added advantage that it can be used in areas where RF wireless communications are not permitted, such as in hospitals or in chemical plants or on oil rigs.

“Wireless communications is not available is hospitals. It’s not available in airplanes. However, there are many lights installed in hospitals, and there are many lights installed in an aircraft cabin. And even underwater, where radio frequency communication doesn’t work, light propagates underwater.”

Since radio frequencies penetrate walls, they are easy to intercept. For more secure data transmission, VLC could offer an alternative, whereby the data is only shared with whoever it is directed at.

“People with bad intentions can do all sorts of bad things. Light is harder to penetrate through walls and there is only data where there is light. We can see where we send the data to, because we see the light beam. So it’s much easier to control where the data is sent to, and it’s not lost in all directions. It’s a directed wireless transmission, and it is therefore, more secure.”

This strength is, in another sense, a weakness, as VLC can only operate where light can shine, and lacks the all-pervasiveness of radio frequency WiFi. For this reason, Professor Haas does not see it as a replacement for existing WiFi technology, but rather as an accompaniment.

“It is a complementary solution to the classical WiFi situation. Go in to a hotel at certain times and people are all using the WiFi in the hotel, it is painfully slow, it doesn’t work because there is only limited frequency spectrum.

“If you use light you can relieve some of the over-used spectrum so that in total there’s more data transmitted, so it’s complementing the RF. But we have these additional environments, underwater, intrinsically safe environments, hospitals and so on, where RF doesn’t work or isn’t allowed, but light would be workable there.”

Speeds have been recorded in lab environments of up to 500mb/s but Professor Haas is more concerned with test results garnered in real-life conditions

“If you record a number then you need to say what are the underlying conditions? What is the energy you invested? Is the room dark? Or, does it work in ambient light situations?

“At the moment we can run a practical demonstration in ambient light conditions with 100mb/second.

“We have unique technology which we call spatial modulation and SIM/OFDM, with that technology we achieved 600mb/sec theoretically. That’s what we’re developing now and we can even see a data rate of up to 1Gb, under practical, realistic situations, rather than artificial lab conditions”.

Light bulbs are all around us, and Professor Haas believes the essential infrastructure is in place for incorporating VLC, or “LiFi”, as it has been dubbed.

“You take the light bulb, we would integrate our technology which is a chip and a little bit of analog circuitry, very simple analog circuitry as compared to WiFi, because we don’t have an antenna. It’s analog circuitry and a digital chip that needs to be fitted to the light bulb. It’s not a major operation. The infrastructure’s already there.”

Professor Haas has been running a proof of concept project, funded by the Scottish Government for the previous eighteen months, and at the moment is developing a pre-production prototype which he hopes to have ready by the end of the year.

“Hopefully we will find a pilot customer, school, hotel, or private enterprise where we can install our technology in the first half of next year and after the middle of next year we will be able to have the technology available in a larger scale.”

Main picture: “Copyright (c) Peter Tuffy, The University of Edinburgh”

Social X-Ray Glasses: Helping People to Perceive Emotions Better

Rana el Kaliouby and Rosalind Picard of the University of Cambridge and MIT wanted to help autistic people, who find it particularly hard to pick up on other people’s emotions.

These “social X-ray glasses,” as they have been dubbed, are designed to help people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) to better understand the emotions and feelings of others. One of the primary reasons behind the isolation of these individuals; they cannot understand the emotions of others and as a result of this tend to remain introverted in social environments.

Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders often have difficulties operating in the highly complex social environment in which we live and are, for the most part, unable to read or understand other people’s emotions, furthering their disengagement with others.

People with ASD struggle to accurately perceive other’s emotions, these glasses have been designed to offer assistance to users by use of a rice grain sized camera. The camera has a data bank of 24 known facial expressions that together convey confusion, agreement and concentration.

These expressions are then analysed by software, compared against the database and relayed to users using an attached microphone and LED traffic light system. A green light, visible only to the wearer, portrays their conversation partner is reacting positively to them, amber indicates a neutral reaction and a flashing red light indicates a negative reaction and warns the speaker to change the subject.

In test subjects wearers retained some ability to read emotions accurately after they removed the glasses, if this is true the glasses could be used as a therapeutic device. However, with the glasses subjects’ accuracy in perceiving facial expressions was around 64%, whereas without the glasses subjects’ accuracy was 54%.

This margin of accuracy means that while the glasses can be useful, it is important to be mindful of their limits to avoid becoming reliant on them. It is hoped that with further testing and improvement these glasses could be a great help to people with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Another limitation is that while the glasses could increase emotional intelligence throughout the generations through continuous use, this doesn’t mean that it will increase empathy; while people may be more aware, they still may not care.

For users other than those with ASDs, they could help more loquacious individuals decipher the difference between dialogue and monologue and enhance their conversational and social skills.

Social Networks Don’t Cause Riots — People Do

A much discussed topic in recent days among the media and the general public has been the role of social media in enabling the organisation of some of the disorder witnessed in the past few days in London and other UK cities.

Many have laid the blame for these riots at the foot of social media services such as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Twitter and in a lesser role, Facebook. The Daily Mail has gone so far as to claim that the North London riots were “fuelled by social media”.

BBM seems to have been the tool of choice for many of those involved to organise their troops. Because of the private nature of the service; users must exchange a PIN before making contact. This makes it very difficult to trace or track these messages once they have been sent and prevents the authorities from anticipating the moves of the rioters.

One message sent on Sunday night called for rioters to meet at Oxford circus where they claimed “Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed so come get some (free stuff!!!)”. According to consumer surveyors Ofcom, 37% of British teens are BlackBerry owners.

Twitter seems to have played a secondary role in the action by merely shadowing the messages on BBM, directing other users to check out statuses and images that were being posted.

In response to the negative connotations associated with social media following the riots, clean up operations are now taking place around the UK using the very same services. The Riotcleanup twitter page now has over 87,000 followers with individual pages being established for the other various cities affected following the original outbreaks in London.

The Post riot clean-up: let’s help London, Facebook page has now over 19,000 followers and is being used to direct volunteers to help clear the streets of the worst affected areas.

In addition to this the Metropolitan Police have created a flickr page to post images of the looters and rioters in a determined effort to track them down and see that they receive punishment.

In spite of being blamed for instigating the riots, social media is now emerging as the organization tool of choice for organising the clean up operation and assisting the Metropolitan Police in identifying the perpetrators.

Footbridge Interactive: Helping Dyslexic Children through Games

Up to 10% of all children can be placed somewhere along the dyslexic spectrum. Linda O’ Sullivan first became concerned when her own son, Oisín, was seen to be having difficulties at school. He was having problems with with reading fluency and comprehension and was beginning to fall behind his classmates.

Oisín was diagnosed as having dyslexia and Linda took him along to the Dyslexic Support Centre in Limerick.

The Centre was founded by Marie Stubbings who works with evidence based teaching and intervention methods for children who are dyslexic. Using a number of different teaching intervention methods she worked with Oisin on a number of different levels and according to Linda, “His reading improved quite a lot during that time.”

It occurred to Linda that, “These exercises would work very well in a game based environment driven by an animated story.” When she looked around she found there was nothing available.

“Children… need something where their attitudes towards reading and learning become more positive. Kids in that situation can often develop negative attitudes towards learning whereas in a games environment kids can become more positive and use that positive energy for learning.”

Linda initially thought about using her ideas as the basis for a possible PhD research project. However, after speaking to the University of Limerick and NUI Galway she realised that her ideas were more suited to a business project.

“I really felt because I was on my own I needed the structure of some business support and the business development expertise of pulling the finance together.” So she enrolled on the Limerick Enterprise Acceleration Platform (LEAP) which is housed in the Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre in the grounds of the Limerick Institute of Technology.

“I picked up a lot of knowledge and also because a lot of the businesses in there are technical there are a lot of techies in the building. That was helpful to me to get up and running in the business. It was in there as well that I met Jennifer Keane who became my partner in the business. The program suited my needs exceptionally well.”

The 12 months that Linda spent on the program allowed her to put together a business plan, to market research and bring together an educational advisory panel. The prototype of the product was developed and testing was done with dyslexic children.

To round the year off, Footbridge Interactive (as Linda’s company was now called) won first prize in the LEAP Business Awards. The prize of €50,000 in investment funding came from sponsors AIB Seed Capital Fund.

“What our product does is it allows the child to play in a fun environment while reinforcing the skills necessary for fluent reading. The program also tracks the areas of the child’s strength and weakness.

“Our real motivation is for this to be a home based product. Even with the schools working with us we need the kids to be allowed to do this at home so this can reinforce the learning support they’re getting at school.  

“The idea is for it to be in game-time or leisure time, when the child is relaxed and we believe this is where this product will have most benefit.

“Our first export market we’re concentrating on for the first 12 months is the UK. From the very beginning we have been speaking with the British Dyslexia Association. We have someone from their tech committee on our board of advisors.

“Breaking into the online space and becoming known brand will be our biggest challenge. It will take a huge amount of intensive labour at making that breakthrough online to become a known port of call where parents and teachers looking for extra learning material will go.

“I have to keep reminding myself the whole reason I have this project is because of my children. While in some ways it may be a handicap in other ways it gives me the edge as well. I understand my market, parents and mothers in particular, and the worries and stresses they have about their children’s future.”

Additional contributions from Ina O’ Murchu and Aoife Connelly.

Rich Moran: A California Plan for Ireland

California just developed an economic growth plan. According to Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (a proud Irish American), it is the first one that has ever existed. Remember, California has only been a state in the Union since 1849 so it hasn’t been around all that long, but 162 years is still considerable.

The Plan was immediately criticized, not for what it said, but for the fact that he was stating the obvious. The Plan is focused on the creation of jobs as the trigger to reinvigorate the economy. Some might say, WTF, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Although the devil is in the execution, the plan offers 38 specific ideas including strategies to expand exports, reinvigorate manufacturing, promote innovation, accelerate the green economy, improve education of the workforce, rebuild the infrastructure, focus on regional strengths and consolidate the clutter of duplicative government agencies dealing incoherently with economic development.

A few specifics it calls for: reestablish overseas trade offices, rationalize the regulatory system and make it easier to navigate, reinstate a manufacturers’ sales tax credit for equipment purchases, expand career tech education and establish a single Cabinet-level office to deal with economic development.

As one reporter said, “Chalk one up for Newsom, It may not be new, but at least it exists. His head was exactly in the right place, focused on California’s most important issue: how we can compete with other states and nations in a sophisticated, cutthroat global economy.”

What’s desperately needed is a comprehensive strategy to create jobs across a broad spectrum of California’s economy.

There are lessons here for Ireland. Even a plan that states the obvious is better than no plan. There might be a plan put forward by any one of the groups vested with improving the economy in Ireland, I just haven’t seen it. If my guess is right, there are a lot of plans and not all that coordinated. I hope there is one.

A plan may state the obvious, but I do know one thing from my years in big organization change: Without a plan with dates and measures and thresholds and specific responsibilities, nothing changes.

And, someone’s job should be at stake based on whether or not the plan is implemented well.
If someone was really smart, he or she would get the California Plan, replace Ireland for California where it fits, and present it as if delivered by the Saints.

The full report can be found at the Office of Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom