“Innovation holds key to sustainable growth”
The Irish Examiner, 18 July 2014.
Students at UCD’s Innovation Academy find themselves working with people from very different disciplines and levels of experience in an intentional approach designed to broaden minds.
In avoiding having groups of people with the same background or experience working together, the academy’s graduates gain knowledge of how to tackle tough problems and work in a cross-disciplinary atmosphere.
Guided by the goal of practical applicability, the academy runs innovation challenges ranging from designing a novel use for a derelict phone box to using a paperclip to make a profit.
“One of the most interesting challenges for students is to work on real world problems for industry clients during the innovation sprint,” informs the website. “Conceiving radical solutions to long standing problems is not easy. Thoughts arise better when we set the conditions for them. We teach tools for thinking.”
For entrepreneurial specialist Maurice Knightley, the academy “is an idea factory for conceiving radical solutions to long standing problems.”
Students learn to test their ideas against real world conditions as early as possible — testing products before investing in their development.
“People come to the Academy in various ways, beginning with students in UCD who can choose to do a module here and thus gain a certain number of credits toward a degree,” he says. “They could also be a Masters or PhD student at Trinity or Queen’s choosing to do the module at the college whose schedule best suits them.”
It also includes Erasmus students from overseas, a group the Academy wants to develop further in the future.
“We have also just finished a course with educators — primary, secondary and third-level teachers who come during the summer. And finally, we do 16-week Springboard courses for people on social welfare who can apply to be funded,” he explains. “In that sense, the Innovation Academy is all-inclusive, and ready to give courses to those who want to come here.”
The course is about developing entrepreneurial educators, not about creating educators in the sphere of entrepreneurship, he informs. Instructors share the strategies developed during the design, delivery and improvement of new experimental programmes.
“There are many way to the Innovation Academy; for those with a passion for an idea or ideas the door is well and truly wide open,” he adds.
Mr Knightley, a native of Doneraile in Cork, is a director of several companies ranging from food and catering to new media. From 1992 to 2009 he was deputy managing director of the O’Brien’s Irish Sandwich Bars franchise, responsible for operations, training, marketing and purchasing.
He was part of the team responsible for growing the chain to 282 outlets in 10 countries and developing the brand’s initial presence in each new market. O’Brien’s peaked with an employee count of 2,500 people and annual group revenues of €60 million.
He experienced the chain going in and out of receivership in late 2009, and losing a significant shareholding.
“My own route to the Innovation Academy came about a number of years back when I took a Springboard course myself at a time when I was unsure myself of what to do next. I had liquidated a number of companies and was looking for a job, finding myself over-qualified for some, and under-qualified for others.
“Having already emigrated once during the last recession and not inclined to consider doing it again, I eventually found my way to a course at the academy, with the result that I enjoyed it so much, I dug my heels in and wouldn’t leave,” he smiles.
Mr Knightley has served on many boards and panels, including Retail Excellence Ireland and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and has mentored both privately and with Enterprise Ireland. Always active in the charity sector, his credits include raising €1.25m for the 2003 Special Olympics, and €500,000 for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation through O’Brien’s.
“I’d have been aware for 25 years that I am a good teacher,” he says. “The hospitality business by its nature
Making a will involves a huge training element — details, standards, communication. Being a performer always helps in an environment where there is constant contact with the public, and I’m certainly not shy about that aspect of it.”
With a career that began in high-end hotels on four continents, including The Grosvenor House in London’s Park Lane, he has a BSc in management from TCD as well as completing a course at the Gaiety School of Acting as part of his CV.
“Those intense training programmes we designed for franchisees of O’Brien’s certainly underlined my educator’s credentials, and, in that respect, coming to my current position here in the Innovation Academy could be said to be an appropriate next step for someone who has seen the entrepreneurial sphere from all sides.”
The Innovation Academy gathers teams of students from PhD, Masters, undergrad and mature programmes. They come from a diverse array of disciplines, including computer science, theoretical physics, mathematics, classics, chemistry, law, finance and fine arts. Teams work with public and private organisations in ‘innovation sprints’ that vary between two-week and four-week engagements.
“We select five or six students from diverse backgrounds and without any specific expertise in the area of the client’s business, so the approach and proposed ideas are likely to be different from what the client would otherwise produce in-house.”
An innovation sprint involves over 100 hours of work by the student team, with the latitude to go beyond the client’s brief and to recommend unorthodox avenues of action. The sprint culminates in a written report to the client and a pitch presentation at The Innovation Academy’s Disruption Event. Clients have included An Taisce, Amnesty International, the IDA, and Siemens.
One recent initiative between the Innovation Academy and the GAA aims to promote sustainable communities throughout Ireland. The Community Enterprise Programme facilitates those in rural communities to take a fresh look at their available resources and examine how they can best harness them. Delivered over 18 weeks, it is facilitated by entrepreneurs who apply their own experiences and knowledge to the design and delivery of the programme.
“This is about job creation, about maintaining vibrant and economically successful communities and providing a viable alternative to emigration. There is no shortage of talent out there and it is not restricted by any means to those who live in large urban areas,” he says.
The first four programmes is being delivered in Portlaoise, Ballyhaunis, Limerick and Monaghan during 2014 with a view to extending the programme to other areas in 2015.
“Energising is certainly one of the key words I would use to describe the Innovation Academy,” concludes Maurice Knightley. “There are several of us entrepreneurial specialists here at the Academy, and we all have battle scars to prove it.”
Entrepreneurial specialist, Innovation Academy, UCD.
Mentor to new entrepreneurs he advises based on his own business experience. Students at the Academy work in teams from different disciplines and levels of experience to broaden minds. The Innovation Academy is a joint venture between UCD, Trinity College and Queen’s Belfast.
Students at UCD’s Innovation Academy find themselves working with people from very different disciplines and levels of experience in an international approach designed to broaden minds.
In avoiding having groups of people with the same background or experience working together, the academy’s graduates gain knowledge of how to tackle tough problems and work in a cross-disciplinary atmosphere.”
Guided by the goal of practical applicability, the academy runs innovation challenges ranging from designing a novel use for a derelict phone bot to using a paper clip to make profit”.