Opening of Nutraceutical Laboratories Ashtown
19 November 2010
Speech by Professor Gerry Boyle
Commissioner, Minister, Chairman and Members of the Teagasc Authority, colleagues, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure, as Director of Teagasc, to welcome all of you here today to the Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown. I am particularly pleased that the Commissioner has honoured us by her visit here today.
The Commissioner is the first Commissioner to be given specific responsibility for innovation in the EU. Through the Innovation Union 2020 Flagship Initiative, she has a central role to play in the transformation of Europe into a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. I am sure all of you will join with me in wishing her well in this crucial task.
Innovation is key to driving productivity and thus competitiveness in Ireland’s agri-food industry. It is important that this point is fully recognized and that innovation is not perceived to be the exclusive preserve of the so-called “high tech” or technology-intensive sectors. The Minister’s recent publication of Food Harvest 2020 underlines the centrality of innovation to delivering a sustainable agri-food economy and supporting wealth and employment creation in the rural economy.
Teagasc is playing its part, along with industry, other state agencies, the third level sector and the Minister’s department in supporting science-based innovation in our largest indigenous industry.
Innovation is ultimately the responsibility of the private sector, farmers, processors and agri-business generally. But the state has a co-responsibility to support innovation. How this co-responsibility role is exercised is a critical policy issue. I share with the Commissioner her view that “A strong science base is a necessary pre-condition for the development of an i-conomy – but it is not sufficient”.
Public investment in Ireland in science and technology in the last decade or so has enabled us to significantly enhance our scientific capability. We have played the first half of the match and we’re ahead on points. Now we have to get ready for the second half which is the innovation half.
We’ll win the game if we can successfully transfer knowledge which is generated in the public sector – our institutes of higher education and research – to the private sector.
Teagasc’s mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bio-economy. For over 50 years we have been driven this mission. We would like to think that we have developed innovation-support methodologies that not only work for the agri-food sector but that also have relevance for other sectors.
One lesson we’ve learned is that successful science-based innovation support requires high-level capabilities in knowledge generation and procurement (research); knowledge transfer; and knowledge absorption (education and training). If we are to create a “best in class” innovation system in Ireland we will need to focus on the development of these three axes. The traditional perspective saw knowledge generation as sufficient in itself to drive productivity and competitiveness … “discover it and they will use it”. However, without investment in developing capabilities in “knowledge transfer” and “knowledge absorption”, knowledge will simply be grossly underused.
Capabilities are however only part of the story. We need to also develop highly adaptable innovation structures. I’d like to share a few such structures that have worked for us.
In the primary production sector, probably the most successful structure in transferring knowledge has been the “Discussion Group”. Producers learn how to adopt competitiveness-enhancing technologies by participating in micro-networks that are facilitated by top-class advisers. The Minister and his department have recognized the value of these through the establishment of the Dairy Efficiency Programme which has resulted in a third of Irish dairy farmers participating in “Discussion Groups”.
The success of the discussion group model and the plethora of innovation events that we regularly organize for agricultural producers have, in my view, benefited hugely from the development of whole-farm models or production systems by Teagasc researchers. While research activity is typically conducted on a detailed project or component basis, this level of analysis is rarely the most effective in transferring information to end users. Users want to see how the results of component research fit together in terms of an entire system. We have successfully developed bio-economic models for a number of production systems and these models are now being extended to incorporate environmental modules.
In the food processing sector, the development of pilot plants at our sites at Moorepark, Cork and here at Ashtown, have, we believe, been critical anchors in the innovation process. In the pilot plant, industry projects are given a practical focus; process scale-up feasibility is explored and the utility of products in real applications is assessed. A successful outcome from the pilot plant greatly enhances the likelihood of market up-take. A unique feature of the dairy-based pilot plant at our Moorepark site is that it operates as a limited company with 49% of the shares owned by the major Irish dairy companies.
Teagasc also has a model for working with smaller companies through its Food SME Technology Support Programme that is led from here at Ashtown. This programme operates in partnership with Enterprise Ireland and is staffed by technologists whose role is to accumulate and transfer information that is directly applicable to food companies. Enterprise Ireland identifies those High Potential Innovation Companies or “Hi-PICs” that are best positioned to benefit from the technological support that is on offer from Teagasc. This partnership enables us to focus our scarce resources more effectively.
We have also come to appreciate the importance of collaboration with other knowledge providers in the innovation process. The recently established UCC-Teagasc Alliance is such important development that copper fastens a long-standing level of collaboration between Teagasc and UCC scientists. This Alliance is open to other potential collaborators. As a knowledge provider, Teagasc recognizes that it has to strive to generate the critical mass that will yield economic dividends to industry at the level that will be required in the future. More and more, we realise that the issues surrounding food are complex, inter-connected and multi-faceted. Often they extend across organisational responsibilities. Solutions must take account of this complexity to be coherent, and if they are to succeed need to draw on the breadth of knowledge and understanding that is available from many disciplines, organisations and sectors. The enhancement of our long-standing partnership with UCC will be critical in this regard and the insights that have already been established through the food-health nexus provide an unrivalled expertise that can be to the benefit of industry.
Finally, our experience in relating to industry has convinced us that there are several routes that can be employed to successfully transfer knowledge. Licensing of technologies is only one route and by no means likely to be the most successful one. We need to have a suite of approaches that can be adapted to the diverse needs of companies. One trend that is emerging is worth noting in this regard. Teagasc is increasingly partnering and working with companies rather than for companies – indeed becoming the main R&D actor for some of them. In some cases, this involves an industry presence at our food centres resulting in collaborative projects which strictly adhere to the confidentiality requirements of the customer, but can tap into the expertise of the centre as required.
Teagasc has built a capacity for food innovation on a foundation of research excellence which has grown over the years with the support of national funding programmes such as FIRM and a succession of EU Framework programmes. We have been an enthusiastic participant in the Frameworks from the earliest days and we are also strong supporters of the European Research Area. I am pleased to say that we continue to be a successful participant as is evident form our successes in the current programme.
As I conclude, I’d like to thank all of you for your presence here today and invite you to remain on and visit our excellent facilities here. I’d also like to say thanks to the Minister for his support and interest in Teagasc. He and his departmental colleagues have shown a keen appreciation of our role in supporting the agri-food sector. I also thank the Commissioner and wish her every success as she seeks to deliver on the Innovation Union document and sets out on the road of developing the Eight Framework Programme. We look forward to contributing in an active way to its development. THANK YOU