IGNITE UCC lights spark for resilient founders

UCC’s successful IGNITE programme is not just about incubating start-ups, it is about developing individuals into resilient professionals who will overcome any hurdles.

Established at a time when Ireland needed more entrepreneurs, UCC’s IGNITE incubator’s mission to field more entrepreneurs from universities is just as important today.

At a time of full-employment what many people fail to realise is that Ireland needs stronger indigenous firms; firms that are led by people who can navigate any challenge.

“It is about producing founders that know how to build a business”

As the director of UCC IGNITE Eamon Curtin explains: “We need to be constantly pushing start-ups into the economy because we need a counterbalance to the reliance we have on multinational companies.”

To illustrate his point, he explains that 30,000 people in the Cork city region work in multinational companies and one-third of these are employed in just two companies: Apple and Dell.

“We need to be creating more and more indigenous companies that employ 10s, 20s and 100s of people as a counterbalance.”

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again

Based at UCC, IGNITE is a 12-month programme that is open to all recent graduates from all third level institutions in Ireland who want to work full-time on a scalable start-up idea with potential for commercial or social impact.

Founded in 2011 as a joint initiative of Cork City Council, Cork County Council, UCC and the region’s Local Enterprise Offices, more than 100 start-ups and 120 founders have emerged from IGNITE to launc companies such as AnaBio Technologies, ApisProtect, Eurocomply, LegitFit, OnTheQt, PunditArena, Supply.ie, Talivest, TrustAp and Vconnecta.

“We have developed the programme to the point where we have two cohorts a year and our focus is on continually building the quality and quantity of companies that emerge.”

Curtin says it is not only about enabling practical technology transfer opportunities from the university, it is about igniting the spark of entrepreneurship in graduates themselves.

“It’s very much about learning opportunities. It’s about putting people into situations where they try stuff and ensure that they know there’s a bit of a safety net there. And if they do mess up, they are forced to learn from that. For us it is not so much about trying to produce businesses, it is about producing founders that know how to build a business.”

Another crucial aspect is leveraging supports that are available. “It’s about building the soft skills, building networks, getting in to connect with people, following up and managing relationships. It’s about having a strong focus on markets and customer needs. And what we do is get people to think about those things as distinct from ‘let me tell you about my wonderful idea for an app.’ Instead we want our cohorts to think about who is going to use those products, why and how they are going to use it and if they are going to pay for it. And if they can answer those questions then we are well on our way.”

From talking to Curtin, you get the sense that as well as getting graduates to think like business professionals, he is trying to imbue them with resilience.

 Re-learning the role of universities

According to Curtin, universities as we know them are undergoing a kind of reinvention; evolving from centres of knowledge to becoming places of innovation where knowledge can be applied as well as created.

He likens helping graduates who have both created bodies of innovation or who want to develop entrepreneurial skills to the classic iron filings/magnetic field experiment and helping to position those filings.

“The core idea is we also require greater diversity of students coming in and helping them to position themselves.”

He cites the example of PunditArena co-founder Ross O’Dwyer who overcame dyslexia to build one of the most exciting young companies to emerge from the UCC campus.

“It is about acknowledging the fact that there’s a far greater diversity of students who have a greater diversity of career leads. And the opportunity to engage with early-stage start-up companies sits within that.”

And not all start-ups that are forged through IGNITE need to be successful, because ultimately it is about the kind of entrepreneurs that are being forged and the life skills they attain.

“Many of our graduates can go for better jobs because of the life experience they accrued over the 12 months. It’s about helping them on the pathway because as I’ve said it is very much about creating learning opportunities and putting them into situations where they will try stuff and learn how to commercialise their ideas and leverage the supports they access.”

Sean Byerley, head of Bank of Ireland for Cork City said that the ethos of developing individuals into resilient and empowered entrepreneurs aligns with the bank’s goals.

“At Bank of Ireland we have been sponsors of the IGNITE programme for the last seven years and we are looking forward to continuing this relationship into the future. The alignment with IGNITE and UCC closely aligns with our principles of developing and supporting start-up entrepreneurs and also our core purpose which is enabling our customers, colleagues and communities to thrive.

“The IGNITE programme is a fabulous showcase of true entrepreneurship led by Eamon Curtin. From our interactions with Eamon we can clearly state that this programme goes from strength to strength each year and we are really enthused that IGNITE is on track to support 100 new start-ups in line with UCC’s Strategic Plan for 2017-2022.”

Main image: Michelle Dorgan, programme manager, UCC Ignite, with Eamon Curtin, director, UCC Ignite

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 13 November, 2019