If you want to see how a regional college that harbours university ambitions is aligning with job creation in Ireland’s northeast, look no further than the Institute of Technology Sligo (IT Sligo), where the future of computing, data at the edge, AI and the internet of things are changing the game.

On a sunny winter’s day, late last year, I met with Diane O’Brien, head of the Department of Computing and Electronic Engineering and Padraig Harte, lecturer in computing at IT Sligo.

We begin with a list of the veritable who’s who of tech companies that have made Sligo their new home including E3 Retail, Overstock, ASG, LiveTiles and more and end by realising that IT Sligo is an ace up IDA Ireland’s sleeve when it comes to regional expansion.

“There are no silos anymore between technology and business, it is all one and having graduates skilled in everything from distributed computing to UX, app development and cloud infrastructure is crucial”

In recent weeks IDA Ireland revealed that regional investment increased 50pc in the past five years, and when you consider the role that regional colleges like IT Sligo play in an interlocked strategy, you can see why.

“It’s always exciting to see new blood coming into the region and we’ve had great success with companies like E3, LiveTiles and overstock. Many arrive without a firm foothold and the Innovation Centre here has provided them with the platform to land and take off. Many incubate in our Innovation Centre and then they grow and establish their own offices.”

Harte cited the example of Overstock, the US online retail giant, which has grown to employ 75 technologists at work on everything from e-commerce to blockchain and fintech. Last year the company revealed 100 new jobs for Sligo. A good portion of new hires are IT Sligo graduates and the e-commerce giant collaborates with the college’s third and fourth-year students on groundbreaking research work.

“The lovely thing is when you visit many of these companies and as you walk the floor a lot of the guys and girls working there, we taught them.”

Powering potential

Diane O’Brien said that the college has been hard at work on a strategy over the past decade to increase the potency and seniority of its academic programmes and now includes level 8 undergraduate courses in software development, network and cloud infrastructure as well as Master’s programmes (level 9) in data science, computing as well as a new course in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

“The key is to move with the industry’s needs and be ready for the new industries that the advances in technology are creating. Our focus is on working in collaboration with industry and not only meet the academic rigours required but also understand and supply the skillsets that the industry will require and meet the needs of what’s coming down the line.”

Collaboration with state agencies like IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, O’Brien said, is pivotal and every opportunity and insight on the needs of tomorrow is an opportunity for the northeast region.

Another aspect is involving students in project work with the various companies and getting them to pitch for project work.

“For the entire academic year they will collaborate with the company in terms of delivering on the project and it counts as a full-credit module and some of the exciting work they are doing is really about the products and services of the future.

“The reward is that they will get a job at the end of it and they can go into a company having learned all about the development paradigms and they are used to the culture. The level of maturity they gain because they’ve worked on real-life projects is incredible. We think it is a great model for the companies and the students.”

Another aspect is entrepreneurship and there have been many examples of businesses started by IT Sligo graduates that have translated into regional investment.

One such example is Socrates, a software system for medical GPs, that was devised as a project by graduate Dermot Dolan. This evolved into a fully-blown enterprise that was acquired by Clanwilliam Health.

“The Clanwilliam Health operation in Sligo is now growing and this is good news for the region,” said Harte.

Harte also pointed to the leadership role that IT Sligo is playing in creating a European standard for electronic invoices to replace costly paper invoices.

“The cashflow implications for businesses that emanate from this project are immense. Our standard can reduce the average cost of processing an invoice from €17 down to less than €1 and that technology came out of IT Sligo. We have many students with both business and computing capabilities.

“We mustn’t forget that we have many SMEs in the region who can benefit from the kind of skills our graduates have.”

Crucially, IT Sligo graduates are all-rounders who are capable of translating technology into business and growth. “There are no silos anymore between technology and business, it is all one and having graduates skilled in everything from distributed computing to user experience (UX), app development and cloud infrastructure is crucial.”

Pictured at top: Diane O’Brien and Padraig Harte, IT Sligo

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

Published: 24 January, 2020

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