Dr. John Breslin is Director of TechInnovate and a Senior Lecturer in Electronic Engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway. He is also a Co-Principal Investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. He completed the most recent session of the Entrepreneurship Development Program and graciously offered to answer some of our questions and share his perspective on the program.
It seems that you are at the helm of many initiatives! Can you explain the work you do at NUI Galway and the launch of TechInnovate?
At NUI Galway, I am currently a senior lecturer in the College of Engineering & Informatics, co-principal investigator at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and programme director of TechInnovate since 2016, where we teach people how to create technology innovation-driven enterprises using the MIT Disciplined Entrepreneurship process.
We also recently launched AgInnovate, focused on agricultural innovation-driven entrepreneurship (agtech). I'm a startup guy myself, having co-founded boards.ie and adverts.ie, and more recently helped set up the PorterShed coworking space and accelerator for startups in Galway City, Ireland.
What was your impetus for enrolling in EDP? Was the program what you expected?
I endeavour to keep my entrepreneurial and innovation knowledge up to date, and that was the primary driver. I first heard about Bill Aulet’s work on Disciplined Entrepreneurship when entrepreneur Mark Bowles introduced me to Cathy Pucher, Executive Director of the Zahn Center at SDSU in February 2016, and she extolled the virtues of Bill’s book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. I got it straight away, and it all just clicked. I used the book and Bill’s New Enterprises material from MIT Open Course Ware as the basis for my first TechInnovate taught module in Fall 2016.
But there is a big difference between learning something via a book or from some online slides, and then having to teach it, as opposed to being physically present to learn in person. One of my former students, who later studied at MIT, connected me to Ann Marie Maxwell at Sloan in January 2017, and it was only then that I found out there was an Entrepreneurship Development Program cohort starting in exactly two-weeks’ time. Thankfully, I got organised in time and was accepted!
How has EDP influenced you and the work you are doing to encourage entrepreneurship/entrepreneurial education in Ireland?
In TechInnovate, our focus—through an entrepreneurship fellowship programme and through intrapreneurship training for industry—is towards bringing technology innovations in different domains (primarily agriculture) through to market. I’ve since used what I learned at EDP to teach various cohorts: delivering intrapreneurship training to staff from local corporates; giving an intensive bootcamp to 30 PhD students and postdocs from NUI Galway called “TRICS: Teaching Researchers and Innovators How to Create Startups”; running workshops on “Who Is Your Customer and What Can You Do For Them” for Blackstone LaunchPad, the PorterShed, and the BonBillo social impact incubator; and more recently helping 30 formerly self-employed/unemployed/homemakers to develop their entrepreneurship skills through a Springboard+ postgraduate course along with my colleague Dr Paul Flynn.
I also received funding under the ERASMUS+ Knowledge Alliances programme with project partners in Spain (IESE Business School, VentureHub), Italy (RomaTre, Translated.net) and Belgium (European Young Innovators Forum), for a €1M project called STARTED, which begins January 2018. The aim of this project is to teach researchers and innovators in R&D organisations (HEIs, corporates, etc.) how to create startups/spinouts/subsidiaries. This will be through a combination of entrepreneurship training in six European regions with both moderately high unemployment and moderately high R&D as a % of GDP, and of resources delivered via an online platform (the proposed European Research-to-Startup Centre). The Disciplined Entrepreneurship process was proposed as a core part of this training.
Another added benefit of EDP was not just the fantastic lecturers and classes, but the visits to ecosystem players like CIC in Cambridge and the opportunity to learn about MIT programmes like REAP (the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program). I’m very interested and active in getting my region in Ireland onto a future REAP cohort, and related to this I recently attended the MIT Innovation Ecosystem Symposium to present a concept paper on the Galway City Innovation District, for which I happily won the best poster award.
I should also add that the EDP alumni network is fantastic—I’ve stayed in touch with many of my classmates and already they have helped me, and I have helped them with various efforts described above.
What is the state of innovation-based entrepreneurship in Ireland? What do you think the future holds?
There are many positives: VC investment in Irish companies reached over $1B in 2016. Enterprise Ireland now supports about twice as many startups as it did five years ago. The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund has also started to invest in this space: it recently partnered with Finistere Ventures on a $25M fund for agricultural research and innovation. And there are growing innovation ecosystems in our major cities. There are still some significant challenges around taxes and reliefs for investors, entrepreneurs and their startups, in terms of investing, exits and operations, which have yet to be resolved.
Irish state agencies mandate that our high-potential startups (HPSUs) have global ambition and are “born global,” so it follows that since IDEs (innovation-driven enterprises) are best placed to scale and serve international markets if they have innovation at their core, then that is where we should be placing our focus in terms of developing entrepreneurship skills. That’s why I believe that Disciplined Entrepreneurship and EDP provide a fantastic foundation for future entrepreneurs, ecosystem builders and amplifiers, industry intrapreneurs, and enterprise agencies to learn the requisite skills.