8th July 2021
It’s no secret that the Grand Canal Docks in Dublin have morphed into a hotbed of global corporations and household names; Google, Facebook, Twitter et al are all in situ. But there are much bigger plans afoot for this particular corner of the capital; it is to be home to the country’s first innovation district.
The Grand Canal Innovation District (GCID) is a €1.1 billion project that aims to bring together academia, entrepreneurs, companies of all sizes and community amenities in one focused, urban environment. Its vision? To “produce a sum greater than its parts”, driving inward investment, collaborations and jobs. It will not be confined to the world of business; it is to be a place where everyone — from office workers to tourists to locals — will want to spend time.
The notion is not a new one; innovation districts are a growing phenomenon across the world. Among some of the better-known examples are Two Kings in Toronto, Granville Island in Vancouver and Battery Park City in New York.
The first innovation district was in Spain, where the seeds of the idea were sown in the form of 22@Barcelona. The district employs 90,000 people, is home to 4,500 companies and pulls in start-ups from around the globe. It is a beacon of affordable housing, high living/working standards and walkability, and an inspiring example of what can be achieved through this model. Not only do the key stakeholders have a physical presence but they are encouraged to interact and work together.
Diarmuid O’Brien, the chief innovation and enterprise officer at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) who has led the project, references in particular the districts of Kendall Square in Boston and the Knowledge Quarter at King’s Cross in London as being good role models for Dublin. The former is anchored by MIT and has several similarities to Dublin; many of the same companies are there, and the city is on a similar scale.
However, as Niamh Bushnell, chief communications officer at SoapBox Labs and a member of the GCID Advisory Group, points out, our district will have a uniquely Irish character. “This needs to be very much an Irish story and to showcase our unique strengths in a compelling way,” she says.
Although in its early stages, the GCID is already hitting some milestones. The first is on the organisational side, bringing together all the employers in the area — multinationals, legal and financial firms and the like, with 70,000-80,000 employees between them. All parties have signed up to a charter detailing the common vision and ambition for what can be achieved with the district.
In terms of bricks and mortar advances, plans are proceeding for Trinity East — TCD’s new campus, which is the anchor for the district. Planning permission has been granted for the first phase, which will see the commencement of construction on a 5,500 sq m innovation space called Portal later this year.
Portal will be home to 100 start-ups, several corporate innovation teams and academic research activity. In a sense, O’Brien says, it will be a microcosm of what the district will eventually look like, with an “economic spillover” between start-ups, large corporates and universities.
“What we’re hoping to do with this first initiative is to get that energy going between these actors, demonstrate how it can work and then look to scale it,” he says. Hot on its heels will be the next phase of development — the E3 Research Institute, which will be funded by a €30 million donation from Eric Kinsella, the chairman of Jones Engineering, and his wife, Barbara.
THE IRISH STORY
Ireland is well positioned to develop a world-class innovation district — many of the necessary elements are already in place in our capital. “We have world-leading tech companies within 10-15 minutes’ walk of each other, an active venture capital industry and about 100,000 third-level students within a five-mile radius of the district,” O’Brien says. “So there’s a huge density of talent, whether it’s graduates, entrepreneurs or people who have come from around the world to work for the large corporates.”
Ultimately, Bushnell says, we need to give people a clear reference point when they think about Ireland or Dublin. “People don’t need to know about every company that’s here or every detail of the place, but they need to be able to recognise a particular city or environment as being defined by something,” she says.
In this case: the GCID. Stephen McIntyre, a partner at Frontline Ventures and another member of the advisory group, sees two overarching goals for the GCID. The first is to keep Ireland relevant as a tech ecosystem both for local start-ups and FDI tech companies that want to do interesting work in Dublin. The second is to build a bridge between these two communities.
Having straddled both — McIntyre is a former managing director of Twitter Ireland — he says there is a “pretty big wall” between start-ups and multinationals in Dublin. This is in contrast to Silicon Valley and the like, where the border between the two is “pretty porous”, with “founders, engineers, salespeople all moving fluidly from one side to the other and back”.
Another purpose the GCID should serve is to give people a good reason to come to Ireland and, perhaps more pertinently given the past 18 months, to come to work. “One thing we’ve learnt from working from home is that while it’s fine for executing, physical contact is still preferable for creating,” says McIntyre. “At some point last year people started to wonder if all these physical spaces would still be relevant after Covid; the answer is yes. Even the most evangelical of remote only companies are building in time to get together regularly.”
Meanwhile, O’Brien, Bushnell and McIntyre all welcome the potential for the GCID to shift the focus away from our tax incentives.
“It’s a real opportunity to show that we are moving beyond just having an attractive tax system to having an attractive innovation ecosystem,” O’Brien says.
According to Bushnell, “sands are shifting” not only in terms of the global tax situation but regarding the future of work. “We can take advantage of these to consolidate the great story we have of really innovative start-ups in everything from deep tech/AI to ecommerce, software as a service,” she says.
McIntyre, meanwhile, says that when he talks to chief executives about coming to Europe, their priorities are access to talent, proximity to customers, ease of doing business and costs in general (of which tax is just one part).
“At grassroots level, CEOs don’t really talk about the tax aspect, so putting that behind us would be a good thing,” he says. “There was a time when countries like Ireland had to use tax incentives to be competitive, but we have now built up other strengths and can stand on our own two feet.”
Finally, the GCID will not just be about its main stakeholders — the corporates and academics. At its heart is a desire to ensure that it “raises everyone’s boats” as O’Brien puts it, and entices visitors.
“Our main campus in College Green attracts two million visitors a year,” he says. “We want to create a new public space that attracts visitors and adds vibrancy to the area. Many of the companies here have physical buildings but no great connectivity to the city; we want to change that.”
Source: The Sunday Times
Image Source: Trinity College Dublin, Advisory Report