By @SimonCocking

Irish Tech News have attended all 3 Hardware  Hackathons at the DCU Innovation Academy so we figured it was time we caught up with Ronan Furlong, executive director to chat about how he felt they have been going, and the plans for the future.

What’s your background, what lead you into what you are now doing?

I’m originally an Architect who got drawn into the world of property development not long after I graduated. Before joining DCU I was with Dublin Airport Authority looking at innovative ways to exploit and leverage their 2500 acre campus. One of the main opportunities I identified was in the area of clean tech, which led to me develop a concept called the Irish Clean tech Services Centre (ICSC) for the airport commercially zoned land bank (or ‘horseshoe’ as its called).

This idea gained traction with the Government as well as with other nearby stakeholders who had similar plans to promote green economic development in the region, and in turn it became a key plank for the establishment of ‘The Green Way’ project in partnership with Fingal, DIT, Dublin City Council and indeed DCU.

I was subsequently seconded into the Green Way as operations director for a few years and this put me in contact with DCU President Brian MacCraith and his ambitious plan to acquire and develop the old Enterprise Ireland HQ in Glasnevin as an Innovation Campus, with a strong focus on cleantech. What has since become apparent to me over the last 2 years is that clean tech is being powered by a bunch of cross cutting technologies – from sensors to wearable’s and from 3D printing to data analytics – and while the focus on clean tech has remained, most of the 30 odd tenant companies in the Innovation Campus can be better described as ‘connected hardware’ or IoT companies ….. and this is why the hardware hackthon series fits in so well with what we are trying to do out here.

How were the previous Hackathons, what went well?

The previous hardware hackathons have all been amazing and have all varied slightly in their theme or participant lineup. We are learning constantly as we go. The first one with PCH in September ’14 was an epiphany moment for me in terms of watching a 60 second idea pitch on Friday transform into a physical, sophisticated working prototype on the Sunday night.

Until I saw it with my own eyes I just didn’t believe it was possible. Having really skilled mentors and engineers from PCH, Intel and DCU alongside component suppliers and rapid prototyping companies such as Radionics, Stoney CNC and Layerlabz, really supercharged the hackathon teams and unleashed a wave of creativity over the weekend.

How did last weekend’s Hackathon go? 

Last weeks hackathon followed in the well worn path of the previous 2 PCH events (Sept and Nov ’14) and kicked off a really cool winning prototype called Bluetape. Interestingly this time around we began to focus on how we could help some of these entrepreneurs bridge the gap between a hackathon and a company formation, so one of the prizes was a starter office for the winners. I’m delighted to say Bluetape have already taken up residence on the Innovation Campus and are actively pursuing the commercialisation of their idea – with the support of PCH and Intel also.

The meat one seemed to go well too?

The ‘Beef Hackathon’ with ABP Food Group was our first sector specific, lead company sponsored hackathon and was co-organised with Intel. While the PCH hardware hackathons are generalist, ‘boil the ocean’ type events where all ideas are on the table, the Beef Hackathon featured ABP setting out their ‘problem statements’ in advance (such as energy, transport, quality etc) and challenging the hackathon participants to come up with novel solutions that could be applied in their business. ABP invested huge effort in the event and they got a huge amount out of it – as evidenced by the fact that the 3 prize winning projects from that weekend are being actively tested/demonstrated ‘in the field’ as it were.

Plans for future Hackathons?

We have an Augmented Reality hackthon with Daqri coming up in June, featuring their Smart Saftey Helmet and the opening up of their API’s and SDK’s to the developer community. While its focused on an actual piece of hardware, its more of a developer hackathon –

We will probably do another general hardware hackathon with PCH in November (to coincide with the Web Summit as per last year) and we are planning to do an Aviation themed event (drones, airport management, air traffic control, MRO etc) this year also.

How frequently do you think can they be run?

We’ll look to do 3 maybe 4 every year – there’s a lot of events out there that people in the Maker community want to get to, so there is no point in trying to monopolise their time. Although we feed them very well each time, I think once a quarter is their natural limit.

Will the 3rd floor now be the new home for Hackthons, or is it going to be converted into something else?

The 3rd floor of Innovation House will host 2 or 3 more hackathons this year and will then be converted to own door offices/labs for connected hardware and IoT companies. We already have plans to refurbish a separate building to accommodate hackathons as well as a permanent maker community of entrepreneurs and ultimately a full blown hardware accelerator and maker space. I’ll tell you more about that next year !


How is the Innovation Campus going in general?

As mentioned, there are 30 companies, representing 300+ staff on site now and the place is buzzing. We just had a company (exergyn) raise €2.5m from the Horizon2020 fund and in January another tenant company (novaerus) raised $10m in VC. We have big long term plans for development and expansion and its incredibly exciting to be working on the project

Is there a limit on how long companies can remain on site?

The two companies mentioned are putting down R&D roots here, as are some of the other larger companies like Siemens. The philosophy here is to get the companies to engage with the research capability of the University and this by its nature involves longer term partnerships. We will inevitably experience churn as some of the smaller companies scale and outgrow the facility, but we don’t set a limit on their stay with us.

Anything else to add / we should have asked you?

A few things that mark us out as different in an Irish context, namely:

  • The mix of large and small – We have companies of scale looking to innovate and innovative companies looking to scale.
  • The mix of offices and industrial workshops – We have coders in tee shirts and hardware engineers in boiler suits
  • The co-location with the University – Our KPI’s are around engagement, not the rent roll
  • The focus on IoT – our companies are looking to bridge the digital and physical worlds

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