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Wrong Country Wrong Call

by Daragh on March 10th, 2010

I’m diverting briefly today from my regular information quality themes to pick up on a debate that has been triggered by Simon over on Tuppenceworth about the latest tsunami of magical thinking that is Your Country Your Call.

For those of you in Ireland who reside under a rock or in a cave or readers from outside of Ireland, Your Country Your Call is a competition/website which has been set up on (apparently) a Charitable basis with backing of  number of organisations who have, until recently, been happy to be completely behind the scenes for what one must assume are laudable reasons grounded in humility, modesty and a sense of service.

The goal of YCYC is to find the magic bullet idea that can trigger a renaissance in the Celtic Tiger. Two prizes are on offer for the people who comes up with two ideas and a fund has been established to help develop these mould breaking concepts into  real industries (not a business… an industry).

Simon has made a number of cogent arguments on Tuppenceworth about the terms and conditions of entry which basically mean that the promoters of YCYC own the winning idea and control the purse strings for the development and direction of the idea. That’s bothersome enough.

My issue with YCYC is that it is actually a wasted opportunity that has the hallmarks of  the level of thinking that got us into the current financial mess that the country is in.  If we hype it it will happen. If we generate a general sense of it being built at some point in the future they will come. The general gist of the response to criticism thus far has not been a million miles from the comments made about people who raised concerns about the Irish economy just before the wheels fell off. Apparently it is unpatriotic to question who is behind this and how they are being funded.

Apparently if we all hold hands and think happy thoughts then, just like Peter Pan, we’ll be able to fly, never grow up, and pick pointless fights with our own shadows.

But I digress. My problem with YCYC is that a large amount of money is being poured into it. It has been confirmed that €2 million is being poured into this, when you take prize funds, the development kitty and the general costs associated with a big media splash.  Even if we are as generous as people are seeming to be and assume that the media splash is being done pro bono, we still have a  figure of around €2 million attached to YCYC (see discussion around this comment on ValueIreland’s website)

What other type of model might YCYC have pursued to more effectively make use of this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, other than a competition model the terms and conditions of which read to me like the ones associated with a Battle of the Bands or a phone in competition to win a car?

How about beefing up funding to EXISTING supports for entrepreneurship in Ireland such as the County Enterprise Boards, LEADER programmes, or the enterprise incubation programmes associated with the various Universities and Institutes of Technology?

  • The upper limit for a feasibility study grant from a CEB is around €5000. That €2million could support 400 studies into new business ideas, each of which would need to have a business model slightly better than “Underpants- Question mark – Profit” to get the funding.
  • Funding for graduate entreprenuers through the CORD scheme provides up to €30k in funding to participants on an enterprise incubation scheme through an Institute of Technology or University. The €2 million would fully fund 66 additional CORD places around the country, with enough over for a big bang press launch. Even if the money was only to partially fund these places, it would help support real innovation and entrepreneurship.

I would have to ask why the promoter and financial backers of YCYC decided to by-pass the existing support structures that exist for new business ideas in this country. Is it that the organisers thought the existing structures to be inefficient or broken in some way?

This question is all the more pressing to me given that it seems that a chunk of this money (15%) came from the Irish Government, specifically, it seems, the Dept of Enterprise Trade and Employment. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is the Irish Govt. Department which is responsible for County Enterprise Boards. So, rather than fund them more the Dept seems to have been happy to transfer taxpayer’s money to a private initiative.

At least that is what seems to be suggested by Padraig McKeown’s Twitter reply to Tuppenceworth.ie about which department’s budget the €300k was coming from (warning, you’ll need to scroll down on this to see all the relevant comments). This is also an interesting question given recent comments and posts elsewhere speculating about the future of the County Enterprise Boards.

  • €300k from the Department equates to 60 Feasibility study grants or 10 CORD funded Incubation centre places.

I’m sure that someone will row in about now with the argument that the Dept can’t just transfer €300k to the CEBs or to the Incubation Centres willy-nilly. But that is exactly what seems to have happened to facilitate a transfer of €300k to YCYC with no (at least as far as I can see) announcement or fanfare that this was being done.

As for the remaining €1.7million that is in the kitty for YCYC? As each CEB operates as a seperate limited company, there would have been no impediment (that I can see) to these backers simply making the fund available as an Innovation Fund which the CEBs or Incubation Centres could draw on to fund grants and other supports for start-up businesses.

So. I’m left with a sense that Your Country Your Call is:

  1. A poorly thought out muddle with a worrying lack of clarity about where issues such as Intellectual Property rights to any idea sit (the Terms & Conditions do seem to be clear that the IP vests to the promoters of #YCYC).
  2. An initiative that may be laudable in its intent, but perhaps has not been properly thought through – perhaps the use of existing supports that exist under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Enterprise Ireland.
  3. An initiative that the Government Dept (Enterprise Trade & Employment) responsible for promoting enterprise and employment thought worthwhile investing a significant sum of money into an initiative which keeps the IP to any idea, at what can only be the expense of existing programmes for Enterprise support that exist in the country or, at the very least, at the expense of beefing up those programmes in a structured and sustainable way.
  4. YCYC is a wonderful feat of PR puffery with little real potential to deliver the economic kickstart that is required in Ireland, but doesn’t the website look pretty.
  5. The priority of the government and the sponsors of this initiative is to promote a forum for fuzzy thinking and “end of the rainbow” speculation at the expense of the existing supports for business start-ups which have a track record of supporting local SME development around the country.

At best it is a noisome distraction and puffery that might, by some sheer accident of chance, uncover a true gem of an idea (that the innovator of which cannot grasp the value of) which will restart the economic engines. At worst, it is a noisome distraction that has diverted funding from existing enterprise support frameworks that exist in the country, apparently with the blessing of the responsible government minister.

Of course, I could be totally wrong.  Maybe the Department of Enterprise had €300k that was sitting around doing nothing and which the CEBs and University Campus incubators had said no to when it was offered to them. Maybe the €1.7 million war chest was touted around the Campus Incubators and the CEBs but was politely declined as well. Perhaps the President of DCU could shed some light on this as he is on the Steering board of YCYC?

Maybe the terms and conditions of YCYC will not put off serious thinkers with real viable ideas to shake things up in the economy which they’ll be happy to part with for a hundred grand.

Personally, I’ll continue with my strategy of knuckling down to graft on my business plan, keeping an eye on costs, and working to build a set of services and products that, while not changing the world, will change that part of it that I’ve spotted needs changing, with a view to creating value and generating employment for others over time.

It’s my country. It’s my call.

6 Comments
  1. Padraig McKeon permalink

    Note to Admin Apologies – hit strike and intended to tidy up – Delete previous and add (assuming approved) this added version
    ____________________________________________________

    Daragh,

    Interesting and obviously informed contribution. I won’t rehash all that was discussed in the Tuppenceworth and Value Ireland blogs but will make a few points.

    You acknowledge early on – YCYC is “not [looking for] a business… [but] an industry” but the latter part of the post leans back into points about “supports for start up businesses.

    To be absolutely clear, this competition is not about identifying specific business proposals which might result in the development of one product, or growing only one company’s work force. It is looking for something that is still at the concept stage and needs to be worked up. Winning proposals will describe a significant preparatory process which could require legislative, administrative or procedural change before implementation can be effected.

    That is a different point of entry to the enterprise creation market to that occupied by the CEBs etc? and that is why a different fund has been created by YCYC – again this competition is not to fund a single company start up idea. It is trying to do something different.

    There is BTW also, no ambiguity about the IP issue referred in the first of your numbered points. Although we don’t expect too much IP in the winning the proposal, any IP in either of the two wimnners goes to YCYC.

    • Padraig

      Thanks for the response, and thanks for re-clarifying the position on the IP – I think I finger flubbed the wording on that point a little.

      The reason the latter part of the post leans back to supports for start up businesses is I am querying why the existing frameworks and functions that exist have been, as far as I can see, entirely by-passed rather than including them (given their experience in evaluating and supporting new ideas).

      All business proposals start with a concept that needs to be worked up. Many of them might require changes in procedures, methods of administration etc. (that is one area where gaps in a market are often identified). In some cases, the business proposal might even require a legislative change to become viable (for example, deregulation of a market such as telecommunications or electricity). In other cases, the existence of legislation creates the opportunity (e.g. Health and Safety training or Tax advisors). So I would have to argue that the point of entry is not sufficiently different that a totally divergent initiative which has drawn down a significant tranche of funding from the Department of Enterprise Trade & Employment is warranted, at least not one that seems to exclude the existing frameworks for enterprise development that exist in this country.

      I take your point that YCYC is not about helping one company or developing one product. But then, funding 400 feasibility studies or 60 CORD placements wouldn’t be helping just one company or one product. Even if we only focus on the €300k provided by the Dept, that’s a lot of support for existing startups who are struggling to secure funding that has been diverted at the stroke of a pen and, it seems, zero publicity of the fact (apart from some Twitter activity).

      The key question I was asking in the post is what do the promoters of YCYC feel is so broken about the current enterprise supports in this country that they have bypassed them? Do the promoters of YCYC think that CEBS and the Campus incubation centres aren’t up to the job of finding the “Next Big Thing”? If so, why?

      If you do think they are up to the job but just need a little help, why are they not included in or represented in the publicity and operation of YCYC? And if they are, why is everyone keeping it so quiet?

  2. Disagreement is good. I do agree that a radical change is needed. However I think that YCYC is neither radical nor a change (in its current form), particularly as the ideascampaign ran a strangely similar initiative in 2009.

    If our current systems of entrepreneur support are broken or inefficient, lets tackle that problem and spend €300k (or €2million) on that and make the systems currently in place work better in a sustainable way.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Think Big, Think Radical | antoin@eire.com
  2. Tuppenceworth.ie blog » Your Country Your Call: Is it Bigger than a Breadbox?
  3. YourCountryYourCall: Ideas galore, but not without controversey | Talkin' bout a revolution

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