IN the gently rolling hills that are home to this country's growing electronics industry, there is a growing din over whether Ireland can top Scotland and become the next Silicon Valley. Everyone agrees that Ireland has all the ingredients of the American entrepreneurial spirit that spawned Silicon Valley and Route 128.
Scotland has had much success in luring scores of high-volume electronics companies to its Silicon Glen area. Ireland is fast catching up, though. Many multinational companies, for example, are establishing small research-and-development groups. Everywhere, Silicon Valley is held up as a model to be emulated.
``Certainly, we're influenced by the Silicon Valley ideal. We regularly visit to check programs, and get ideas which we can adopt,'' says Noel Mulcahy, dean of the College of Engineering and Science at the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). The institute is in Plassey Technological Park in Limerick, in the center of Ireland's highly developed industrial midwest region.
Some 250 young Irish engineers and scientists work in Silicon Valley and other parts of the West Coast of the United States, and ties with the home country are strong. Dr. Mulcahy says many Irish engineers return to Ireland and start their own businesses, with financial support from the Irish government.
Right now, about 30,000 people work in Ireland's electronics industry out of a total work force of 1 million scattered throughout 26 counties. Although small, the industry has been growing steadily, helped by the presence of several hundred American and European electronics firms. Digital Equipment Corporation employs about 2,000 people in Ireland. Microsoft, the software producer, and other big computer companies have operations here.
New target areas for future growth are microelectronics and optoelectronics, and a number of companies are springing up around these technologies.
BUT to a large extent Ireland has been thrown back on its own resources. That is partly because some multinationals that located here in the early 1980s, attracted by the low costs of doing business and high grants, abandoned the country when costs began to escalate and grants dried up. In their wake, however, has come a new wave of companies like Digital and Wang Laboratories, which have made solid, long-term commitments to the country.
A spinoff effect has created a crop of small, indigenous electronics companies that could hold the key to the future of Ireland's electronics industry. The Irish government actively encourages such Irish company start-ups.
One example of this new trend is Delta Communications PLC, a flourishing electronics concern on the Shannon Industrial Estate in County Clare. The company is largely the creation of Patrick Shanahan, its 35-year-old managing director, who along with other executives several years ago bought out the Irish operations of Mitel Corporation of Canada and formed their own concern.
After pumping $2 million into research and development, the company has managed to create its own niche in the market, and is selling specialized telecommunications equipment around the world to such multinationals as American Telephone & Telegraph Company, Northern Telecom, and French-based Alacatel. Delta employs 130 and is already turning a profit on revenues that are approaching $10 million.
Along with financial support from the government, there are strong links between the electronics community in such areas as Shannon Free Trade Zone and technological institutions like the NIHE, which Dr. Mulcahy likens to a miniature Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
NIHE-trained technicians go to work in the electronics industry. Graduates with advanced degrees in engineering and other disciplines filter in at higher levels. The NIHE has a system of cooperative education, whereby students work for industry for a designated period, obtain credits, and are paid for their work. About half go directly to work for those companies after graduation, Mulcahy says.