Designing a new Midland Innovation District in the Athlone region

Athlone boasts all the ingredients to drive innovation and enterprise in a post COVID-19 future. Are we prepared to shake off the negative economic and civil disruption of COVID-19, and move into recovery mode?

In order to build upon the strands of a new future emerging, we need to understand and acknowledge what we have within our landscape. The Athlone resource base has been well evidenced: our hard and soft infrastructure, expertise and experience, learning, research and development, skills, leadership, community engagement, and social economy. Moreover, Athlone needs to be viewed in the context of its inter dependency and connection with its hinterland. In preparing for the recovery – where are we off too?

  • How can we use this asset base to imagine a renewed future?
  • How do we deepen our connections to address the challenges and to share solutions?
  • How do we provide appropriate space and supports to grow a significant pipeline of entrepreneurs across the locality?

Since opening The Cluster Centre in Athlone, I have crafted a map of Athlone, Ballinahown, Knockcroghery, Kilteevan, Ballymahon, that sits upon our Innovation and Enterprise asset base. Let me take you into this future for a few moments. You exit the motorway on the Ballymahon Road, and park at what was formerly known as Barry’s shop. In this area imagine a new Midlands Innovation District MID HotSpot. It is bustling with 10 hot desks, servicing the need to print, check in online while providing a 20-minute exercise on the adjacent Greenway and the opportunity to buy some good coffee and enjoy a trendy lunch bite in the locality. From here you jump on a ‘hire & return’ bike and arrive into The Crescent area, a short few minutes later. In this part of Athlone, you can visit the MID Design space, which is a hotbed for small companies, applying their design skills, using 3d printers, and shared facilities. Leaving MID Design, and heading into town, a brisk four-minute walk will have you in the centre of Athlone where an existing building has been converted to host a suite of boutique meeting rooms, MID Meet Up. This office has 21st century transmission facilities, and caters for those doing business in town, and those arriving into town in a low carbon way – the train. The journey continues over the bridge to a district with a distinctive culture of its own. Here you can choose from existing Innovation space at Ball Alley Lane, or visit MID Manu, a dedicated advance material manufacturing hub on the west side of town. Advance Material connections are built as the SMEs and start ups co-locate, interact over the coffee station, share knowledge, expertise and contacts.

At this unsettling time, we can learn from our near Galway neighbours, where in 1993 the DEC hardware plant shut in Galway city, with impending doom on the horizon. The state agencies supports, education and city stakeholders gathered, and this resulted in the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators coming through, with a now vibrant tech and med tech ecosystem now in situ.

The Athlone region has all the ingredients to drive innovation, to identify and supply Value chain disruption and to drive job creation. Could this be the opportunity to set fire to the ambition? Can we create a new type of innovation surge? This surge could build a Midland Innovation District in a few short weeks. In time, the success stories of our post Covid-19 response may be told in the classroom, at events, in the media.

With many great organisations providing excellent supports: Enterprise Ireland, Westmeath Co Co, Westmeath LEO, IDA, Regional Skills Forum Midlands, Athlone IT, Athlone Community Enterprise, Athlone Chamber, and many more, Athlone is poised to pivot.

Together we can take on the recovery challenge and the opportunity to strengthen our Innovation and Enterprise ecosystem. Let’s continue to design a post Covid-19 fruitful future together.

Thank you to the Westmeath Independent for their continued good work, and for publishing this article.