“Typically, every year, Enterprise Ireland would fund about 70 startups,” said Marina Donohoe, the head of Enterprise Ireland’s cleantech sector. “A third of all startups that we have funded so far in 2010 are coming from cleantech industries,” she said. “We had hoped that a tenth of the companies we would have funded would come from cleantech and we’re now at a third.”

Enterprise Ireland is the government agency charged with growing business by providing the money and guidance to get innovative ideas from concept to marketplace. “We’re quite unique as a government agency in how we work with companies. We can be likened in many respects to a friendly venture capital fund,” Donohoe said. “Our mission in life is around the growth of Irish industry, which is very much linked to job creation.”

What Donohoe said is music to Irish ears. Once called the Celtic Tiger for its roaring economy during the rise of IT in the digitally dancing '90s, Ireland has been hit hard by the bursting of the successive bubbles of the last decade and even harder by the most recent downturn. Now, Enterprise Ireland and Ireland’s development leaders see a path out emerging from Ireland’s seemingly undiscouraged small business sector.

In bringing Ireland back from the brink, Irish business leaders want to turn the small island nation’s harsh weather and isolated intimacy to its advantage.

“We have a huge wind and wave resource in the country and we have a public aversion to nuclear energy,” said Liam Sweeney, Enterprise Ireland’s Industrial Technologies Commercialisation Specialist. “The government has this target of an average of 40 percent of our electricity to be generated from renewable resources by 2020. That’s mostly wind,” he said. “The challenges and opportunities that that’s going to present on the grid are going to be huge and they haven’t been addressed in other places so far. So Ireland could become sort of a test bed for the integration of a very large percentage of renewables on the grid.”

Until now, Ireland has managed with one massive coal plant, a powerful hydro resource instituted nearly a century ago, and a lot of imported oil and gas. “At the moment, you adjust the generation to match whatever the load is,” Sweeney said. “That’s not going to work anymore. They’re going to have to alter the load to match the wind generation.”

Doing so will involve a set of capabilities classified generally as the smart grid. “That is going to involve software, telecommunications and products for managing energy on the grid,” said Sweeney. Ireland offers unique advantages that make it a prime candidate to be the first national scale implementer, Sweeney pointed out. “We’ve one energy regulator, one transmission grid operator and one distribution system operator. And they all know each other and things can get done.”

Many of the startups Enterprise Ireland has been funding and expects to continue funding are developing strategies to make the smart grid work, strategies that are -- because they are based on the strength and experience of the Celtic Tiger -- ahead of things being done anywhere else.

Brendan Dollard, an Enterprise Ireland Senior Technologist, said he is currently seeing a company through the funding process that designs software for grid quality management and another that has software for remote energy management for industrial purposes. Both are needs the smart grid will have.

“I think the thing about Enterprise Ireland is that we’re so close to our clients personally. First-name close,” Dollard said. “If I come across something in a journal, I can ring up a couple of guys and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ and we can chat a little. Similarly, on their end, they can get a call in. Just to mull over ideas and any problems that they might have. I think that’s a fantastic relationship to have,” Dollard smiled. “We’re well-placed to do that.”