The following piece, by Ciara O’Brien, is an excerpt from Silicon Docks: The Rise Of Dublin As A Global Tech Hub, edited by Pamela Newenham (Liberties Press).
Just a few short years ago, Ireland was in the grip of an economic crisis. Rising debt levels, a property-market crash and the problems that had emerged in the country’s banks were stifling the country’s economy.
The boom had turned to bust in a matter of months, and young people were emigrating in their thousands. Unemployment soared as job losses were announced with alarming regularity, and thousands of businesses went to the wall.
Office buildings, newly completed, were uncertain of ever attracting the hoped-for tenants, and the shells of half-finished buildings littered Dublin’s city centre. Now things are looking up again, and that is partly due to the tech sector.
Take a stroll around the area that has become known as Silicon Docks and you’ll see a vibrant business sector. It’s approximately one square mile in size, but its influence is far more significant.
On Barrow Street, where Google is based, property values are soaring as the US tech giant sprawls over several buildings. In its shadow are companies such as Airbnb, Facebook and Twitter, along with incubators such as Dogpatch Labs that have made Silicon Docks their home. These stand shoulder to shoulder with start-ups and accelerators that have increased in number over the past couple of years. This is the result of some hard campaigning and marketing of a country that, until recently, was a tough sell.
The IDA set up an emerging business unit in 2010, under its Horizon 2020 plan, to identify and bring to Ireland early-stage, fast-growth companies to Ireland. It wasn’t the easiest time to persuade firms that Ireland was a good location. In the grip of the Troika bailout, the country’s image was tarnished and the economy was rocky. Nevertheless, the IDA team set about finding companies that could provide Ireland with the next wave of tech firms, and help the country’s economy grow. The plan of attack included networking, marketing events and one-to-one meetings with firms. Although some of the firms were not yet making big money, there was a good chance they would be in the future, and when they did, the IDA wanted to make sure they were established in Ireland.
Back in 2010, the senior vice president of IDA Ireland’s emerging business division, Barry O’Dowd, was looking at the docklands as an area of opportunity. The vital thing, he thought, was to get to a stage where the agency had a rolodex of companies that it could use to attract others, and to get a few key names to use as a starter pack. That came with the likes of Indeed.com, HubSpot, Etsy and others. While the jobs announcements have been small – a hundred jobs here, twenty-five jobs there – over time they have begun to add up to a more impressive overall figure. The emerging business unit has notched up more than 2,000 jobs to date and, by the end of summer 2014, it was about to close its hundredth project – a major milestone.
Although they’re still looking to hit the jackpot with the next Google or Facebook, the signs are encouraging with companies like Zendesk, which announced the opening of Irish office in 2012 and a data centre last year, raising $100 million in an IPO in May 2014. It is companies like this that will be the future cornerstones of Silicon Docks, an area that has gathered together some of the biggest names in the tech industry.
But Silicon Docks isn’t limited by a postcode. It’s more than that, Barry O’Dowd says. He describes it as a great piece of branding, which has become much bigger than the docks itself, rather than a geography. The tech companies are following the water out from a core area in the docks, down the River Liffey and the Grand Canal. As Silicon Docks expands, Dublin’s reputation as a tech hub is growing too.
Facebook has already outgrown its original Dublin base, as, it seems, has Twitter. In June 2014, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network moved its Dublin office from Hanover Quay to Grand Canal Square, doubling the potential capacity of its Irish base to a thousand and making it the biggest operation outside of its headquarters in California. Twitter, which set up on Pearse Street, could also be on the move, as it seeks growth of its own. LinkedIn is another company planning expansion in Dublin. The professional networking site acquired a 17,507-square-metre site at Wilton Place in late 2014, where it intends to build a new international headquarters. Squarespace has already moved once and is looking to move again, while Riot Games has moved into larger spaces three times.
There has been some progress in creating more office space in the area. In May 2014, Dublin City Council gave the go-ahead for a major development of the docklands area that will not only include thousands of square metres of office space, but also more than 2,500 homes. Nama is to finance a €150-million redevelopment of Boland’s Mill, which will include a fourteen-storey office block. The agency has also submitted a planning application to develop 42,500-square-metres of offices and apartments at Hanover Quay and Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. With a fast-track planning process in place and some of the property in the area already in public ownership through Nama, things could get going quite quickly.