When Will Ireland Become A True Startup Star? 12 Irish Movers And Shakers Weigh In

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Geektime decided to speak with some of the most influential leaders in the Irish startup ecosystem.

Ireland has been getting a lot of attention for its growing startup scene. With its increased ease of doing business, entrepreneur visa program, presence of multinational Internet corporations, global events such as Web Summit, English as a first language and close proximity to EU countries, it has what it takes to become a larger ecosystem. Here, we interview some of Ireland’s most significant entrepreneurial movers and shakers to see what makes Ireland unique and what it will take to catapult Ireland past neighboring innovative nations in the EU and UK.

1. Sean O’Sullivan – Managing Director, SOSventure

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Sean O’Sullivan as featured in Dragon’s Den / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

It is the only English speaking country in the Western world with an open door policy for tech workers. The high tech visa gives anyone from anywhere the capability of working for an Irish startup or Ireland-based multinational. The incredible mix of all the top US multinationals, seemingly almost all of which have their EMEA or European HQs in Ireland, creates a big draw for international talent to come to Ireland, and provides a density of job opportunities for tech workers from everywhere, including a highly educated and capable Irish workforce.

What advice would you give someone who is just starting out and wishes to enter this scene?

Startup Ireland is an information resource that points to hundreds of monthly events across Ireland for founder meetups, Startup Weekends and the like. There is a general guide for Ireland that was put out by Frontline Venture. There is also a general 70-page guide to ways the government is looking to strengthen the startup community, which I chaired/wrote.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene, and what do you think needs to be done to overcome them?

Too many tech jobs at too high a rate of pay working for the multinationals, meaning that much talent needs to be imported.

2. Frank Walsh – Partner at Enterprise Equity

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Frank Walsh / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

I think Ireland is the best place in the world to start a business. If Carlsberg did startup scenes…The country has four dedicated seed funds totaling over €120 million to fund and support Irish startups – that’s a huge investment in the indigenous scene for such a small economy. On a per-head basis, there may be more seed funding available in Ireland than anywhere else in the world. In addition to the funds, the country enjoys a strong support ecosystem led by Enterprise Ireland; incubators, accelerations, enterprise boards, Startup Ireland, Microfinance Ireland. The scene also enjoys a lot of internal support, entrepreneurs past and present helping current generation entrepreneurs.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

Hopefully we will see companies growing and scaling to become global leaders in their fields. I would like to see more indigenous companies reaching €100 million revenue, going public, acquiring other companies … rather than the usual situation of exiting early in low-to-moderate value trade sales.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene, and what do you think needs to be done to overcome them?

Certain sectors may need special help; the gaming industry has struggled to get venture capital as the hit-driven nature of the business makes it hard to fund. Similarly, food startups have a hard time raising funds due to capital requirements and scaling issues. Dedicated funding for these sectors may be worth consideration.

3. David Scanlon – Partner at Lucey Fund

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David Scanlon / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

I think one of the defining features is the diversity, both of founders’ backgrounds, as well as the sectors that founders choose to launch in. For such a small country, there’s a strong pool of entrepreneurs with skills and experience gained outside of Ireland, mostly because of the local presence of successful multinationals which has attracted them to move here.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

‘Corporate’ Ireland is really waking up to the startup community here, with an increasing number of local and multinational firms getting involved with incubators, hackathons, etc. I hope that in the next few years we’ll start seeing a good deal more activity in the local corporate venture/M&A space.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

I think that maintaining a cost environment that allows teams to keep running lean is going to be very important in the coming months, particularly in terms of salaries and rents. Ireland’s economic recovery is in full swing, but that will increase a team’s burn rate; the opening of new co-working venues such as Dogpatch and Gravity is very welcome, but there’s a lot of pressure to find affordable private accommodation. We’d be well advised to learn from the mistakes made in San Francisco and London in this regard.

Government

4. Niamh Bushnell – Dublin Commissioner for Startups

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Niamh Bushnell / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

I’m the Dublin Commissioner for Startups, so my focus is Dublin-specific. There are over 1,200 great startups in Dublin right now and lots of them have huge potential. Dublin is a unique magnet for startups because of what I call the three forces:

1. The quality of our born and bred Dublin startups

2. The strength of the ecosystem that supports them with funding, education, acceleration, professional services and government regulation, and

3. The world class multinationals that pervade the city, actively engaging with startups and investing time, resources and knowledge to strengthen the ecosystem here.

The confluence of these three forces in our dense but accessible city make Dublin unique globally.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene, and what do you think needs to be done to overcome them?

We have the same challenges as other ecosystems. The rate of startup failure is high and there are few options for securing larger scale investment (north of $2 million funding) here. That said, thinking internationally from day one can be a huge competitive advantage down the line.

In Ireland and in Dublin specifically, we don’t focus our investment and ecosystem supports in specific verticals. We are known for being strong in FinTech, HealthTech, Enterprise/SaaS, Hardware and others, but I wonder how much faster we’d excel if we decided to focus on one or two hot areas, say crypto currencies or blockchain. It’s a big question and one I think we should continue to explore.

5. Julie Sinnamon –  CEO of Enterprise Ireland

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Julie Sinnamon / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

There is strong support for entrepreneurship at a government level in Ireland and Dublin in particular has seen significant investment from emerging and established foreign direct investors that have established a presence that further enhances the availability of talent. We are starting to see repeat and experienced entrepreneurs investing in new ideas. We are also seeing an increase in female entrepreneurship. Ireland (inclusive of Dublin) can compete with any European location in terms of access to capital, access to talent and creativity.

In Ireland, government, industry and the higher education sectors have been working together to create an ecosystem that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and startups, including support from agencies like Enterprise Ireland, which is the lead government agency that invests in startups. Over 180 startups received investment last year.

Ireland also has a vibrant VC industry. Enterprise Ireland has been investing on the same terms as the private sector as a Limited Partner since the mid-1990s to support the development of an innovative and commercial venture capital sector. The most recent completed program (the Seed and Venture Capital Scheme 2007-2012) saw Enterprise Ireland commit €175 million to both early stage and series A and B focused funds. New innovative and highly connected fund managers have also emerged under the program. These funds have a total of €700 million under management. In recent times, Enterprise Ireland has also committed a further €100m to Irish VC funds that invest both in Ireland and overseas over the last year.

A vibrant ecosystem needs a strong domestic VC market that has the capability of investing and attracting international VCs as syndicate partners. Ireland has that: under a new program called the ‘Innovation Fund Ireland Scheme,’ we have seen international players like Polaris, Highland Capital Europe and Lightstone opening offices in Ireland. There is a new Irish Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) which has a mandate to invest in opportunities that are commercial and also have an economic benefit for Ireland. Venture capital and other related financial instruments will be one element of their investment strategy.

Entrepreneurs

6. Russell Banks – CEO at Investor Sheet

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Russell Banks / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

In a word ‘Community!’. Perhaps this desire to help our fellow entrepreneur comes from our agricultural, village heritage but for me it has become one of our biggest competitive advantages. I have been lucky to meet with many US companies and service providers over the coming years as they setup here. What they all say without question is how easy it was for them to setup in Ireland, many to a fully functioning operation within three months. They all put it down to how easy it was for them to navigate our community, to build their network rapidly and hire the people that they needed.

7. Mark Little – Founder of Storyful

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Mark Little, Founder of Storyful / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

?Ireland has some natural advantages for startups: Its location makes it easy to bridge the gap between Europe and the US, it has a highly-educated population, state-backed funding, English as a first language and the presence of huge social corporations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

But the real advantages are intangible. There is an amazing community spirit and the Irish tradition of storytelling helps our startups take advantage of the disruption triggered by the rise of social and mobile web.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

?I feel that Ireland has developed expertise in several key areas such as gaming, financial services and ?data mining. There is also real potential for Irish startups focused on media and content. Finally, I see huge potential for Irish companies specializing in online/mobile transactions.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

Ireland is an absolutely brilliant place to start a company but not yet the best place to scale a company with global ambitions. There? needs to be a lot more attention to Series A and B funding and the creation of mentoring for companies who are moving from plucky upstart to global player – that is the most dangerous part of the startup journey and one Ireland has not yet got right.

8. John Breslin – Co-Founder of Boards.ie/Adverts.ie, Chairman & Co-Founder of Startup Galway, NUI Galway Senior Lecturer (on Sabbatical)

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John Breslin, Startup Advisor / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

Closer cooperations between the multinationals and relevant startups in their space – knitting together the ecosystems. For example, Galway is a global MedTech hub, with 9/10 of the top MedTech companies having operations on its doorstep. We are seeing a raft of new MedTech startups and their successes: Embo raising €3 million in cash (they are past fellows of NUI Galway’s successful BioInnovate program, modeled on Stanford’s Biodesign course) and other more established Irish companies like Apica being acquired.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

As with all capital cities, Dublin is where most of the startup activity is happening. However, rents are overheating in the capital (for both company space and employee accommodation) and don’t show any immediate signs of cooling. The government has said it wants to see regions more active in attracting startups, and there are various efforts underway, including the national Startup Gathering effort from Startup Ireland, which is happening in October 2015, and in my area the Galway City Innovation District. We are currently working on  a new downtown innovation hub, the Portershed.

9. John Dennehy – Founder and CEO of Zartis

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Zartis’s Team, with Dennehy in the middle on the bottom row. / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

There will be a growing pipeline of immigrant entrepreneurs into Ireland over the coming years. On a per capita basis, migrants are more likely to setup startups than locals. This is already clear in Dublin where many of the best startups are being founded by migrants. Government policy is supporting this further. In 2002, Ireland was one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe. Today it is one of the most diverse. This is a very good thing for startups as it implies more founders will emerge.

Dublin is usually the first choice for anybody setting up in Ireland but there’s also a growing startup scene in Cork and Galway, both of which are much cheaper to live in. Take a look at Make IT in Ireland for more information on Ireland’s tech sector. We’ve listed out many of the startups on this map.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

The Irish market is a very small one. Almost nobody ever got rich selling locally. However, there are a massive amount of large multinationals based here. Selling into even one of them could be a gateway to their European peers.

There’s also a shortage of Series A funding. In recent years the amount of seed funding has increased significantly but it has not been matched with a corresponding increase in Series A finance. The way around this is to start in Ireland and find finance to scale internationally from outside of Ireland until the local market catches up.

Accelerator Representatives

10. Karl Aherne – Managing Director at Wayra Ireland

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Karl Aherne / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

As an island, off an island, off Europe, we’re physically pretty isolated from major markets. This has always been a significant disadvantage when distributing physical goods, particularly low value goods. However, in the digital world, distance is irrelevant and is no longer a significant issue. Add that to the fact that Irish people are tremendously resilient and are always thinking globally, we generally persevere through adversity and figure out how to make things work. And without adding to cultural stereotypes, we do seem to have an ability to get on well with other cultures and get support for our ventures.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

We need the government and its agencies to catch up so that we can maximize our global impact and help our entrepreneurs and attract the best young businesses from around the world to build their business from Ireland. The government needs to be innovative with their policies for personal income tax, angel investment and social protection to not penalize entrepreneurs, while also attracting not only the operations jobs but also the R&D jobs from companies availing of our incentives for inward investment. These combined will help position Ireland as a leading global startup hub.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

Clearly Ireland does not have scale, so building the product and business from the outset for international markets is critical. However, long-lining your early-stage business into international markets is difficult, so an early goal should be to get a physical presence on the ground in your key markets. This can be expensive but it needs to be part of your story to attract international investment. In Ireland, there is less competition amongst the seed investors which can reduce the valuations placed on companies. However, international investment often comes with higher valuations, so in the longer term this approach is usually beneficial for the founders.

11. Amy Neale – Director of Communications at NDRC & Startup Mentor

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NDRC’s Team / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

Unlike other larger cities where people typically migrate to the city for work, I have found Dublin to have a fairly stable population. People in Ireland tend to go to university close to home and then stay in their university town unless they emigrate. This means social and business circles of people that have decades of history, which makes for deep networks and connections.

Dublin is becoming a much more multicultural city, with people who moved here to work for Google or Facebook getting ready to take the leap into startups. Just last week, at Co-Founders Lab, in a room of about 30 people, I was joined by only three other people as native English speakers. I think this is a really exciting development – the ground-up startup support system is well bedded in to support these people as they bring a whole new dynamic onto the scene.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

There is a burgeoning FinTech startup scene which I believe will lead to some significant companies starting in Dublin. With the recent sale of Realex Payments, and companies such as CurrencyFair continuing to gain traction, it’s a really exciting time. NDRC companies like 5Coasts, Sendrr, Signatur, and Chasing Returns are great examples of what’s happening at the early stage.

I’m also really excited about the number of new companies started by women. Enterprise Ireland has done amazing things to support more women who want to start companies, and I can only see the tech scene getting better as more women build successful businesses.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Irish startup scene?

A startup is a temporary state – it concerns me that people tend to forget that. Starting up is a stage on a journey, and I think it’s challenging for people to find a way to stay in Ireland as they begin to scale. I believe that a virtuous circle from startup through to growth company through to multinational will solve the talent problem, and I hope that this will attract more finance enabling companies to grow and remain here.

Tech Media

12. Simon Cocking – Deputy Editor at Irish Tech News

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Simon Cocking / Photo Credit: PR

What do you think makes the Irish startup scene special?

I’m not sure that it is ‘unique,’ but it is hungry to succeed and keenly aware of what success looks like in other places, and it does have some ‘special’ factors. The US has a big influence on Ireland, culturally, and at the micro-level of many Irish people taking the J1 summer option and going over to work in the US. From this, it leads to many Irish students being aware of interesting developments in the US, UK, and Australia especially (but also many other counties globally too).

All of this means the people on the ground in the Irish startup scene have great knowledge, understanding, and connections with people doing interesting things all over the world. This is important to remember, because while Ireland is geographically the island off the island next to the European mainland, in terms of its links, contacts and resources, it is a hyper-connected place.

What do you think will be the most important trends in the Irish tech and startup scene in the coming years?

FinTech, MedTech, EdTech are all developing their own regional centers of excellence. Gaming has already done very well in Ireland, with numerous companies rising out of small 1-person startups into large ongoing game developer companies. There will be more of this too, as several of the colleges are specifically running gaming development courses, with an awareness of the value of narrative as well as just bang for your buck. Cities outside of Dublin, especially Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast in NI, have grasped the value of finding an area to specialize in. Centers like the Rubicon in Cork encourage more startups to try out their ideas, with plenty of Cork-based companies, such as Teamwork and others, showing you can scale out of Ireland and not just the capital. The colleges have become more proactive in terms of encouraging and facilitating innovation, and technology transfer from academic environments to commercial entities.

It will be important to see if all of these rising Irish startups follow the philanthropic principles of US West Coast companies such as Oracle and Salesforce, and even Google (give or take the point about whether they pay enough tax). This is not an embedded part of the startup evolution yet, but it would be great to see ‘ethics’ included in the incubator programs. Something along the lines of ‘how to be a philanthropic billionaire once you make it 101? course!

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This story,  written by originally appeared on Geektime.com. Laura Rosbrow edited the article.

Featured Image Credit: Ireland High Resolution Leader Concept / Shutterstock

 

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