Inside Bank of Ireland’s newest space for Dublin startups (and it’s free!)

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They say the best things in life are free. That’s certainly true for some lucky early stage startups in Dublin as Bank of Ireland has now officially launched its new Startlab.

The Dublin incubator is the newest Startlab, but not the first. Earlier this year, Bank of Ireland launched the programme in Galway. Then later, they opened a similar space near Grand Central Station in New York City.

Bank of Ireland head of Innovation David Tighe told Dublin Globe:

This is about working with entrepreneurs to solve problems we see in our customers every day. That’s why we’re very focused on Fintech in Dublin.

Most of us involved in the Dublin tech scene are familiar with Bank of Ireland’s Workbenches. The open spaces at various branches in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Galway provide first-come-first-serve desks with occasional events and talks. Everyone is welcome, no matter what their business is.

The Startlab is a little different. There are a limited number of dedicated desks and it’s less free-flowing, with badges needed to get inside. The biggest difference, however, is that startups have to apply to get into the programme.

Bank of Ireland’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Gene Murphy says the Startlab incubator is aimed at giving the startups a space to validate their idea and speed up growth.

Different areas can get you straight, validate your idea, and help you understand your customer.

The two-story office space on Lower Camden Street features far more privacy and permanency for startups than the Workbenches. Upstairs are rows of desks with hip phone booths and breakout space. Downstairs are conference rooms, a small kitchen, and an event space for the regular talks.

To think, just a couple months ago, the space above the branch was mostly empty offices.

It’s not just about the comfy chairs and coffee, though. Murphy says the community that can form around the coffee maker can lead to real change.

Murphy says when he was launching his own businesses, “I always felt like I was on a desert island. Where is everyone? What’s happening next?”

He says Startlab is more like the Maldives, a cluster of islands where you can at least wave and chat with other entrepreneurs.

Startlab Dublin follows the model of Galway, with teams getting access to the space for six month programmes. Despite the grand opening, plenty of people have operated in the space or held events there since this summer.

Sean Murphy, co-founder and CEO of Nudge Financial, has called the Dublin Startlab home as part of the Enterprise Ireland Fintech Competitive Start Fund programme.

“It’s great,” says Murphy. “The facilities are fantastic. Bringing in investors and others, we look more like an established company.”

Murphy’s company focuses on offering mortgages entirely online. Essentially, that’s a direct challenge to Bank of Ireland’s business. Still, head of innovation Dave Tighe welcomes that challenge.

Tighe says, “What these businesses are doing are looking at ways to improve the customer experience, challenging what banks do today, and fundamentally disrupt what the banking model is. That’s interesting. That’s fascinating.”

On the day I visited the Startlab space, UX expert Mark Swaine met with the individual Enterprise Ireland participants and shared some tough love.

“It’s about your user,” said Swaine. “Nobody cares about you.”

Murphy says they plan to bring more and more experts like Swaine to help the entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

“We’re not going to run a 9 to 5 school for startups,” says Murphy. “We have workshops on days throughout the month that might help you. They’re workshop-based because every startup here is at a different level.”

The New York Startlab operates a little differently: longer-term access to the space with less of a focus on education and more on making connections.

According to Tighe, most of the Irish startups using the New York Startlab are well established. Companies like Axonista and Deposify mostly needed a United States address so they could “pound the pavement” for sales.

Axonista CEO, Claire McHugh spoke at the Dublin Startlab’s grand opening. Her company just hired their first vice president of sales who will work out of the Startlab in New York. Next year, McHugh plans to hire for one or two more sales positions.

“We couldn’t have done it without Startlab,” says McHugh.

Bank of Ireland has made a concerted effort with the Workbenches and Startlabs. The hope is that as those startups grow, they will consider Bank of Ireland for their needs.

“We’re an organisation about backing businesses and business growth,” says Tighe.

“If we can get behind early stage startups and help them get to the next stage to be successful businesses, that’s good for them. That’s good for the country. It’s good for us.”

Tighe says he believes the future of banking will be based on authentic partnerships. Focusing on internal growth simply will not lead to long-term success.

It’s another sign of change in the traditional banking industry. As Startlab takes root in Dublin, it’s another opportunity for local startups to find even greater success.

Bank of Ireland’s Startlabs in Dublin and Galway are taking applications now for companies.

The ideal candidate, according to Murphy, would be an early stage business that has a product, has some customers and is coachable. The Startlab is focused on early stage companies, especially in Fintech.

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