Ita O’Sullivan: Playing Jam in the Center of Cork

Ita O’Sullivan is the startup community manager for Bank of Ireland in Cork. We talked to her about Cork’s strengths, opportunities and why she has a weakness for startups!

You left Google to work for a bank, tell us a bit about the move.
I am originally from Cork, but I spent eight years in London, California, and Dublin where I worked for Google. I started in the customer experience team then went into process improvement, and ended up in product management. I found my passion in understanding users and their problems and making sure our solutions were right for them. My first introduction to startups was when I got involved with Google Adopt a Startup (an Ireland specific Google program for startups). I realised how much more helpful I could be bringing my knowledge to many small companies rather than one big organisation. Giving them advice and fostering connections was very satisfying. Then came the opportunity with Bank of Ireland. It hadn’t been something I had looked for. I loved living in Dublin, but I was keen to return to Cork.

What does your role entail?
Everything from providing the space, like the Workbench, to connecting the community and running events. One event we have is Founder Fridays on the first Friday of the month. We go to the pub and chat about all founder related concerns. We also run Talent Jam, to show that there isn’t a tech talent issue in Cork, there’s a connection challenge. For each event, I talk to startups to see if there’s genuine interest and whether I’ve understood the problem that I’ve picked up. It’s classic product management thinking, which works well with community management.

Going back to your move to Cork, what did you find when you first landed home?
I found Cork smart and playing to its strengths. One of them is the big pharmaceutical industry. Cork was once the European capital of Viagra manufacturing. We now see a huge biochem tech industry here. An example is the RebelBio incubator in University College Cork, a venture between the university, SOS Ventures and IndieBio. Last year, UCC won the tender to set up Health Innovation Hub Ireland, a joint venture between the Department of Health and the Department of Jobs. The Hub works with hospitals to connect health startups and companies with doctors to test their software solutions. UCC also has a strong focus on renewable energy. An example is Fiona Edwards-Murphy’s work on a smart beehive based on her PhD in UCC.

Any other exciting clusters to know in Cork?
There’s a marine technology research campus called IMERC. The cluster includes the Naval College and the UCC Energy and Marine Research Center. There’s a series of port-a-sheds called the Entrepreneur Ship where 11 startups test and iterate ideas around marine technology. One of them is DARE Technology, which operates a wind turbine that powers anchored ships with the wind rather than diesel. At the start, DARE couldn’t get commercial fishermen to test the product because they were worried about insurance and implications from the tests. One day the Irish Navy came and said, “We’ve got a boat in for two weeks. Take it out; let’s see how the turbine works.” IMERC also has a model oil rig which is battered with a controlled scientific hurricane to observe the damage caused. The cluster even has a helicopter crash simulator.

What was challenging for you in Cork?
One thing was the lack of a direct flight to the US. It was a real barrier for multinational companies to choose Cork. The great news is that a direct flight to the US is coming later this year. Nothing to do with me; I’d love to claim that one. It was a lot of hard work by the local government and business community.

Another ongoing challenge is geography: 260,000 people live in Cork, but only 60,000 are in the city. Techology parks have sprung up north, south, east, and west. As a result, we get what’s called a digital doughnut. There are a lot of lonely and isolated entrepreneurs in the circumference, who find it hard to meet others. Places like the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen are brilliant for solving that. I too had to figure out how to give resources to dispersed people with ideas. We needed to be the jam in the middle of this digital doughnut, the sticky thing in the city centre that people could come into.

That is where the Workbench comes in?
Yes, having a professional work environment in the city centre that’s free is brilliant for people. Events we run also help, but they are not the full solution. One of the things I’d like to experiment with is to do events on Google Hangouts so people can watch them without having to drive an hour up to the city.

How did the Startup Nation Summit and the events around it, at the end of last year, go?
It was great to get a big international event and have it come to a city like Cork. A lot of great stuff happens in Dublin, and we are a little bit jealous. The Startup Nation Summit brought the policy makers from around the world to Cork, and they shared interesting best practices. Startup Island was an intense and bonding experience: 100 startups on Spike Island, an old prison in the middle of Cork Harbor. It was snowing as I was parking my car to go down on the boat. I was already outside of my comfort zone.

Were the startups from all around Ireland?
The vast majority were from Cork. There was a good few from the rest of Munster, as well as Dublin and Galway. There were also a few international ones, including a couple of Jamaican girls who had come for the Startup Nations Summit but had arrived a day early to come to the island.

Any other highlights for you?
We ran the first Talent Jam as a fringe event. Part of growing an ecosystem and supporting startups is showcasing the jobs we have. That is what will attract world class developers to Cork. I just heard that two people were hired as a result of the Talent Jam. The Dine Abouts in the city were very cool as well. People from the different events got to try Cork’s food scene and interact with each other and the local community in ten chosen locations. It was great for making connections, and exchanging inspiration and ideation.

The main thing for me was the atmosphere around the city. There was a sense of excitement, hope, and optimism that this was the time of great opportunity for Cork. That’s one of the things I like about tech: there is energy and belief in the future.

What are your plans for 2017?
I want to do work in diversity and inclusion in startups. That was the role I had on the steering committee for startups at Google, and I want to bring in support for women and other less represented groups in the startup scene. I would like to do more about talent. I think that’s something we keep having to answer in Cork. Connect people looking for tech work, and help companies who need tech workers. Make the community bigger and attract new members to it.

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