TechIreland: A Tale Of Irish Innovation

Since the beta launch of TechIreland, many people have asked whether this was a quickly-assembled initiative in response to Brexit. As ideal as the timing is, it is in fact just an important and lucky coincidence. I sat down with Niamh Bushnell, Dublin Commissioner for Startups, and Cathal O’Sullivan, the platform’s program manager, to chat about the actual timeline and the purpose of the database.

Why is TechIreland important?
: Imagine yourself online anywhere in the world looking for great tech companies in a particular vertical in Europe. Up until our launch on July 5th that research would not have brought up many Irish companies because we never had good data out there. Tech Ireland is fundamentally solving that problem. One of the reporters who wrote about the launch wrote that “Finally we have a Wikipedia of Irish Startups.” The platform allows us to promote our tech companies, to track them, to understand who they are, to see where the strengths are, to tell their story publicly in Ireland and globally.

Where did the idea come from?
: Since this office (Commissioner for Startups) was set up in October 2014, we have been asked almost on a daily basis for a list of companies in certain areas. People coming to town always want to meet Irish startups. We built connections within the ecosystem, so we could at least ask the right people. But we never had that information at our fingertips. This office was set up as a catalyst to run experiments and initiatives that would help the community. TechIreland is one of the things the community needed the most. If we didn’t do this, nobody else would have been crazy enough to try to!

How did you go about it?
: The first iteration of this was a collaboration with CrunchBase in May 2015. We went out to incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, banks; anybody who had a relationship with the startup industry here, and we asked for their databases. CrunchBase did a month-long cleansing exercise and delivered it back to us.

There were 2136 startups in it. We were very excited and started going through the list. When we realised that  Aer Lingus and Ryanair were on it, we knew we had to go back to the starting point and find another way.

Then, in September I went to Israel. I met Start-up Nation Central, and learned about the database of Israeli companies they were working on, and it became obvious that we needed to be as ambitious as possible with this. We needed to take ownership of this opportunity for Ireland the way they had for Israel.

The beginning of which was the Google Doc with 1200 startups?
: Yes. The team here at the time, David Ash and Sarah Scannell, cleaned the database. On the 18th of December, we published the preliminary database which included product companies based in Dublin. That was step one.

Then when Cathal joined the team in January, we leapt forward from there.

What happened next?
: We had to build the platform, so we went out looking for developers. We met Pivotal Labs here in Dublin. Kevin Olsen, their head guy in Europe, sat down with us and said, “Okay, we’re going to do this for you guys for free.” That gave us a huge amount of impetus to move things forward at the start. Pivotal kindly donated five weeks of development work to us. After that, we approached Brian Kenny the CEO of a Dublin-based dev house called MiniCorp. They took over the project and completed the project for a very reasonable fee.

What about the data?
: One of the big things that Start-up Nation Central kept hammering into me was that there is no other way to have good data except to manage it manually and have data analysts on board. We could not rely on crowdsourced information; we had to have a team devoted to gathering it and maintaining it.  We needed to put in place an operational structure to manage TechIreland, which was expensive.

C: We did a lot of research to see what other countries had done and what other databases existed. We found 15 countries that had tried it, but it had never worked. The key insight that they had missed was the operational process that Start-up Nation Central had developed.

Sounds like a difficult decision to make. Did you consult with anyone locally?
: We brought the Irish Tech community leaders together in late January: the VCs, the co-working and accelerator spaces, and the community of grassroots organisations. We said: “Here’s the deal. We have Pivotal Labs who are willing to come on board and do the initial build. The rest we will do ourselves, and it will be expensive. Should we do it this way, the ambitious way and build from the ground up with Pivotal, or should we use existing platforms and try to crowdsource the data from the community?

And, there were people in the room who thought a third party or existing solution was enough, but in the end, the majority voted to go ahead with what we were proposing.

Who else has been involved?
: We tried to have a mix of people on the advisory board from different parts of Ireland and different communities within the tech ecosystem. We’ve got Joe Morley, head of partnerships with Facebook; Brian Caufield, partner with Draper Esprit; DC Cahalane, founder of BUILTINCORK; John Breslin, Senior Lecturer in NUIG Galway; and Omri Baumer, the CTO of Start-up Nation Central.

N: They have given us a lot of great advice such as DC, who told us we should leverage the existing communities and leaders within them as opposed to creating a new community of leaders around TechIreland. Good advice for sure!

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How are you going to leverage those communities?
: I’m going on a roadshow around the country shortly to show people what we’re doing and why. The key to the overall success of TechIreland is for it to feel owned by the community, not by us here at the Commissioners office in Dublin. We want to take a very sensitive and thoughtful approach. This week I’ll be in Cork for two days, then in Limerick for one, and Galway for two. I will be meeting research centres, innovators, and entrepreneurs. This platform comes out of Dublin, but it is for everyone.

Nationwide is the goal.
: A complete, comprehensive and representative online destination for all of the innovation coming out of Ireland, that’s our goal. Our job is to bring it into being (check!) and then make it successful. Once it’s proven, we’ll work with the community to figure out the best next steps for TechIreland.

Will the Office use it as well?
: We already are! Having TechIreland up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive will allow it to become a tracker of all things in Irish Tech for everyone. As it fills up our office will be able to do wonderful things with it, and so will every other office or anyone interested in the tech community. It will be fascinating to see how it affects other people’s decision making.

Such as?
: We want to become business developers for these companies, and the clusters they are in out to Global 2000 companies who could become customers, partners, acquirers. We want to attract newcomers to Ireland with this data, to go to the government and others with advocacy positions that are supported by real data. We want to make recommendations for marketing activities and policy change based on TechIreland.

It will also inform how we engage with other key stakeholders in the community here in Ireland like the multinational tech companies. We have been looking at more proactive and valuable ways of engaging them with startups. TechIreland will allow us to learn who the startups and multinationals are, what they are building, and propose more purposeful matches between them in areas like leadership skills and training, due diligence on potential international customers, and R&D around product development.

What was day one like, seeing all this effort come to life?
: It was amazing! We were nervous about the response we would get beforehand, but we went from having no users on the site at launch to 2000 visitors from 37 countries by lunchtime!!. It goes to show the importance of international interest. We had 300 people sign up as users on the website. We had 35% of profiles claimed and 40 new ones created. And from one Twitter follower, we went to 110 followers. We got lots of positive feedback through email and social media. All of which was validation, which was slightly overwhelming. Everyone is getting behind it, and that’s what it’s going to take for this to work.

N: One of the things I’ve loved seeing is companies tweeting, “here’s our profile on TechIreland, check us out.” And we’re responding to them saying, “Welcome! You’re looking good!”

C: The feedback on day one from the companies confirmed for us how important it was that we undertook to add their profiles ourselves, we looked after it for them, and they loved that. A lot of people are already under a lot of time pressure, so we wanted to make it as easy as we could for them.

N: We weren’t presenting them with an empty vessel and saying, “Now we expect you to fill this in.” We were saying, “We’re filling this in. If you want to change the look of your information go for it and welcome.” Everyone appreciated that.

What are the plans for October?
: We want to do an official launch and celebrate the startup community in Ireland. Celebrate and recognise the innovators that are here. We may even give out some awards!!! At that point too, we hope to be able to announce the sponsors of Tech Ireland. It’s a huge opportunity for sponsors of our tech community here in Ireland and internationally to profile themselves and to be associated with something so positive and innovative coming out of Ireland.

C: Related to the launch, we hope to have a series of events in regions outside Dublin.  We’ll make sure that everyone’s included, represented and celebrated.

N: On tour in Ireland and then on tour internationally from October onwards.

We have a strong recent history of doing World Tours in this country; maybe we can ask Intercom to give us a hand?
: Yes! Exactly. That’s a good idea, Irina!

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