Dublin has very much become the second home of Software as a Service (SaaS), and has succeeded in attracting a myriad of big names from the larger and more established, to potential unicorn startups.
The city has also produced more than its fair share of indigenous SaaS success stories, but when it comes to software, it sometimes seems like Dublin is always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Now, don’t get me wrong: for a small city to be number two to Silicon Valley in a highly-competitive, global industry is a remarkable achievement, but if being the Garfunkel to Silicon Valley’s Simon isn’t the answer to promoting the growth and prosperity of Dublin’s tech scene, then how do we kick-start our solo career and become the global hub we have the potential to be?
The first step is to identify something we are exceptionally good at, and at which we could potentially become the best in the world. When thinking about this, an impressive number of areas in which Dublin punches way above its weight spring to mind like FinTech, TravelTech, and IOT. However, Dublin-based companies that have excited me most in recent times when it comes to their outstanding achievements on the global stage are to be found in Big Data or Data Analytics.
Companies like Datahug, Clavis, Boxever, Logentries, NewsWhip, Asystec, Profitero, and Social Honey to name just a subset (that’s a data joke, guys) are making big names for themselves in the space and it would appear that much of their success is based on deep technical and R&D capabilities developed here in Dublin. Speaking to two CEOs of the aforementioned companies recently, Dave O’Flanagan of Boxever and Paul Quigley of NewsWhip, both emphasised the strong data science and engineering capabilities in their Irish teams and their plans to expand those functions in Ireland while inevitably looking to the US in order to access a much larger audience from a sales and marketing perspective. A report published by Forfás and Expert Group in 2013 suggested that the number of ‘Deep Analytical’ roles in Ireland could grow from 3,300 to 5,860 in the period from 2013 to 2020, while ‘Big Data Savvy’ roles could increase from 25,780 to 42,695 and ‘Supporting Technology’ requiring an additional 7,670 roles in the same period. This level of growth assumes Ireland becoming ‘a leading country in Europe’. Frankly, I think we need to aim higher.
A key difference between the data analytics sector and the software sector with which it is highly interconnected, is that data analytics is yet to find a city to call home: a geographical industry cluster that provides the concentration of human resources, infrastructure, regulatory supports, ease of access to customers and suppliers, and other sector-specific conditions that encourage the establishment of such a cluster. There is a first-mover advantage to be gained by the nation that makes a concerted effort to develop its capabilities in this area and I would argue that Dublin has a head start and is uniquely placed to answer the call.
Creating a cluster
It is no coincidence that such an impressive list of data analytics startups has materialised in Dublin in recent years: nor is it coincidental that companies like Logentries (recently acquired by Rapid7), Vidiro, and HeyStaks have all emerged from University College Dublin which is creating a global reputation for excellence in data analytics and the successful application of the science to real-life business requirements. Of course, the factors that facilitated the establishment of an FDI-dominated software cluster apply equally to the creation of an indigenous data analytics cluster, the main difference being that the high value, less easily replicated functions like research, product development, data analysis, etc. are very much (in this case) based in Ireland. Also crucial to note is the fact that by far the biggest generators of big data are the software giants that have a major European presence on our doorstep, and they are also the customers who stand to gain the most from our home grown data heroes analysing and converting their data into actionable, relevant information. They are, along with financial institutions, some of the biggest suppliers and buyers in the big data industry.
The final piece of the puzzle then is the sheer volume of data science experts that will be required to achieve the level of growth we should be aspiring to. A long-term strategy to promote the STEM disciplines at primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels will be vital, with a particular focus on areas such as mathematics, statistics, data science, and indeed marketing and softer, humanities-based skills in order to ascertain which data to analyse and how to apply it. A flexible approach to immigration will also be required to service the needs of growing data analytics businesses, as well as a regulatory environment, access to capital (be it venture, angel, crowd-sourced, etc.), and fiscal and monetary incentives that encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of our native talent. Business is becoming more and more data-driven and this is a trend that is bound to accelerate as we get to grips with our data and its applications. This represents an enormous opportunity if only we dare to think big.