Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell talks tech with Colin White.
Ireland’s start-up scene is thriving at present, with a multitude of companies operating across a number of established and emerging sectors.
Dublin is a pro-business, pro-entrepreneur city with a can-do attitude but, in the eyes of many, even more can be done to encourage entrepreneurs to take risks and build global businesses from here.
The Office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups – aka Startup Dublin – acts as a voice to inform the world that Dublin is a great place to establish a business. It is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established in October 2014 to support and promote innovation-led, product-based companies that are born, bred or adopted in Dublin.
Irish entrepreneur Niamh Bushnell was working with her own start-up in New York before she became Dublin’s first commissioner for startups, a role that was created to help maximise the potential of the tech start-up ecosystem in Dublin.
When Bushnell took up the role back in 2013, the city was showing huge potential – but wasn’t getting much credit internationally. She believes that innovation has been at the heart of the country’s growth.
“I want Ireland to be known for innovation. Obviously, our start-ups are innovative, otherwise they wouldn’t be making the headway they’re making internationally,” says Bushnell. “But our multinationals are also showing great innovation – yet we never tell that story.
“There’s a lot of energy, and there’s a real sense of community spirit in Dublin. For me, coming back to Dublin after 16 years in the US, I found a similar dynamic to the New York start-up scene – a ‘Let’s get up and go’ mentality.
“Just like New York, Dublin is small; but it’s actually very dense. You can walk everywhere and it’s easy to meet a bunch of people in the one day. I see Startup Dublin as a cheerleader for all the great activity taking place in Dublin.”
RESOURCES AND INFORMATION
Startup Dublin is involved with numerous organisations in an attempt to create a fertile ecosystem that will attract growth in all sectors. Recently it teamed up with Newstalk to create a software as a service (SaaS) bootcamp, helping B2B SaaS companies build sales and marketing. It is a six-month programme focusing on sales and marketing to get companies to build globally.
Competition was intense, according to Bushnell. “The number of companies that applied for the camp made it really competitive, which really upped the ante. There are a number of companies who are making millions in revenue in Ireland, but they have the potential to become even bigger.”
Another resource that Startup Dublin has devised is TechIreland. Maintained by a team of analysts, TechIreland will be the most comprehensive database available of innovative Irish companies, their investors, and global companies building products out of Ireland. Due to be launched in October, it is a massive and truly ambitious initiative.
I want Ireland to be known for innovation
“It is the first ever publicly available Irish database of tech information. It tells the story of every start-up and every tech multinational – what their product does, who the founders are,” explains Bushnell. “It also lists every investor who has invested in an Irish company.”
Bushnell and her team have also been involved with Dublin Globe, a weekly digest of stories focusing on tech innovation in the city, with content developed in-house and from other sources. Indeed, Business & Finance was one such source that Dublin Globe called upon, when our 2015 Tech 100 listing featured on the website.
Following on from this, a monthly business event was launched where Dublin’s tech community are invited for breakfast every first Friday of the month. Bushnell believes that the event acts as a great networking opportunity. “The idea behind The Brekkie is to provide a focal point for the start-up community: for those who are deep in it, for those who are thinking about entering it, and for those who are wondering what tech is,” says the entrepreneur.
THE GREEN SCENE
The Irish start-up scene has evolved significantly over the past years. Cleantech, fintech and medtech are just some examples of sectors that are now common terms in business. However, Bushnell points to another sector that doesn’t grab the headlines in the same way as its contemporaries.
“The stand-out sector for Ireland right now is travel tech. On Dublin Globe we recently published a listicle of over 60 travel tech companies in Ireland. If you look at those 60 companies, over 50 of them are born and bred in Ireland,” she enthuses. “Travel tech is a major, but not very well-known, sector in which we dominate. Irish travel tech companies are blowing the market out of the water.”
And Bushnell is adamant in her belief that a strong start-up scene in Dublin benefits the rest of the country, highlighting Galway city as a particularly exciting space in 2016. She says: “It’s crazy how vibrant the tech scene is there. And it’s all very smartly centred around Eyre Square. Galway city promotes itself very well and has a very connected community.”
She continues: “But looking elsewhere, Limerick and Waterford for example, there’s lots going on. We’re doing a TechIreland roadshow at the moment and we’re getting a real sense of the vibrancy nationwide.”
EDUCATION IS KEY
Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate is one of the lowest in Europe and it makes the country an attractive prospect for multinationals. However, Bushnell believes that the country’s talented pool of young people is a major factor attracting multinationals to invest.
Ireland’s education system has been slow to take advantage of growth in the technology industry, but Bushnell is confident that the right conversations are now taking place. “Ireland has a young, well-educated population,” says Bushnell.
“In terms of the education system itself, it would be great if we had integrated computer science at a much earlier stage into the education system. It would be great if the women who are now in their late teens or early twenties had been encouraged to take up science, maths and computer-related subjects when they were in school. But, we’re now starting to invest in something that will benefit us in the future.”
She is also optimistic about more female entrepreneurs becoming attracted to the tech sector in the future. In fact, there are already a number of women to champion in the industry right now.
“A lot of the tech that’s going out of Ireland right now is led by females. Dublin Globe put together a list of 70 female founders of successful tech companies. We’re talking about people who are really doing exciting things. The gender balance still needs to be addressed, but the women we do have are dynamite,” Bushnell laughs.
The venture capital (VC) community in Ireland is pretty active, but, in the commissioner’s opinion, Irish companies need to reach out to different markets.
“The opportunities that you get out of being somewhere like Ireland is that we’re very close to our multinationals. We’re very close to Europe and to the US market,” states Bushnell. “But, one of the key things for Irish companies is they need to travel a lot and they need to develop relationships globally a lot more.”
I see Startup Dublin as a cheerleader for all the great activity taking place in Dublin
She also believes the recent Brexit vote could offer some positives. “In my view, we’ve always needed to find ways to be more strategically aligned with London, and I think Brexit can potentially lead to this. I think trying to get companies to move lock, stock and barrel out of London to Ireland isn’t realistic.”
Bushnell adds: “We should be helping the UK by being their European arm. We’ve an opportunity to do that if and when Brexit becomes a reality. Right now it’s nothing but conjecture, particularly in the start-up space.”
Nine out of 10 tech companies fail; that’s a stat the world over. Bushnell affirms that it’s always easier to tell a story where there is already a list of role models in place.
“We will have a couple of really, really large companies coming out of Ireland over the next couple of years, she says. “If we believe if we are innovative in different sectors, from start-ups to multinationals, to the way we apply innovation in education – we’ll be the economy that we want to be.”