Friday 18 August 2017

Fire up the super- accelerator, and get Dublin fizzing

The principles of collision theory can be applied to growing Ireland's start-up sector on a global scale, writes Accenture Ireland chief Alastair Blair

You can’t put a value on proximity — and we have it here in Ireland with Silicon Docks, says Alastair Blair of Accenture. Photo: Shane O’Neill
You can’t put a value on proximity — and we have it here in Ireland with Silicon Docks, says Alastair Blair of Accenture. Photo: Shane O’Neill

Alastair Blair

Since returning to Ireland from the UK last September, I've been overwhelmed by the energy that I see around Dublin and in the start-up scene in particular. I've been fortunate to witness some great things happening in this space, and there's a palpable buzz around the city's tech community right now.

In the world of science there seems to be a lot of talk and attention given to particle accelerators and the Large Hadron Collider. Collision theory is the idea that atoms need to collide to produce a reaction; that the higher the concentration of atoms, the greater the resulting energy. If we swap atoms for a different kind of small entity - the fledgling technology start-up - we can see the potential for a similar collision effect. When large numbers of emerging companies share the same space, a similar multiplier effect is possible. New bonds are formed and the resulting innovation and creative energy is stronger still.

Ireland's fertile environment certainly helps when it comes to fostering early-stage companies. We already have many of the necessary ingredients in place: a positive culture and attitude; a strong education system; mentoring from experienced leaders; and VC funding at levels never before seen in Ireland.

Dublin is home to many global technology giants and some of the hottest high growth brands in the world. Ireland is also home to some of the most exciting start-ups including CurrencyFair, Boxever, Britebill, Oxymem, Stripe and Movidius. All of this feeds into Ireland's global reputation as a technology hothouse, and it is obvious that Ireland needs to be bolder and make a bigger play of this. Technology doesn't respect boundaries - this area will continue to grow and to innovate and we need to grab the opportunity to foster this development at the speed it is going at.

As I see it, the key area to focus on is space.

As a country, we need to solve the problem of creating physical spaces that allow start-ups develop products and ideas quickly in a low-risk setting, with access to peers, mentors, business channels and all the other support structures.

I am aware that Dublin already has plenty of spaces where like-minded companies sit cheek by jowl. Their founders and staffers meet in the canteens and the corridors, which invariably sparks conversations about shared experiences, new ideas and new ways to solve problems.

Some of these facilities - such as the NDRC and its LaunchPad programme, or DCU's Ryan Academy - have won awards and are recognised among Europe's leading accelerators. But the challenge with these venues is that they are dispersed. Some are close to university campuses; others are out on the fringes of the city. Lately, I've even seen a river barge on Grand Canal Dock turned into a co-working community (DoSpace). The answer may be to build up rather than out.

One of Ireland's unique selling points is proximity - but we're not making as much of it as we could. Much like big technology companies, such as Accenture, benefit from being in the company of our peers in Silicon Docks, I believe so too would our many and varied start-ups all around the country.

Proximity supports collaboration, it allows companies work together and benefit from each other and creates positive energy. I believe that start-ups should also have access to this proximity, and all the benefits it brings.

This isn't aspirational; I've seen it in action. Earlier this year, I visited Rocketspace in Silicon Valley which provides a community space for start-ups but also has a corporate innovation programme which is supported by Accenture's Open Innovation Network. Corporates have the chance to work side by side with early-stage entrepreneurs, outside traditional company structures, which has mutually beneficial outputs.

Proximity is the catalyst for all of this. To return to our physics metaphor, my big idea is that Dublin needs a super-accelerator - a kind of Large Hadron Collider, if you like - that can propel start-ups and large companies towards new connections in ever greater numbers. I think of it as a dedicated space for start-ups in the heart of the city, and Silicon Docks is the ideal place for it.

The benefits of Silicon Docks are many: by coalescing much of our best and brightest start-ups around one location of significant size, it becomes easier to sell our reputation as Ireland's answer to Silicon Valley. And sell we must: you only need to read the coverage about start-ups to realise that it's a global competition, and if Ireland is to win, we need a flag to rally around.

It is important that we start by concentrating on fields where Ireland has the potential to lead globally. One such sector which is already gaining momentum is financial technology (FinTech). In fact, when we launched our inaugural Accenture FinTech Innovation Lab last year - giving early-stage FinTech companies the chance to be mentored by leading established financial and technology companies over a three-month period - we were inundated by high calibre applicants.

This was an example of small and big working hand in glove: start-ups providing the new idea, established companies providing the market.

And perhaps less widely known, AgriTech is another area where Irish entrepreneurs are starting to harness technology expertise to improve farming techniques and solve real-world problems for millions of people.

What's more, locating a hotbed for innovation on a single site would create healthy competition but also opportunities for collaboration and even co-operation: this is the game theory notion where companies with similar interests can work together on mutually beneficial research even while contesting for market share.

A single start-up base ensures the right conditions and structures would be in place to aid the country's future growth and development, and to attract even more new tech companies.

When I visited Silicon Valley it struck me how, once people set down roots there, they seldom leave. Why would they? The ecosystem is so well-developed that even in nursery school they instil innovative thinking!

It all hails back to proximity. Of course, there are challenges - when so many people are attracted to a particular city, the cost of living grows. But to balance this, the wealth that is brought into that economy and the benefits to the local community are enormous.

You can't put a value on proximity and we have it here in Silicon Docks. I believe this location can become Ireland's breeding ground for the best culture, a catalyst for the best thinking and a magnet for the best talent.

Alastair Blair is country managing director at Accenture Ireland

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