Wednesday 20 September 2017

The new breed are tech-ing it all in their stride

The Collisons are leading the charge of a new generation of cool, but not flash, technology rich kids. Adrian Weckler on how they get their kicks

Earning his Stripes: John Collison at the 2014 Dublin Web Summit
Earning his Stripes: John Collison at the 2014 Dublin Web Summit
Full of beans: Dubliner Dylan Collins, photographed in 2006, has started and sold a handful of companies
Peter Mitchell
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Forget oil. Forget banking. Forget retail. The story of the biggest and the richest is now the story of tech.

Six years ago, almost no one outside a small circle of local tech industry watchers knew the name Collison. Now, brothers Patrick and John have each leapfrogged into Ireland's top 10. It's hard to see how they won't rise to numbers one and two in that list in another few years.

The Collisons' story is a microcosm of how tech has upended, and now sometimes dominates, industry.

Five of the top richest companies in the world are tech enterprises (in order, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon). These companies are accelerating with their leads. Apple used to duke it out with Exxon-Mobil for top spot. Now it's worth over twice as much (€681bn versus €317bn).

Collisons aside, the upswell of Irish tech prowess hasn't quite matched the utter takeover seen in the US. But there is a wide, broad tide that is lifting lots of boats and looks set to continue doing so.

Big bets on sectors such as semiconductor technology are paying off, as David Moloney and Sean Mitchell found last year when their Dublin-based firm Movidius was bought by Intel for around €320m.

Some of the fastest-growing fortunes are happening in companies such as Intercom, which in three years has raced into €50m of annual revenue and a valuation of just under €500m. Co-founders such as Eoghan McCabe and Des Traynor say that they have no intention of cashing out any time soon. Nor should they, with the company's growth still on a 45-degree angle trajectory.

In some cases, Ireland's tech entrepreneurs have foregone massive riches for early security. One of the biggest-ever acquisitions of an Irish tech company was last year's €2.15bn transfer of Fleetmatics to US telecoms operator Verizon. It could have resulted in giant windfalls for co-founders such as Peter Mitchell (inset). However, Fleetmatics was already in public ownership by then, having opted for a modestly-priced flotation a few years previously.

Nevertheless, there are figures who are perennially smart and successful. Dubliner Dylan Collins, who has started and sold a handful of companies, keeps scaling up with every new firm. His latest enterprise, SuperAwesome, may raise a large amount of money shortly.

New names in white-hot sectors such as voice recognition technology are also springing up, as the recent funding rounds for startups like Peter Cahill's Voysis or Soapbox Labs demonstrate.

One irony in the rise of tech is the particular motivation of those behind its most successful practitioners. Talk to people like John Collison or Eoghan McCabe and you're left with the clear impression that their glory lies not in making millions or billions, but in being acknowledged for the best available product or service - ideally one that hasn't existed before.

That's where the egotism and competitive instincts come alive. This may be a reason why many young tech tycoons live noticeably unflashy lives: their kudos lies in their product's progress instead of the car they drive or the yacht they own. (Older ones, such as Oracle's Larry Ellison or Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, are a little less discreet).

Still, tech is spitting out an unprecedented number of Ireland's newly-minted wealthy individuals partially because of the sustained surge in investment into the sector. Last year, Irish venture capital firms pumped €888m into companies here, the vast majority of them being in tech or medical tech.

With new funds announced in recent weeks from operations such as Frontline, venture funding is on its fourth main cycle in Ireland with 2017 likely to see funding levels top €1bn. The intent is clearly there: the future of private industry is being wagered squarely on companies producing or supplying some type of technology.

Sunday Independent

Also in Business