Techie with a roadmap for the future
At the age of 12, he persuaded his school to teach computer coding. Today he is encouraging government to invest in our 'innovation' island. By Peter Flanagan
Published 28/04/2011 | 05:00
WITH A blue jumper over a tee shirt and a shock of curly hair and glasses, Paddy Cosgrave could pass himself off as any of the thousands of students walking around Dublin on a Monday afternoon. Only the moleskin diary and the iPhone give any hint as to who Cosgrave really is.
In fact Paddy Cosgrave is one of the most recognised faces in the tech start-up business in Ireland and overseas.
It would be fair to say that the 28-year-old is one of the younger business figures to feature in the Irish Independent but a quick glance at Cosgrave's CV explains why he is already one of the most important people in the tech world.
A serial entrepreneur, he persuaded his school to teach computer coding as a 12-year-old and has gone from strength to strength since leaving Trinity College six years ago.
He founded Rock the Vote Ireland in 2007 to encourage younger people to vote as well as the "MiCandidate" website which was used by a number of news websites during the European elections in 2009. Cosgrave and partner Oisin Hanrahan exited the company after a management buyout.
Those ventures ran alongside a three-year spell as a UN "e-leader for ICT and Youth".
Since then Cosgrave has moved into the realm of event management, organising the Dublin Web Summit series and last year's hugely successful "Founders" event, which brought YouTube and Twitter founders Chad Hurley and Jack Dorsey among many other giants of the tech world to Dublin.
At an age when many people are still trying to "find themselves" or are drifting through the banality of a nine to five they aren't interested in, what has got into Paddy Cosgrave?
"I come from a technology background. My dad is a farmer but he's also incredibly savvy when it comes to technology and looks at it as the silver bullet for getting ahead in life.
"He reckons he was the first person in Ireland to import the early Apple computers to Ireland and was always picking up the latest in IT equipment. There are still some early PDAs in the house at home. So I grew up in quite a techie environment.
"Dad's main ambition for me was probably that I wouldn't end up in farming, so when I showed an interest in the tech side of things he was very open to it," he says.
The Dublin Web Summit is a unique event in Ireland. It brings dozens of technology entrepreneurs together in a place where they can share ideas and meet potential investors or partners. The idea seems simple now but it's startling to think there was nobody doing something similar before.
"I was at an event in Facebook in Silicon Valley and afterwards I went out with some of the other guys who had been at it. They were talking about an event at 7am the next day that they were all looking forward to and they asked me if I wanted to come along.
"Now I didn't really take them seriously but one of them pulled me aside and insisted I went.
"Silicon Valley doesn't work because nerds are all sat behind a desk; it works because they come together and they share ideas and so on. These events, like the Dublin Web Summit, is where you meet investors, media, founders, partners, employees and share ideas so they are vital to the ecosystem there."
Taken by this idea, when Cosgrave got back to Ireland he set about organising the event from scratch. Apart from working on college nights out he had no experience of event management.
"We made a lot of mistakes, but one thing we did right was put the emphasis on networking. People don't come to these conferences to hear a businessman drone on for 40 minutes, they come to meet people themselves."
Unlike most conferences, the Dublin Web Summit publishes the list of attendees as people sign up. The idea is that a person can look at the list and work out who they want to talk to in advance. It allows for better planning, Cosgrave says.
The web summit quickly established itself as a red letter day in the Irish tech world but Cosgrave didn't stop there. As far as he's concerned, the "Founders" event was a natural progression from that.
The stars of the tech world had attended the World Economic Forum in Davos but the congregation of middleaged and elderly bankers and oil magnates didn't match with the young entrepreneurs in the technology space. Cosgrave went about organising a "Davos for the tech world" in Dublin, culminating in last October's Founders event.
With a CV like that it's no wonder Cosgrave has quickly become an influential voice within the technology space. His views on education and the state of the Irish economy are reflected in the wider IT world.
The education system, he says, is antiquated and needs to change.
"The system is built to turn out employees. There is no place for an entrepreneur in the system at the moment.
"If you get 550 points, the expectation is that you will do something like law. We worship the white-collar worker here."
Right now, computer coding does not appear on the syllabus anywhere. That may not seem unusual to a lot of people but if the Government is to pursue this idea of Ireland as an "Innovation Island" and a technology centre of excellence, then it has to start backing up its words with action, he says.
"The Government wants Ireland to be seen as a technology hub. How do you do that? Enda Kenny can stand up in front of business leaders in Washington and say 'we are an innovation island' but that message is completely hollow unless those people see that Ireland really is a centre for that talent.
The web summit and Founders provides this platform and bring some influential media and tech bloggers here where you can feed them interviews, features, and so on. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the blogger from TechCrunch carries far more influence than the journalist from the 'Washington Post' and it can be done so much better if Enterprise Ireland and the IDA are involved as well."
The state agencies are "great at what they do" but Cosgrave believes they need to change the way they decide what companies they want to attract to Ireland.
Traditionally, the agencies have gone after the large, established multinationals that will immediately create hundreds of jobs. That has worked but Cosgrave wants the IDA and EI to look closely at the small tech companies that are scaling up quickly, and he draws a stark comparison between what the IDA and EI are doing and what the British and Danish governments are doing to attract tech companies.
"The agencies are terrific at what they do but how do they work? In the UK, David Cameron has an adviser called Rohan Silva. He's 28, he wears runners and a hoodie -- in short he looks like one of the tech entrepreneurs. When the British government are trying to attract tech companies to the UK, he acts as the point man. He shows the company founder around, brings them out, gets the founder's backing for London, and only then do the UK equivalents of the IDA meet the company executives, who will probably be middleaged and in suits, to thrash out the details.
"Denmark does something similar but in Ireland there is nobody like that who is on the same wavelength as the 28-year- old from California who has founded the equivalent of Facebook or Twitter and so on."
The IDA has made no bones of the fact that it is trying to attract Twitter to Dublin and it has been portrayed as a battle between London and Dublin to attract the hugely successful company. Twitter has confirmed it is opening a London office and Dublin appears to have lost out in the battle. That fits a pattern for Cosgrave, who claims to know a number of small companies who looked at setting up in Dublin before deciding on London. Companies that, in his words, employ 30 people now but will have 500 staff in three years' time.
"Lets face it, the way things are at the moment in Ireland we have to chase every job we can get, and we have to understand that some companies will fail.
"One thing that stands out about successful entrepreneurs is the number of times they've failed. Bebo founder Michael Birch's first five companies failed. The sixth he sold for $850m. Sometimes businesses don't work through no fault of the entrepreneur and we need to accept that."
Cosgrave is already planning the next Founders event in October, and is busy as ever networking in high flying circles -- he had dinner with Bill Gates ("a really nice guy") recently -- while working on his own start-up that he hopes to have up and running "in the next few months".
What started as a pastime in college has now mushroomed into a full blown career. Did he see himself doing this ten years ago?
"Not especially, but then I didn't see myself doing a nine to five either".