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Monday 22 September 2014

Waterford's specialist start-ups take over the mobile world

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

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-- Emmett Cooke, founder, Music for Media

September 7, 2011, was a dark day for Waterford. One of the area's largest employers, TalkTalk, announced it was shutting its huge call centre down with the loss of 575 jobs. But three years later, Waterford's start-up scene is booming.

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Emmett Cooke was a process analyst at the giant call centre when it shut down. Today, his start-up is soaring.

"When it closed down I was given redundancy," said the 28-year-old. "I also qualified for a European support fund to cover half the costs of starting my own business and worked with the local enterprise board. The business is going really well now."

Cooke fused his passions for music and technology and created a company to licence his own music to film studios, television producers and advertising companies.

"If you watch the part in America's Got Talent where they give a sob story about their horrible upbringing, that's when you'll hear my music in the background," he said.

Called Music For Media, Cooke's start-up is also responsible for music used in US President Barack Obama's television ads and commercials by Peter Mark, Ralph Lauren and others. He creates, distributes and sells his product digitally from a studio with a PC he built himself.

Cooke's initiative typifies the type of start-up that Waterford is currently producing. The city, which has under 50,000 people and no major local market, defines a bootstrapping ethos.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the strength of its third level technology facilities, one of the most concentrated and successful of its kind in the country.

"It's a hungry culture here," said Cathal McGloin, chief executive of Waterford's biggest tech start-up, Feedhenry. "The whole culture is about finding projects and start-ups."

McGloin singles out Waterford IT's Telecoms Software and Systems Group (TSSG) as a source of entrepreneurs and expert telecoms engineers, unmatched elsewhere in the country.

"I had sold Arantech in 2009 and was looking for something to do," he said. "I went all around the country, including to some of the biggest universities. But when I looked at what TSSG was doing, I was amazed. It was immediately obvious that it was really nimble and developing leading-edge technology."

Feedhenry quickly recruited a division of TSSG's graduates and is now winning multi-million euro contracts all over the world for its platform-as-a-service mobile technology.

McGloin is not the only one to use TSSG as a well for highly skilled employees. Most of Waterford's most successful technology startups can trace founders or key executives to the facility. One of its defining features, says TSSG chief executive and serial entrepreneur Barry Downes, is its own pursuit of contracts and commissions in the commercial sector.

"We don't get any direct government funding which means we have to go out there and bid for tenders for work," said Downes, also a founder of Feedhenry and a new start-up called Fragd (see panel).

"Some are public, some are private. For example, we got a big contract with NTT in Japan and made a good margin on that. This year we've worked with over 40 companies across Ireland to help them with various problems they might have. We ourselves employ 115 people and are very different to a lot of research groups."

Downes said that TSSG believes firmly in being a breeding ground for startup talent.

"We actually encourage people to leave us for other start-ups," he said. "It's a different dynamic here and is very commercially orientated. We do see ourselves as a catalyst for creating new companies."

The college's incubator facility, ArcLabs, currently hosts 18 companies that spend an average of four years researching and developing technology ideals and platforms, according to its manager, Tom Corcoran.

"What has worked here is that the pool of resources for people to either spin out or spin in is first rate," he said.

"They also know from the absolute outset that because there's no local market, they're going to be focused entirely on an export market. That's a valuable lesson."

The export focus also allows Waterford to concentrate on other attractions as a tech start-up location.

"We flog the lifestyle to our recruits, certainly," said Declan Kennedy, co-founder of Betapond, which employs 20 people and recently changed its name to Stitcherads.

"It's a 10 minute commute rather than a 45 minute one. We've brought staff down from Dublin who love the lifestyle that goes with the cluster here."

Other startup founders agree.

"I've lived in London, Cork, Dublin and Chicago but I've chosen to stay in the South-East for the past 11 years," said Miguel Ponce de Leon, founder of Kodacall, a company that creates customer service software. "I stay in this location for my family's quality of life, the relatively good weather, beaches, surfing, mountains for walking and climbing and artisan food. That might sound corny but it's a real factor."

However, surfing and good cheese will only get you so far. Waterford has built up one of the world's most advanced clusters of expertise in the emerging area of mobile cloud technology and, specifically, Node.js. It has done this without the presence of a multinational, too.

As a result of this expertise, hundreds of node.js engineers and experts descend on Waterford every year for one of the world's biggest node.js conferences. This year's event, run by Nearform's Cian O'Maidin and Richard Rodger, will be held at Waterford Castle and is expected to host over 200 people.

"There's quite a bit of Node competency," said Barry Downes. "It's an excellent area to be in."

Others agree. "It's great to see that kind of expertise so prominent in Waterford," said Feedhenry's Cathal McGloin. "That's the kind of cluster that produces real companies and great jobs."

It may also yet land a tech multinational into Waterford's midst. With its booming business, Feedhenry has been a target for multinational firms for some time. As corporate users continue to switch from from PCs to mobiles, multinational firms such as Red Hat and VMWare need to lock in cutting edge expertise to compete at the next level.

For now though, talk of acquisitions remains in the realm of conjecture. That leaves the region short of a multinational firm. Despite pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithkline, Merck Sharp & Dohme and Boston Scientific employing up to 12,000 people in the area, there is no Dell, HP, Google or Microsoft to create a mini-ecosystem.

This hasn't stopped Waterford's startups yet. One of its youngest entrepreneurs, games and software developer Jordan Casey, is bullish about the future.

"I think the Waterford start-up scene is gradually getting better," said the 14-year-old. "We now have the Fumbally Exchange in the city and the ArcLabs in WIT hosts some very exciting companies."

Although studying for his Junior Cert, Casey's TeachWare school software is "coming along steadily", while "a few new ideas" for apps are in the works.

Waterford's tech scene looks set to continue to thrive.

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