Apple tax dominates as Irish tech firms flourish
The global giant's €13bn hit became the biggest issue affecting Ireland's international reputation in the tech world - but a series of local deals turned the spotlight on our firms' growth in 2016
The biggest tech story - or business story - of the year in Ireland was the European Commission's decision to order Apple to pay €13bn in unpaid taxes to Ireland. This caused consternation both in Apple, which employs 6,000 people in Cork, and the Irish Government which does not want its image as a multinational-friendly country to be tarnished.
Apple ceo Tim Cook, in an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, called the decision "political crap" and accused Brussels of overstepping its remit.
The Irish Government weighed in with Apple, pledging to appeal the decision. Heading into 2017, both Apple and the Irish Government say that they are confident of succeeding in their appeal. At the heart of the case is whether, or to what degree, the European Commission can adjudicate on member states' fiscal processes.
By design, the EU has no say in national tax rates. But in this case, the European Commission said Ireland's tax "arrangement" with Apple was really a form of state aid because the terms were so favourable to the tech giant.
It said Apple got a tax rate as low as 0.005pc some years, although this was strongly disputed by Apple. State aid to companies is usually illegal under EU law and, if such aid is established, the European Commission is entitled to intervene.
Most commentators agreed that there were political overtones to the case. Resentment about big companies avoiding tax has been brewing for some time, both in Europe and in the US. When Apple sells an iPhone in Britain or Germany, its accountants mark it down as money in its Irish accounts- but it doesn't declare profits here on most of that money.
The Irish Government accepts this because the phones are designed in the US and made in China. The same goes for a lot of its other products and services sold in the EU. The problem is that there's a huge chunk of money that Apple hasn't yet paid tax on.
The European Commission says that's not acceptable and that it should pay tax on all that money in the EU, preferably Ireland. But Apple says that profit may ultimately be taxed in the US, where its products are designed.
The company says it is waiting for tax reform in the US before it "repatriates" its profits there.
Like other multinational firms, Apple is largely able to do this due to international tax law, which has a lot of mechanisms that allow corporations to legally avoid tax for a long time. The election of Donald Trump may have a bearing on this. He has said that he will be more aggressive with US companies that continue to hold large sums of money offshore. Most financial observers expect the US to introduce some form of one-off tax measure in 2017 that will allow US companies to repatriate their profits without incurring the full tax rate.
The Government believes that the stakes for Ireland are high. It judges that Ireland's reputation among inward investors such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and others is more important than a single €13bn windfall. So far, its message appears to be working, with Apple reiterating its support for continued expansion in Cork. "We are committed to Ireland and we plan to continue investing there, growing and serving our customers with the same level of passion and commitment," Tim Cook said in September.
Outside affairs of state, Apple had a big year with its iPhone 7 beating off competition from its main rival, Samsung. However, this was partly due to the unfortunate series of events that saw the Korean manufacturer forced into withdrawing one of its biggest products of the year, the Galaxy Note 7, from the market.
The much-hyped handset was found to have an unsafe battery that caused several devices to overheat or catch fire. It became a €10bn public relations disaster for the company as Samsung had been looking at sales projections of 19m units, each costing over €750.
It was a rather better year for some of Ireland's indigenous tech firms, with some very big sales 'exits' recorded.
Chief among these were chip design firm Movidius and telecoms software company Britebill. Movidius was bought by Intel in a deal worth more than €300m. Having signed deals with Google, Lenovo and DJI, the Dublin company became one of the hottest European tech firms in the 'internet of things' sector.Its main activity is making chips that let machines 'see' and 'think' by giving them more power in smaller, unconnected units. That's now in massive demand, including for use in unmanned drones.
The huge exit made money for co-founders David Moloney and Seán Mitchell as well as a number of investors, including the Irish State which held an 8pc stake in the company through a number of investment managers backed by the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA).
Meanwhile, Dublin-based telecoms software firm Britebill was bought for more than €60m by an €8bn Israeli rival, Amdocs. Britebill, which employs about 100 people in Dublin and several offices abroad, provides billing software to mobile phone carriers such as the US operator Sprint, the Canadian operator Rogers and T-Mobile of Germany.
It was increasingly in competition with Amdocs to win business in the US mobile carrier market. The company's founder, Alan Coleman, was a previous Accenture executive.
The biggest deal involving an Irish tech company was probably Verizon's €2.15bn acquisition of Fleetmatics, whose web-based software provides fleet operators with visibility into vehicle location, fuel usage, speed and mileage and other metrics about their mobile workforce. The company, co-founded by chief technical officer Peter Mitchell, had announced 75 extra jobs in Dublin to bring its Irish workforce in Tallaght to over 200. However, the acquisition did not make billionaires of anyone as the company had been floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012, reporting $285m (€274m) in revenues in 2015.
In general, it was a very strong year for Irish tech companies raising money. In the first nine months of the year, venture capital funding rose to €734m, three-quarters higher than the same period in 2015. That means that Irish-based startups, high tech firms and life science companies were attracting €19m a week in venture capital.
Customer communication software firm Intercom led the way, raising €45m in fresh venture funding. Intercom continues to buck tech conventions, placing its design team in Dublin and its sales and marketing office in San Francisco.
Early stage companies also did well, raised seed capital of €57m, equivalent to 8pc of funds raised for the nine months to the end of September 2016. This compared to €25.5m (6pc of funds raised) in the same period in 2015, with €17m (5pc of funds raised) in 2014 and €48.5m (21pc of total funds raised) in 2013.
This data, which is recorded by the Irish Venture Capital Association, does come with a bit of a caveat. While most of the companies covered are indigenous Irish firms, some - such as online payments firm Circle - merely have offices here. Nevertheless, it is indicative of an overall pattern where Irish tech companies are maturing to higher funding rounds.
Indeed, Ireland's 50 fastest-growing indigenous technology companies recorded over €1.6bn in turnover last year, according to Deloitte's local 'Fast 50' Index.
Ireland's top home-grown tech firms had an average revenue of €31m each and an annual growth rate of 270pc over the last four years. The fastest-growing Irish tech company was the eCommerce and logistics firm eShopWorld, which saw turnover growth of 2,596pc over the last four years. The company lets online retailers manage customer interactions from checkout to returns.
Two-thirds of Ireland's fastest-growing technology companies are software startups while communications and hardware tech companies account for a fifth of firms featuring on the ranking. On average, exports account for 61pc of turnover for the top 50 tech firms while R&D expenditure represents just under a fifth of turnover (18pc).
Meanwhile, Ireland's most successful ever tech founders, Patrick and John Collison, had another strong year in 2016 with the continued expansion of their online payments company Stripe. Based in San Francisco the firm closed a fresh funding round of $150m (€144m), valuing the company at $9.2bn (€8.8bn). It has also grown its Irish office to 50 people while expanding its range of services and the list of countries it serves. It is widely considered to be one of the most valuable, most successful financial technology startups in the world.
Also expanding in 2016 was Paddy Cosgrave's Web Summit. It had its first incarnation outside Dublin, setting up shop in Lisbon. The general consensus was that it was a step up for almost everyone who attended the event. It was better-organised, slicker and far easier to navigate than the friendly omnishambles of previous attempts in Dublin's RDS. There were no confusing treks between outhouses and buildings, no €20 burgers (almost all food and coffee was free) and two separate rail systems took you almost to the door from anywhere in the city. Even the wifi settled into a consistent, usable state.
"Dublin had a cosiness to it which is a little bit lost in Lisbon," said Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer for Facebook and one of the event's star speakers. "But this venue is better. And not trekking through mud is great." Mr Schroepfer's view was widely echoed among other tech executives who cared to offer a view on the subject. While the RDS has a charm to it, the Lisbon set-up is a proper, linear mega-conference venue that is easy to get around. The main stage alone, in the Meo Arena, holds 15,000 people. In short, it's hard to see Dublin ever getting this event back.
That's not the only challenging circumstances that Dublin faced in 2016. Some Irish-based multinationals had a tough year here. Twitter got the unfortunate news that 9pc of its global workforce is to be laid off in 2017 due to its struggling commercial performance. It's not yet clear to what extent the Irish office, which employs over 200 people, will be affected.
However, the company's executive turnover rate in Ireland has reflected its US headquarters with Irish boss Mark Little stepping down just six months after assuming the top job here. He was quickly replaced by Sinead McSweeney, who took on the Ireland MD role in addition to her existing job as vice-president of public policy and communications for Twitter Europe, Middle East, and Africa.
If 2016 was a challenging year for Twitter, it was a terrible one for Yahoo, which has a significant presence in Dublin's docklands. A series of disastrous data breach admissions from the US parent company put its acquisition by Verizon into question. Over 1bn of its customer accounts were compromised, the company said, which counts as the biggest known data breach in history.
It has also been outed as an apparently willing accomplice in spying on its email users for the US government. This is currently being investigated by the Irish data protection commissioner, Helen Dixon.
Facebook had a mostly positive year in Ireland, with a small sting in the tail toward the end of the year. Buoyed by soaring ad revenues and no falloff in users, the social media giant continued to hire in Dublin. At its current rate of growth, it may soon overtake Microsoft and come second only to Google in the capital's hierarchy of tech employers.
However, it faces tougher regulatory scrutiny in 2017 over claims that it is becoming too powerful in controlling the news that people see. It was singled out over accusations of 'fake news' pages that allegedly helped Donald Trump get elected in the US in November.