Business Technology

Tuesday 30 September 2014

New Irish tech companies are taking on Silicon Valley

'Go out there and meet everyone you can,' say the pioneers

Naoimh Reilly

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

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Into The Valley: Maurice Coyle of HeyStaks.
Jayne Ronayne and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Physical Liquid Software. From right to left. Michael Garland, David Feely, Kevin Loughrey, Sam Warner, Philip Plunkett, Brian McElroy

Investors in Silicon Valley are looking for big bold ideas. Silicon Valley is the number one location in the world for technology. There is four times more investment in the Valley than anywhere else in the US. That's a big reason why every entrepreneur in the world wants to go there. The combined market capitalisation of all companies in Silicon Valley is $2.5 trillion - and it is only 45 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west.

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Entrepreneurship is a high-risk game but Irish companies are succeeding. In the last three to four years there has been a blossoming level of respect towards Irish companies in Silicon Valley. Ireland is on the move.

John Hartnett, founder and president of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, is creating links between Ireland and Silicon Valley, with the aim of helping young Irish entrepreneurs become successful.

"Be very prepared coming out. Don't expect funding to fall into your lap. Know why your technology is better than anyone else's, what a great team you have and what market you are addressing," advises Hartnett.

He says it is important to leverage existing organisations or networks, because, when you get introduced by somebody, there is a certain level of credibility attached. They are putting their name behind you.

"Irish companies tend not to be as ambitious as, say a Californian company. Californian entrepreneurs preach their technology.

"They say they are going to build a billion-dollar company and it's going to be revolutionary. They are very bold and ambitious compared to the Irish. Irish companies tend to have a conservative ambition. That's not very attractive to a big investor in the Valley," he says.

Christian Ryder's business FoneSense is an app that allows consumers to get rewards for using the ringtone on their phone as advertising. For example, if users play the McDonald's I'm Lovin' It jingle when their phone rings or when they receive an SMS, they will get a reward.

"We believe going forward it will be important for us to have a presence in Silicon Valley," says Christian, who completed the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme. "However, we plan to keep the core of the business in Ireland."

Jayne Ronayne's company, KonnectAgain, is an online platform, which helps institutions reconnect with alumni and gives those institutions the most up-to-date and relevant data on their alumni.

Jayne, who has just completed UCC's Ignite programme, is currently looking to open her first US office this September.

"We spent nearly five weeks in Silicon Valley this June. The atmosphere is infectious, as you want to be bigger and better after spending time there. We originally went over for customer validation and research and came away with new investors, customers and advisors and with plans of going back this July," she says.

Walter O' Grady has also recently completed UCC's Ignite programme with his company Froblem. The Froblem reporting app allows people to quickly report faults with the buildings and services that they use directly to the organisation or individual responsible.

For example, it allows a person to report a missing ring buoy on a riverbank or a broken office light at their workplace by pressing a few buttons on their phone.

This helps organisations improve customer service and the monitoring of their facilities.

Walter decided to set up his company after completing his PhD in civil engineering and seeing a need for such software. With no programming experience, he taught himself coding.

The advice he would give to those considering starting their own company is easy to follow.

"Just start. Simple as that. Make a decision and do something. Take one step. I feel that for a business or a person to progress, they must move out of their home country.

"I discussed this with a lot of people but it's hard to define why it is. It could be because you are outside your comfort zone, so doing more uncomfortable tasks to progress is easier, or it could be the 'burning the boats' mentality - there's no going back," says Walter.

Maurice Coyle's company HeyStaks, analyses search and browsing activity of Web users to create anonymous interest profiles that can be used to enhance search and increase sales for online stores.

After an early attempt in Silicon Valley, Maurice said: "I think we could have saved a lot of money by waiting until we had demonstrated traction before turning our eyes there."

Michael Fitzgerald from OnePageCRM developed his company in the NUI Galway Business Innovation Centre. OnePageCRM reinvents the sales function for SMEs. This helps sales people interact with contacts at just the right moment.

Mr Fitzgerald explains: "Ireland is good for us. It has a good name for software and we have great graduates coming out of our universities. I guess we've already broken into Silicon Valley with investment from VC firm 500 Startups."

When asked to advise companies considering the move, he says: "Meet, meet, meet. Ask in those meetings about others you should meet. And use the Irish connection - it's still a huge card to play."

Kenneth Fox has a company called KF Channel Mechanics. The Channel Mechanics solution enables these companies to expand their reach into markets by tailoring their sales offers.

"Having very recently spent two weeks in Silicon Valley as part of an Enterprise Ireland programme we are now planning on setting up sales and marketing out of San Francisco before the end of this year," said Mr Fox.

Charlie Ardagh's company, PropelAd, is for non-expert advertisers who want expert advertising results. PropelAd now employs seven people.

He first went to Silicon Valley in October 2013 with Enterprise Ireland's Access Silicon Valley programme.

"It's not a case of showing up in Silicon Valley and collecting a cheque. The competition here is insane," he says. "In my opinion, if you want to be a global market leader, your chances of success get better if you have a strong connection or ideally a presence in Silicon Valley."

Sam Warner, who is only 25, has been operating out of the NovaUCD with his company Physical Liquid Software. Physical Liquid software is an advergaming company.

"I truly believe that Dublin is one of the best places in the world for an ICT-based startup.

"The government is allocating funding and supports for indigenous Irish companies. We wouldn't be where we are today if it were not for the support and expertise offered to us by Enterprise Ireland and NovaUCD," says Mr Warner.

Mr Warner understands that Silicon Valley has an allure for tech-based start-ups, but advises anyone thinking about making the move to take a step back, do the research and carry out due diligence before packing their bags.

He warns: "The valley is the Hollywood of the tech world - it's a highly competitive place with a short attention span!"

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