Monday 24 October 2016

The greening of Silicon Valley

Business editor Nick Webb travelled to sunny California for Dreamforce 2015 - the biggest software conference on the planet - to meet some of the Irish people making waves in Silicon Valley.

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Liam Casey of PCH
Liam Casey of PCH
Dave Burke of Google

The world's technology community descended on San Francisco last week for Dreamforce 2015, the biggest software conference on the planet. Some 170,000 visitors were expected to attend the conference hosted by Marc Benioff's Salesforce. Stripe's John Collison was one of the keynote speakers - but we met some of the other Irish people making waves in Silicon Valley.

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Dave Burke Google

Dave Burke bounces down the stairway of Google's Building 43 at its Mountainview headquarters in Silicon Valley. The 39-year-old Killiney man is wearing a grey hoodie, jeans and runners.

He doesn't look geeky but Burke is Ireland's top engineer at Google, he's the guy in charge of making Android, Google's mobile operating system, not only work but do really cool new stuff too.

"Let's grab some free lunch," he says, pushing open the door of the famous Google cafe, which was set up by the former chef to The Grateful Dead's Charlie Ayers. It's teeming with people and the buffet ranges from Chinese or pizza to chips or meatballs. Dave and I grab a chicken salad, some pizza and head to a table in the sun outside.

"I've been here four years this week," he says with the beginnings of a Californian accent. "I was in London for four and-a-half years before that." Newspapers described him at Google's top engineer in the UK before he left.

Educated at Clonkeen College in Cabinteely and then UCD, Burke was always interested by the possibilities of technology.

"I was always buildings robots and messing around with electronics," he said. A career as an academic researcher could have been on the cards but for a massive credit card bill.

"I got a bill for about £1,000 and I remember thinking, 'Holy shit! I better do something about this!' The next morning I began thinking about a start-up.

"I was thinking about mobile phones. The Nokia 7110 had just come out and it had WAP - an early internet function. I was intrigued by this thing that if you had a phone and a data connection then you had a computer in your pocket."

Burke started to code different applications for mobiles, such as an early form of maps and an email function.

"I remember sitting on the 46a, looking at email on my phone and looking around and nobody else had it and thinking that this was going to really take off."

A voice-recognition start-up brought him to the attention of Google, which he joined in 2007. Now he's the veepee of engineering at mobile, running an 800-strong team just metres from founder Sergei Brin's office on the Googleplex campus.

"We build the core code and make it available to people like Samsung and they make it a little different, they differentiate it and then ship loads of phones," he says, wolfing down some pizza. Google also has its own line of phones too.

"It's cool to get to design the operating system that everyone is using for hours and hours every day."

The next version code, named 'marshmallow', is launching shortly, which explains why he has just rocked out of a four and-a-half-hour meeting. Mobile is seriously exciting, he insists.

"When you're in the middle of a techno logical revolution, you don't really always see it," he suggests. "But now you have access to all the worlds information in milliseconds on Google or you can get a cab in seconds with Uber or you can connect to someone anywhere in the world with Facebook or Whatsapp."

The future, he firmly feels, is mobile.

"There'll be a lot more mobile. It all used to be desktop, but now it's all mobile. PCs don't have fingerprint sensors, they are clunky, they don't have location technology or sensors and they don't allow you to pay at terminals, so I think phones are going to become more and more dominant."

Linking up of screens, be it android TV or android auto, will be a key trend in coming years, he forecasts.

"There'll be lots of other cool stuff that is hard to predict. You look at how disruptive something like Uber has been and I think that there'll be a lot more disruption coming."

But mobile has its own challenges. Location technology, such as GPS, doesn't work indoors and is very power-intensive. Burke is trying to find ways to simplify the whole mobile experience. For example, if your mobile knows that you are inside a car with your phone, it shouldn't keep asking you to unlock codes.

But simplifying the whole mobile operating systems has its reward.

"I go home a couple of times a year and you could be sitting on the Dart looking at someone listening to music on a Samsung phone and the code that's decoding the audio, I wrote that," he says.

Burke is also something of a rock star in the developer community, famously coding an entire Google project 'chrome to phone' on a flight from Tokyo to London.

He's terrifically buzzed by Google.

"There's a saying here that talent attracts talent. Smart people like to work with smart people and you get that critical mass in Silicon Valley, with all those people. Silicon Valley is ground zero for technological disruption."

Despite having bought a new aircraft - a cirrus sr22 - he is in no rush to come home, insisting: "I like it here."

Gina O'Reilly COO at Nitro

Belfast-born but Cavan-reared O'Reilly has worked in Silicon Valley for 15 years. The accent hasn't gone.

After a business and languages degree from DCU, she moved into software in Paris, before being headhunted for a marketing job in south California. She met up with Nitro founder Sam Chandler at a PDF conference at Disneyland... "which is as terrible as it sounds".

O'Reilly joined the document technology start-up in 2008 when it had just five people working out of a skyscraper in the centre of San Francisco. Her sales and marketing role evolved into the COO position. "I'm like a chief of staff," she says, doling out some bottled water as we sit at a table in her glass box office.

Nitro offices are classic tech firm. Table-tennis table, a fully stocked beer bar (with Guinness bottles) and free sweets. But Nitro is anything but a standard tech firm. Sam Chandler, who we pop in to meet in the next office, is an Aussie and there's a strong culture of "no bullshit" in the place, she says. Nitro is "a document productivity company," according to O'Reilly, who adds: "We're the missing piece of Microsoft Office."

Sharing, collaborating and signing documents remains a rather dated process. "We're still sharing stuff like its' 1999," she says. Nitro is also working on some cool document workflow tech.

"We want to be the document productivity tool of choice."

The company bookings are on targets for $35m to $40m (€35m) this year and it has 500,000 customers with three million users of its cloud platform every month.

It has 200 staff, including 50 in Ireland. While she is enormously bullish about Ireland and its prospects of becoming a European version of Silicon Valley, the real thing is hard to beat.

"There are very few places that you can build a tech business as well as in the Valley. It's a melting pot of like-minded people. Everyone here is trying to build something," she says. "Getting shit done is more efficient here too."

On the downside, costs are prohibitive.

"Getting talent here is bonkers. It's a real challenge. The average starting salary of an engineer straight out of college is $130,000 to $150,000 (€115,000 to €130,000)" While Nitro has been hugely successful in keeping its staff, the average tenure for engineers in the Valley is "less than a year".

Ray Smith CEO of Datahug

Kilnamanagh, Dublin 35-year-old Ray Smith is one of the new Irish arrivals in the Valley. Or, strictly speaking, San Francisco. Datahug works out of a tech-shared workspace in a skyscraper in the centre of the city.

We head out for a coffee in the nearby Blue Bottle cafe but rush-hour San Francisco means an epic queue, so we sign into a cafe slash start-up workplace round the corner. Everyone has a laptop on their knee. Everyone.

Smith sold his first software product - a data analysis tool for airlines - while still at college. He worked with Accenture in Australia and the UK, which gave him a solid grounding in business before teaming up with Connor Murphy to set up Datahug in 2010.

Essentially, what Datahug is trying to do is to reinvent the way that companies sell to clients.

"We spotted an opportunity that sales were fundamentally broken because of a dependence on CRM (customer relationship management) systems. People were having to go on entry data the whole time, rather than going off to talk to customers." So Datahug has developed a smoking-hot "relationship-intelligence platform" that streamlines the sales process and helps companies seal more deals.

The company has been backed by Marc Benioff's vast Salesforce, the worlds fourth-biggest software company, as well as VC DFJ Esprit, Silicon Valley royalty Ron Conway, Bill McCabes Oyster group and private investors, including incoming Paddy Power Betfair boss Breon Corcoran. Smith moved over to San Francisco in January as Datahug switched from being an enterprise-only business to targeting mid-market clients. Revenues have doubled in the last six months.

"My number-one regret is not coming out here earlier," he says. "People are really receptive to new ideas here."

Eoin Dowling CEO of Boxfish

Dingle-born Dowling is based in the heart of the Valley in Palo Alto, near where Google was founded in a garage and Elon Musk set up his first Tesla electric car operations.

While data company Boxfish is tearing up trees in the TV and digital interaction space, Dowling has done it all before.

He sold his digital-entertainment mobile services firm Red Circle to Zamano in 2007 for about €24m. Technology is obviously in his blood as both parents were coders.

When he was setting up Boxfish, the lure of Palo Alto or 'Hollywood for nerds' was overwhelming. Boxfish converts TV data into digital data, so companies such as Netflix, Sony and Fox can target digital audiences. The company, which has raised $12m from investors, is operating in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland and Australia.

"We were fortunate in that we had a success under our belts, which made it easier. In Dublin, we might have only been able to raise €300,000" he jokes.

Boxfish is currently on an upward curve. Things are going pretty well. The business has grown, he told me. Staff numbers will double from 20 to 40 over the next year.

Dowling thinks that there's "a massive difference" between Ireland and the Valley. He points to "the velocity of being able to build a business" as a key differentiator. There is also more sharing and pooling of ideas and experiences in California than in Ireland, "where everyone keeps their cards close to their chest".

David Smith First Capital

Sandymount's David Smith was Enterprise Ireland's go-to guy in the Valley before moving into tech-focused deal-making. "I came here nine years ago," he tells me as we grab a coffee near San Francisco's FiDi, the financial district.

He worked with early-stage start-ups and telcos before switching to the private sector, initially with US Market Access and now with UK investment group First Capital, where he now runs the US business.

"We are looking at growth-stage tech firms that want an exit or advising mid-stage firms on fundraising," he says.

The exits are usually between $50m to $500m and the fundraising is around the $20m-plus mark.

First Capital has just advised on the sale of a major tech firm to a Chinese buyer. Smith is also looking at the Irish market and within recent weeks has started talking to an Irish firm.

His role is to talk to companies like Facebook, LinkedIn or Salesforce about their strategy and needs and to see if he can match smaller tech firms that could be gobbled up by the large players.

"There's a sense of optimism here that's almost overwhelming," he says. "Here, the glass is not half full, it's completely full." Smith believes that one of the secrets to succeeding in the Valley is the creation of a network.

"People are more likely to give you half-an-hour to do something if you are introduced by the rift person. People are more open here. It's easier to get that first chance."

Tommy Geary HP

Limerick man Tommy Geary is early, he's tapping away on his phone when I amble into a Starbucks near Stanford University. He grabs a tea and we sit out in the sun as he tells me about moving his family over to the West Coast two years ago.

He'd been working in HP's Leixlip office after joining from Eircom and, prior to that, Dell.

"They decided that they wanted me to start a process-improvement programme in the company, he says sipping his tea.

Sometimes big tech firms "over engineer" processes and they need to be made leaner. No sooner had Geary set the wheels in motion then he was promoted to head up sales operations for HP.

"This is all of the operations between the sales teams and the factory. It's anything with an operational bent."

HP is splitting into two separate entities, with Tommy moving to HP Enterprises. He says that there are surprisingly few Irish at HP, despite its major operations in Ireland.

"The Taoiseach came to visit and we rounded up people - you could have counted them on two hands," he suggests.

The direct flight from Dublin to San Francisco is a major help for the Irish business community in the Valley as well as those doling out Foreign Direct Investment. "It's so easy to get here now. You just get on the flight and go to sleep and you're there."

Liam Casey PCH International

Google bought the robotics company across the road from Cork man Liam Casey's PCH International. The search engine giant might have been as wise to look at Casey's end-to-end hardware designer, maker, seller and deliverer.

A tour of the uber-modern facility shows the development of everything from drones to new types of coffee machine and even the reimagining of a musical instrument. PCH has design and engineering labs kitted out with top-end industrial-sized 3D printing machines and other serious bits of kit that cost millions.

A former fashion retailer with Club Tricot Marine, Casey saw the opportunity created when China opened up. He initially set up in business to source low-tech items, particularly computer microphones. But like every good entrepreneur, he adapted as the market changed. Now PCH delivers 10 million parts a day and over 100 million finished products each year. If a major Silicon Valley company wants some hardware made, you can be pretty sure that Casey is involved in some shape or form.

Dressed all in blue, Casey glides into a vast meeting room for a quick chat with me. "There was no place for people to do everything from end to end and we saw there was an opportunity to step in," he says of the slick San Francisco innovation centre.

PCH has three separate units to help support entrepreneurs trying to create new hardware. It takes an equity stake, usually between 3pc and 7pc and helps the designers tweak their products, test it, sell it and ultimately deliver it.

The Highway1 innovation space is for really early-stage bits of hardware - like Drop, the smart new weighing scales invented by Dubliner Ben Harris and his partners.

"We take the idea right through from the concept all the way to the consumer," Casey tells me. The next phase is a programme called PCH Access, which helps these companies scale up. "Last week's Fast Company list of top 10 products had six of our products in the hardware category," he says. Limelab is a purer engineering and development outfit.

"There's no one like us," Casey says. "There's plenty at each stage - but there's nobody else that does the whole thing like we do. And that's how we differentiate: there's nobody else who does end to end."

The business has been "completely changed" by the "internet of things" in recent years. "Hardware is now so cool that anyone who has played in the hardware space has found business completely different in the last five years."

All of the big Silicon Valley players are moving into hardware with serious intent. "It's one thing to have great software but you need great hardware too," he adds. "We're definitely on the list of companies to call if you're doing something in hardware."'

PCH is in a steroid-fuelled growth phase. "The big part is that we have the building blocks in place and now it's about harvesting it," he says.

"We are extremely ambitious about growth and we do see opportunities.

Casey is evangelical about how supply chains are going to get leaner and faster.

Better use of data, knowing what is selling and where will be key.

"It'll happen a lot more. Warehouses full of inventory - those days are just gone," he says.

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