Business Technology

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The successful Irish entrepreneurs who have moved to Silicon Valley and are taking on the tech world

Irish companies are making it big in Silicon Valley, a tech-savvy world which has become Hollywood without the dysfunction. Barbara McCarthy met some of the Irish taking it by storm

Barbara McCarthy

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

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Grainne Barron

By the sounds of things, Silicon Valley has become the land of milk and honey for Irish companies. Venture capitalist investment in the tiny area south of San Francisco which is just 50km long and 25km wide surpassed €25 billion since 2009 and reached almost €4 billion in the first quarter of 2014, up 67pc on 2013.

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Buoyed by recent success stories, including that of the Collison brothers from Limerick, who raised €60m in Silicon Valley before founding their online payment company Stripe, now worth €1.3bn, Irish people have developed a new kind of confidence on the West Coast.

A winning amalgamate of tech-savviness, bankable ideas, determination and our all-important charm appears to be setting the boardrooms south of San Francisco alight.

"There are around 50 Irish companies in the Bay area and some of them are doing really well. The people who set up here are not just innovative, but they adapted the West Coast approach, where ambition is not a dirty word," so says Nick Marmion manager of West & Southern US regions for Enterprise Ireland. "Where back home, people may be afraid of sharing ideas for fear of being copied, here they know that sharing equals success," he adds.

Investor and founder of multi billion-dollar company Macrovision John Ryan, who has been there since 1974, says Irish people are changing. "Irish graduates are as fired up as any Americans you meet. It's not the way it was 20 years ago, where people who came to the US took a more lax approach to things," he says. "Companies we have invested in, like ad-creation company Viddyad, are excellent. It could be worth a few hundred million dollars in a few years time. No one is offering the same service to that level anywhere."

Silicon Valley has become Hollywood without the dysfunction. People come from far and wide with an idea, blind optimism and a pile of debts, and make a billion dollars. But is it really that simple? "No," says John McGuire, who launched Game Golf, a new tracking device for golfers in January this year.

Couch-surfing in San Francisco, working non-stop, almost going broke, going grey and living apart from his family ensured that a bumpy road to the top. After raising €8m and receiving backing from Golf PGA, his foot is firmly in the door now. "But every day is a battle. We're just getting going, it won't get any easier," he said in his office in downtown San Francisco, where employees came from the highest echelons of Facebook to help him become market leader within a multisports platform.

"If you have what it takes, you can make it, but investors these days are much pickier now than before. There is a bubble. Let there be no doubt," warns Ryan.

On top of that, a recent report by Harvard lecturer Shickhar Ghosh, states that 75pc of start-ups fail.

Its easy to report back how great things are when you're 8,000km away from home, but how do we know that the streets are really paved in gold? Irish veteran Conrad Burke, who has been in Silicon Valley for over 20 years, can't think of any bad news. "For sure there are plenty of failures. I just cannot think of one Irish failure in particular. "I've heard nothing but good news."

We went to Silicon Valley to visit Irish business people and found them to be ambitious hard workers, happy to help each other out. So who are they and what are they doing right?

Grainne Barron, CEO Viddyad

According to Enda Kenny, Viddyad is one of the most promising Irish companies in Silicon Valley. Currently worth €20m, Viddyad, which has been listed as one to watch by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, allows clients to make top-quality videos online quickly.

Barron moved Stateside in February, simply because, "You need to be here. You can't just hop on a flight back to Europe as soon as you make a connection. I did that too and it doesn't work. Trying to set up conference calls between here and Dublin is a killer."

"Its all business here and no one makes any apologies about it. The rule here is always be helpful. It's a pay-it- forward system. Don't ask what you can do for me - ask what can I do for you.

"The Irish here are worker bees, entrepreneurs, well-connected and well thought of. They are all part of start-ups and want to help. Its like they help each other. It's like being away from Ireland makes you club together and help each other a lot more. It makes me very proud."

Conrad Burke, founder of Innovalight

A graduate of physics in Trinity College and London Business School, Burke founded Innovalight, which develops low-cost, high-performance silicon-based solar cells in 2005, and served as CEO until August 2011, when DuPont acquired the company. With a sales target of €1.7bn this year, DuPont Photovoltaic Solutions is the global leading supplier of solar materials.

Winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Technology Pioneer Award in Davos, Switzerland, Burke says, "Silicon Valley offers an environment that operates at a very high pace, and that means support services, employee-hiring, raising capital, all can happen relatively quickly compared with other parts of the world.

"The ecosystem of people and services is very accustomed to newly established ventures. There is a pool of talented employees, easy access to investors and well-heeled experienced services from real estate agents to accountants and banks.

"If you are in technology, it's important to have some footprint here. Don't be afraid to leverage the Irish community. They are always eager to help and introduce you to investors of which there is no shortage."

Josh Hogan, founder Compact Imaging

Armed with a physics background, Josh Hogan moved to Silicon Valley 30 years ago. He founded Compact imaging, which develops low cost bio-sensing technology that uses light to analyse tissue. "We have successfully made non-invasive measurements of the retina of the eye. Our company has an on-going development with a photonics research group at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

"Just do it," he says. "Make mistakes as soon as possible. Then do it again." It is probably a little easier to have a company presence here now then before and I see more new Irish companies establishing a base in Silicon Valley early in their development. Commuting is obviously a lot easier now.

"Focus on long-term rather than short-term goals. Maintain a stable environment so existing and new companies can thrive. The difficulty seems to be in executing a long-term comprehensive plan, and sadly with such a vested interest in the short term benefits (to government and banks) of escalating property prices, the instability of another bubble seems inevitable."

Joe Kiernan, Frontdesk Anywhere

Joe Kiernan's company Frontdesk Anywhere, which was founded in 2009, has just moved its headquarters to the heart of Chinatown in San Francisco. "The buzz in the office is incredible. We are housed in a building made from original bricks from the great fire in 1906. Rents are ridiculous, that's the big downside, but for networking, which is key in Silicon Valley, our custom-built Barbary Coast whiskey bar is going down a treat with clients."

A provider of cloud-based hospitality software solutions, Frontdesk Anywhere has been named one of the CIO Review's 20 Most Promising Solution Providers in travel and hospitality. "We are growing our team from 20 people to 35. We also hired people in Florida and Bangkok as part of our 24/7 customer support."

"Silicon Valley is great for scaling companies but they can be started anywhere. You should raise capital at home, and then come here. It's true that no place will ever be like Silicon Valley, with its high concentration of talent, capital and exit opportunities but on the flip side it's extremely expensive and crowded with fierce competition."

Barry O'Sullivan, CEO Altocloud

"Silicon Barry" moved to the West Coast aged 25 and has been building a considerable profile ever since. Last March, he launched Altocloud, which uses predictive analytics to enable businesses to have smarter interactions with their customers.

Companies spend over €215bn on call centres worldwide, but it's not fun to call them so Altocloud created an app, which speeds things up so the customer service agent already knows your problem by the time you talk to them.

"Our objectives are huge. We want to take over the world. We have been getting a lot of industry attention in the US, with CRN Magazine designating us as Hottest Startup of 2014, and Aragon Research putting us on their 'cool vendor' list.

"The best opportunities for new business come from networking, casual coffees, attending events - in other words, nothing beats being there.

"Talk to Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), a group which promotes the technology connection between Ireland and Silicon Valley. Enterprise Ireland has a great programme called 'Access Silicon Valley'. It involves mentoring, networking and time spent in the valley with a very structured agenda."

Niall Keane, CEO, SynergySuite

CEO of SynergySuite, a cloud-based Software Company, which offers solutions to large hospitality chains, Niall Keane says you'd be foolish to deny the market in the US. "In Ireland a chain has 50 to 60 outlets, here you get over 1000. In Ireland you think in terms of creating a €10 million business - here they think in billions and you soon understand why."

After a whirlwind trip as part of 'Enterprise Ireland's Silicon Access' program, which fast-tracks companies to quicker success, Keane laid the foundations for a move. "I now rent an office at the Enterprise Ireland centre in Silicon Valley, along with numerous Irish start-ups and Irish companies.

"There is a lot of red tape involved. I qualified for an L1 visa, which is valid for up to 7 years, while my family received L2 visas. If you move here, don't forget about the cost of lawyers fees which can be over €4000, while visas cost €2,000. You are a ghost in the system so credit cards and loans are difficult to acquire."

Sunday Independent

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