Saturday 24 June 2017

Why Ireland punches above its weight in start-up VC cash

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

How does Ireland really compare to the rest of the world when it comes to entrepreneurship and tech start-ups?

One metric is venture capital funding. Although not a perfect measure, it's an interesting indicator: how much confidence does the market place in companies coming out of Ireland?

Last week, the Irish Venture Capital Association released new figures about VC investment here in the first three months of the year. The numbers were bullish: €120m, or roughly €10m per week. And this is overwhelmingly being put into technology start-ups and expanding companies.

But is €120m good? How does it compare to, say, Britain or the US?

The €120m comes with a filter warning: only around €80m of this was invested into companies we could consider 'Irish'. (Two deals worth €37m were for companies - Veryan and Perseus Telecom - that are British and American, but had some Irish involvement in the funding.)

But even taking €80m as a figure and comparing it against what other countries experience, Ireland more than holds its own.

That €80m gives Ireland a quarterly per-capita investment rate of €17.80.

By comparison, in the first three months of 2015, UK venture investors pumped €829m into start-ups and companies - a quarterly per capita rate of €12.93.

And most European countries are around the same as this.

Ireland's VC investment is about half the comparable US per capita figure of €37.18 (from a €11.9bn VC investment splurge in the first three months of this year).

However, there are two things to bear in mind when pitting us versus America. First, the US figure may be inflated by some non-US companies being counted in the same way that Perseus and Veryan are here.

Second, and most importantly, three states (California, New York and Massachusetts) take the lion's share of venture capital investment. If you compare Ireland to, say, Illinois, Michigan or Ohio - home of big rich cities in their own right - we're well ahead.

"We probably do better per head than 47 out of 50 US states," said John O'Sullivan, a director of ACT Venture Capital, one of Ireland's most active VC firms which has investments in start-ups like Trustev and Cubic Telecom.

"Take New York, Boston and San Francisco out of it, and there are few places in the US with the VC investment you see in Dublin or Ireland as a whole. We're doing pretty well."

There are other less obvious factors that come into play when looking at tech booms and investor activity. In particular, one old-fashioned notion - how nice a place is to live - plays a key part.

"If you look at any of the most successful tech hubs around the western world, they all have a high quality of life in common," said O'Sullivan. "There aren't many exceptions. And Ireland definitely fits into that description. This is seen as a very nice place to live and settle."

Dublin and Galway are the main beneficiaries of this perceived lifestyle bonus, according to investors and start-up founders. Dublin, which hoovers up around three quarters of venture funding in Ireland, profits from its reputation as a modern, manageable city with good connections and a large skills base for employers and job-hunters.

By comparison, Galway benefits from a laid-back reputation where high-tech workers can mix engineering and research with surfing, music and parties.

("When we get engineers to spend a bit of time in our Galway facility, we generally can't get them out again," said Paul Conroy, a senior director of Medtronic, a Galway-based medical technology firm at a recent Innovating West conference.)

A handful of other places are looking to benefit from a lifestyle dividend. Waterford, for example, has developed as a niche hub for mobile web technology partly based on its beachside location: the noted US engineer Eran Hammer is the latest to join Tramore's highly-rated Node.js company Nearform as part of its meteoric rise.

Despite its own charms, Cork remains the odd one out in Ireland, with relatively sparse venture capital activity compared to smaller urban centres in Galway and Limerick.

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