Thursday 8 December 2016

Enter the new Dragon

Gemma O'Doherty on the hit TV show's new high-flier: a 47-year-old whizz kid who coined term 'cloud computing'

Published 27/11/2011 | 06:00

Move over Seán and Trish. Make way for Seán and Tish. A new dragon has entered the den with the sort of CV that will make his predecessor squirm.

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Cork-based Irish-American tycoon Seán O'Sullivan will replace failed presidential candidate Seán Gallagher in the new series of Dragons' Den next year and he's got more than a few dollars in his back pocket to spare.

The 47-year-old dreamer-turned-software-whizz lives in Kinsale with his columnist wife Tish Durkin.

By far the wealthiest and most successful mentor to take part in the show so far, the serial entrepreneur -- who graduated as an electrical engineer in New York -- has already had several careers spanning music, film, humanitarian work and software technology.

His most eye-catching claim to fame is his coining of the term 'cloud computing' back in 1997. Today it's one of the hottest buzzwords in technology, describing the way that people can now access personal files via the internet rather than from their desktops.

With a mine of multi-million start-ups under his belt, about 10 of which have been acquired by major companies, earlier this month O'Sullivan handed over $5m to an online learning academy. It's one of the many voluntary ventures that have earned him a reputation for having "the heart of a do-gooder but the brains of a businessman".

Think Richard Branson rather than Alan Sugar; a man on his mission to change the world rather than spend his days counting a lavish pile of his millions. In a recent speech, he claimed that the "issues facing the world are too complicated to leave to politicians and other liberal arts majors".

His current fixation is to try and change the way we move about the earth by weaning a critical mass of commuters over to car-pooling -- using the internet to connect them. It's an old idea with a new twist, but his firm Avego, based in Kinsale, has impressed the technology world.

Cyber-hitching might sound like a risky way of travelling, but two decades from now, O'Sullivan thinks sharing a ride with a stranger will be more common than catching the bus. It works through an iPhone app which lets drivers and prospective passengers link up and share journeys. Ride-sharers pay 30 cents a mile with 85pc going to the driver and 15pc to the company. Users then rate their fellow-commuter from 1 (weirdo) to 5 (marriage material) so the next pooler knows what they're taking on.

His first brainchild developed out of a college project. In 1986, a year after graduation, he founded MapInfo Corp with three friends. It was the first to allow users to type a street name into a computer and see a street map.

"Seán was an eclectic type," recalled a former classmate in a recent blog. "One of those quiet geniuses that infuriated the rest of us who had to pound the books hard to just barely make it. We shared a common bond of being so cash-poor one week that we ate nothing but spoonfuls of peanut butter from a huge value tub."

Five years on, MapInfo was one of the fastest growing private companies in the US. Today, it employs more than 1,000 employees worldwide and earns more than $100m (€75m) in annual sales.

In an interview with the Business Review, one of the firm's co-founders John Haller remembered his first encounter with the young entrepreneur. "I met him on the racquetball court," he said, recalling O'Sullivan's "reddened, sweaty face".

"I learned about his intensity. He would just be wild. Very good-natured."

O'Sullivan would stay late in the office, he said, and when he thought no one was around, he would crank up the stereo and dance to REM. "It was just this fun, high-energy, constant, hyper side of Sean that is in everything he does."

It was that passion for music that urged O'Sullivan to leave MapInfo after seven years, taking only a small stake with him. He set up a rock band, Janet Speaks French, which released two CDs, before branching out again to start a recording studio in Philadelphia, now used by major artists including Sheryl Crow and Bon Jovi.

In 1995, he started Net Centric, which became a leader in software 'for inside the internet' and came up with the term 'cloud computing,' but which changed hands in 2001.

O'Sullivan went back to college in southern California to pursue his love of the arts and specialise in documentary film-making. His first film took him to Iraq, on fake ID, five days after the US-led invasion began. While there he was struck by the mayhem caused by looters and decided to set up a not-for-profit organisation employing Iraqis to help rebuild the country.

By 2004, JumpStart had 3,500 locals on its books reconstructing hundreds of bombed-out buildings. For almost two years, O'Sullivan, who holds an Irish and American passport, refused to take a salary and lived off his savings.

Working against a backdrop of violence in high-risk hotspots like Fallujah, his life was in constant danger. The day after Baghdad fell, he shared a 14-hour taxi ride from Amman, Jordan, back to the Iraqi capital with a New Jersey war reporter and romance began to bloom over cans of US army spam. O'Sullivan married Tish Durkin shortly afterwards, an event that was saddened by the assassination in Iraq of his 26-year-old business partner, Mahaymen Al Safar, who was to be his best man.

The couple, who now have a young daughter, planned to settle in Spain but instead chose Kinsale.

O'Sullivan's foray into prime time TV should make for interesting viewing but apprentices hoping to relieve him of his cash should come to the table with a social conscience and a can-do attitude.

"The lesson you learn as an entrepreneur is that a lot of people talk about doing things," he once said, "but very few people do anything about anything. The key factor is being willing to go out on a limb."

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