Monday 22 December 2014

Silicon Valley goes green

Prophetic, progressive and profit-hungry – we meet the Irish techies chasing the dollar in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley
Barry O'Sullivan
David Smith
Denise Tormey
Joe Kiernan
John McGuire
Niall Keane

'Innovation in California is at its absolute peak right now," said Bill Gates in a recent article in 'Rolling Stone' magazine. Last year, there were 25,000 start-ups in Silicon Valley, most of which he branded "silly". Nonetheless, venture capitalists invested some €10bn to help them grow.

Although it takes less than an hour to get from one side of Silicon Valley – just south of San Francisco – to the other, it is the unparalleled epicentre of technological innovation. It is the embodiment of the American Dream, where two men who got turned down for jobs at Facebook went on to create a company called WhatsApp before selling it to Facebook for €16bn only five years later.

"People here can do anything," says entrepreneur Elon Musk, who recently was given €1.3bn by NASA to send his rockets up to the International Space Station.

Referred to as "Mecca" by techies, Silicon Valley can be likened to Hollywood, except much, much richer. Most people come here to become household names. They are fearless, confident, wildly optimistic and completely unabashed in their pursuit of success. Here you can cover yourself in body paint, then bring your pet to work, drink a cocktail made by a robot or eat a banana with a QR code on it.

Not everyone is happy with the outrageous success that the Valley is experiencing, least of all the laid-back left-wing community, whose members are appalled by the extortionate rents, sanitised streets and buses destined for Googleplex clogging the morning rush-hour streets.

But there's not much anyone can do to stop it. Silicon Valley is booming, and Irish entrepreneurs want a slice of the American pie.

The most high-profile of these are Patrick (23) and John (25) Collison from Limerick, who raised €60m in Silicon Valley for their online payment company Stripe, which is now valued at around €1.3bn.

They sold their first company, Auctomatic, for €3.2m when they were only 17 and 19. According to the brothers, though, they are "just getting started".

"There are around 50 Irish companies in the Bay Area," says Enterprise Ireland's US West Coast manager Nick Marmion, who is based in Mountain View, about 40 minutes drive south of San Francisco.

"Irish companies are really innovative and have massive potential. In order to be successful in Silicon Valley, they have to adopt an open approach. Here, people are hugely collaborative and they don't mind sharing what they are doing.

"By nature, we are more insular and afraid of such a concept, as we think people will steal our idea. But that's not how it works. If you have an idea, act on it quickly and get people on your side. If you don't, an amazing opportunity will pass you by," he says.

Weekend magazine travelled to the US Pacific coast to chat with top Irish entrepreneurs about life and times in Silicon Valley.

Barry O'Sullivan, Investor, Dragon on 'Dragon's Den' and CEO of Altocloud

County of Origin: Cork

Barry started his educational path with a degree in electrical engineering followed by a Masters in computer science at the University of Limerick. He also completed an MBA at Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley.

He is one of the founding members of the influential Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), a non-profit organisation comprising of Irish-American technology leaders who connect Ireland with Silicon Valley.

"In March this year, I launched a software company called Altocloud," Barry says. "It's a hugely exciting project and we plan to transform the way we use call centres forever.

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