Wednesday 24 August 2016

Kim Bielenberg: Recession was no barrier to the young Irish innovators

Published 18/12/2012 | 12:44

THE four Irish innovators who feature in the Forbes list of "30 under 30" to watch in 2013 show that there is economic life beyond the grim world of bust builders and inept bankers.

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Our sixth austerity budget in a row may have caused us to dwell morosely on our economic woes, as each household desperately tries to balance the books.

But the success of the Forbes fab four – three of whom work in technology – shows that there are some grounds for optimism.

Two of our young tech titans, the young Collison brothers from Limerick, were never going to let the small matter of an economic crash get in their way.

John was only a 16-year-old in Transition Year when he set up a software company Shuppa with his 18-year-old brother, Patrick, a past winner of the Young Scientist Exhibition. Within a year they were millionaires after they merged their company and sold it.

Curiously, their current venture Stripe enables sellers trading on the Internet to accept credit cards and by-pass old-fashioned banks, the institutions that helped to get us into our economic mess.

Some estimates of the company’s value put it at over €400 million.

The rapid rise of the Collisons in Silicon Valley has coincided with the Great Recession.

James Whelton, 20, another Irishman on the Forbes list, may not have made such a vast paper fortune as the Collisons, but he is just as influential. His Coder Dojo movement is a network of clubs teaching 10,000 children across 22 countries to learn how to programme and write code.

It is not hard to find yourself bathed in gloom if you walk down any main street in Ireland. Even in prosperous enclaves like Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire, many shops and restaurants have closed and lie empty.

But a visit to Grand Canal Dock, only a few stops away from Dun Laoghaire on the DART line, shows that we have a two-speed economy. There is no sign of high unemployment on the “Silicon Docks”.

When Google opened its European HQ in the area at the peak of the boom, it occupied just two floors with 150 people. Now there are over 2500 Google employees in three buildings, and Facebook and LinkedIn have joined the search behemoth, along with other Internet companies.

The one regret is that homegrown entrepreneurs such as the Collisons were not offered the incentives to base an indigenous operation here. Instead, they sought their fortunes in Silicon Valley.

Although there are Irish firms operating out of the Grand Canal Dock area , we need to do more to encourage their growth.

Education can play a role, according to the senior Google executive John Herlihy. He recently said students need to be prepared for a world that is largely based on the Internet, but only 30 pc of Irish students currently use the Internet for schoolwork.

The Collison brothers argue that computer programming should be taught as a subject at school.

It is a cliché to suggest that there is no recession online, but there is a grain of truth to it. In the dark days of December, with the budget fresh in the memory, entrepreneurs such as the Collisons and James Whelton offer hope for the future.

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