Monday 27 January 2020

Anticipating a new anthem for our burgeoning innovators

One silly ad bound us all together in the summer of 1994, but it also showed how connected we are as a country - and big business should take note, writes Niamh Bushnell

Joe McKinney waits for his pint to settle in the iconic Guinness ‘Anticipation’ advert from 1994
Joe McKinney waits for his pint to settle in the iconic Guinness ‘Anticipation’ advert from 1994

Niamh Bushnell

Anticipation. That was the name of the Guinness ad that burst onto our TV screens in the summer of 1994. Its music captured the public's imagination. On the streets, in the pubs, at stadiums, bus stops and festivals, everyone was humming.

For one whole summer, Ireland had a new national anthem and it was a swirling little ditty that had no lyrics and made us all mad for dancing.

A couple of years later, when I was living in the States, friends would ask me what it was like to grow up in a small country like Ireland - and I'd tell them about the Guinness ad and how it became a cultural phenomenon.

It was funny and creative but it also exposed, in a wonderful way, what a small and connected country we are.

When I moved back home to take on the role of Dublin's first commissioner for start-ups, I wondered about our size and how a capital city of just over one million people could become a global hub for start-ups - like London or Berlin had done.

Dublin's funding levels are strong, but in absolute terms these much larger cities will likely always look, well . . . much larger.

Then again, Dublin's tech story is much more than just a numbers game. Everywhere I go, people love Dublin. It's a capital city that feels like a village, with a unique spirit and drive that attracts people from all over the world to come and do big things here.

Thanks to Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, Ireland already has a decades-old reputation as a global business centre. Our goal now is to become known as a hub of innovation and leading tech talent, and my office is happy to become another loudspeaker for the cause.

Almost two years in and we're still just at the beginning of a huge amount of work, and an enormous opportunity. Opportunity that's gathering more voices across the board.

At a recent meeting of 'shared services' multinationals in Cork, I listened to country manager after country manager describe the technology roles now dominating their Irish operations and heard them express frustration about how poorly the 'shared services' label represented their strategic value back to their global headquarters.

As I continue to listen, and to understand the landscape here in Ireland, I've realised that Ireland will never be known for innovation if our multinationals aren't known for it. They're just too much a part of the story told about us in the world.

Our weekly online publication, and important new initiatives like TechLifeIreland and, strongly position Ireland as a centre of innovation, but we're nowhere near finished the job. People's common and deeply held beliefs are that multinationals use Ireland as an administration and sales hub, and it's going to be our toughest job yet to turn this ship around.

According to current profiles on TechIreland, 36pc of tech multinationals in Ireland are building products from here. That's a solid and increasing percentage which is good news for the country - not so good, perhaps, for the start-ups who have to compete for that limited pool of talent. When we succeed in changing the current narrative, and make Ireland synonymous with innovation, everyone will benefit.

A few weeks back I heard the filmmaker Michael Moore speak at the Irish Film Centre on Eustace Street. A jam-packed and diverse group of people filled the theatre but Michael, clearly chuffed to be back on the auld sod, couldn't help but address us as one homogeneous group - ye warm, witty, Catholic Irish. It was engaging, but a little too cute for comfort.

It also prompted me to wonder whether we are succeeding in giving the modern Irish story enough airtime in the outside world. If not, our companies and our talent are still breaking down stereotypes every time they travel to fund-raise, market themselves and sell abroad.

Start-ups are the headline act in Ireland's innovation story and we've developed some truly world-class sectors in medtech, travel tech, fintech and software as a service - where we're competing, and often winning, against much more established global players. is telling that story on a company by company basis, and by the time it fully launches in October every start-up and tech multinational in the country will be profiled on it, as well as every investor around the world who has funded an Irish company.

Anecdotes are nice, but it's a huge step forward to be able to present a complete and factual picture of Ireland's tech credentials. The launch will also be an opportunity to tip our hats to the many groups and individuals across the country who have helped to bring it to fruition.

Dublin's credentials as a tech hub are strong, but then again every city worth its salt can point to clusters of innovative companies, leading investors and serial entrepreneurs. My friend and mentor in New York, Jerry Colonna, once asked me what Ireland's equivalent of MIT was.

Competing with MIT is a tall order for any university in the world, but we have some early contenders - and with the right focus and investment by the Government and others we could get there. Our great tech multinationals could also play a role as key sponsors. It makes so much sense for them to invest deeply in Ireland's future as an innovation powerhouse.

Music? Check. Literature? Check. Theatre and film - including an incredible nine nominations at this year's Oscars? Check and check.

Now, what will it take for innovation to secure a permanent spot on Ireland's already glowing international resume? Persistence, investment and, perhaps, another wonderfully contagious anthem to dance to - and we can make it happen.

Niamh Bushnell is Dublin's Commissioner for Start-ups

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