Friday 15 November 2019

Desperately chasing a home-grown global giant all of our own

With the story of Ireland's ICT sector still evolving, is it too late to ask that big business might consider teaming with smaller indigenous tech start-ups

What can we expect to see develop from the Internet of Things, wonders Joan Mulvihill
What can we expect to see develop from the Internet of Things, wonders Joan Mulvihill

Joan Mulvihill

My favourite stories seem to come in threes - epic trilogies like The Matrix, Star Wars (the originals) and The Lord of the Rings.

Similarly, as a sector information and communications technology (ICT) has delivered episodes one and two - but there's increasing frustration in the wait for the third.

Let's recap. Episode one was the 'Invasion of the Giants'. Multinational businesses in search of advantageous international territories repeatedly choosing Ireland for over three decades. We are now long established as an outstanding location for global businesses to root and grow their international operations.

With the arrival of Intel, Fujitsu and Microsoft, we are home to the world's leading ICT companies. We have a proven ecosystem that supports their talent and infrastructure requirements as well as clement tax conditions.

A neat story in itself.

Episode two then was by no means a mediocre 'filler' movie. It was in fact as satisfactory as the first - if not more revealing of the characters and their motivations.

In this episode we have seen a strengthening relationship between our two central characters - the well-assimilated giants and the local operators. As an industry, we in ICT possess the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenious engineering that have led to ground breaking start-ups such as Storyful, Stockbyte and Realex Payments.

Their founders have created something so desired by their customers that it is coveted by their competitors. These are businesses so innovative and commercial that competitors would rather pay to own them, than have to invest to compete with them.

A great story, but there is a sense that the relationship between the characters is somewhat unbalanced.

So what can we expect in episode three?

It seems to me that for the trilogy to be complete, the audience is hungry to see their local hero become the acquiring rather than the acquired.

For some time now the industry script writers have been taunted by their failure (thus far) to see Ireland become the birthplace of the next Google or Facebook. As we trawl the high-potentials in search of 'the one' (in the manner of Morpheus in search of his Neo), we are looking for clues from storylines as to where this one might be coming from.

As I said, episodes one and two are great stories in their own rights. It's flattering and lucrative to be the coveted and then acquired - and there is nothing at all inherently wrong with that.

Any founder who has grown such a business has created jobs and wealth for their employees and contributed greatly to the bigger story of the sector. It sometimes maddens me that the demands for this final instalment is in some way a 'good but not quite good enough' review of their performance.

I think we want one because we wonder what it says about us if we don't.

If we fail to deliver a home-grown global giant of our own, we relegate ourselves to a supporting role in our own story. It's the final instalment in the trilogy - and we are all rooting for our hero to conquer all.

To be 'the next Google or Facebook' (and I'm increasingly irritated by the laziness of that over-used comparison), you need really big money and scale. You need to have cold eyes on the 'global dominance' prize. Neo was the awkward adult Thomas Anderson in the room of gifted child prodigies - so it strikes me that perhaps we've been looking in the wrong places from which our hero will emerge.

Or at least looking from the wrong angle.

If we are seeking a global technology giant we need to tilt the viewfinder. We need to reconsider our view of the ICT sector as a vertical and instead look at it as a horizontal.

In recognition of the Internet of Things as the internet for all things we must expand the opportunity to all sectors - food, health, education and energy. It is in these more mature sectors that we have some fearsome and experienced strength, and so maybe this is where or rather how we should be looking.

In recent years, the most progressive in these sectors have sought technology collaborators to research and develop the internet of their things. This is an exciting prospect.

Their challenge is to operate in this bi-modal environment with dynamic innovation whilst maintaining a stable core.

Their challenge is to convince talented engineers and data scientists to eschew the bright lights of the silicon docks and move to places like Kerry, Kilkenny and Cavan - the effective Middle Earth to millennia.

However, it is also worth noting that, for the most part, these 'traditional' businesses have collaborated with the giants from the first instalment. It's entirely realistic that they would work readily with their relative peers, other large entities who bring experience and assurances in working at such scale.

But with the story still unwritten, is it too late to ask that they might consider teaming with smaller indigenous technology start-ups?

The heroes of the final instalment will be solving the big life and death problems of food, water and energy supply, big business joining forces with creative Med, Ed, Ag tech start-ups to be heroes in the story that really matters.

Joan Mulvihill is the head of the Irish Internet Association

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