Wednesday 12 December 2018

Ireland's buzzing startup sector makes itself heard at noisy, diverse 2017 showcase

Joe Healy
Joe Healy

Joe Healy

Entering the Printworks in Dublin Castle for Startup Showcase 2017, Enterprise Ireland's red-letter event for new and early-stage companies, I am immediately struck by the noise. The rise and fall of hundreds of conversations seems louder and the networking area busier than I remember from previous years.

While the din is striking, it is not surprising. A record 229 new startups received support in 2016 worth €32m. Of that, more than 100 were approved for High Potential Startup (HPSU) status, meaning they could potentially employ at least 10 people and achieve sales of €1m annually within the next three to four years.

HPSU status gives companies access to financial and practical support, such as investment, research funding, incubation space, mentorship and training. These firms were supported to the tune of €22.2m last year.

Unlike many events, at Startup Showcase the companies are the "shoppers" and the 200 or so interested parties - financial institutions, investors and incubators - have exhibit stands. This approach generates lots of movement, interaction and networking in and around the stands.

There is also a client knowledge forum, at which the keynote speaker this year was Ash Maurya, a world-renowned expert in the lean startups space. Maurya believes the stereotype of the "garage entrepreneur" is outdated. Entrepreneurs are everywhere and come from any walk of life, he says. Looking around the venue, I can see he is right.

There is no single type of entrepreneur. You do not have to be an extrovert or an introvert, or from a city or of a particular age. Nonetheless, they all have something in common: tremendous energy and a desire to compete internationally. This is what we refer to as having "global ambition".

It was really encouraging this year to see so many higher education spinouts. People like Anita Finnegan, of Nova Leah, who has spunout a company from Dundalk IT that protects medical devices from hacking, were among 15 spinouts benefiting from State investment in research and commercialisation capability in higher education institutions nationwide.

While new businesses are generally based on offering something novel or disruptive, innovation is not all high-tech. Tommy McLoughlin's Hanpak, for instance, has designed a "butterfly cup", which eliminates the need for plastic lids on disposable paper cups, creating savings in food service in terms of cost, storage and environmental impact.

Another notable feature this year was the growing number of female-led companies. Encouraging more women entrepreneurs has been a strategic priority for Enterprise Ireland in recent years and, with 28pc of companies at the showcase led by females, the fruit of this support was evident.

The event is also a foretaste of the sectors of tomorrow. This year, the rise and rise of FinTech was there for all to see. No fewer than 17 of the 229 companies exhibiting were in this sector.

One could easily regard the Startup Showcase as just part of the business development process, but I think it is much more than that. The event encourages participants to look beyond their own immediate concerns and draw inspiration from other extraordinary people setting out on a similar journey.

As the event closed, it was great to see so many people lingering and so many conversations continuing - it was a sure sign of a successful event and, more importantly, of a growing cohort of indigenous companies ready to create jobs and prosperity in every part of Ireland by taking on the world.

Joe Healy is department manager at Enterprise Ireland's High Potential Startup Division

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