Wednesday 20 June 2018

Tech it to the max

The Collison brothers are leading the charge of Irish technology titans near the top of the 2018 Rich List, says Adrian Weckler

John and Patrick Collison of Stripe. Photo: www.pictureandcinema.com
John and Patrick Collison of Stripe. Photo: www.pictureandcinema.com
Linda and Dan Kiely built Voxpro into a €100m firm. Photo: Miki Barlok
Cubic Telecom’s Barry Napier
Bryan Meehan of the Blue Bottle coffee chain
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

How long will it be until Ireland's Rich List is dominated by tech industry figures? Looking through this year's selection, it may be sooner than we imagine.

Limerick's John Collison is already the world's youngest self-made billionaire. Together, he and brother Patrick are now in Silicon Valley's upper tiers, which means they're well into the global VIP leagues.

While there is no other young Irish turk that quite compares to that sky-high level, there are dozens of Irish entrepreneurs now at a multiple of what they were worth this time last year.

This is partly because Ireland is increasingly awash with venture capital.

The first nine months of last year saw Irish tech firms and start-ups attract €817m in venture capital, the highest amount ever recorded.

When the full year is totted up, this will probably come close to €1bn of private capital directed into the hands of tech, biotech and life science firms.

The size of the rounds is a key differentiator. Three or four years ago, any firm raising more than €5m would make the news. Today, there are dozens achieving that.

In 2017 alone, there were ten rounds of more than €25m. Some, such as Belfast-based financial cloud firm Options or Dublin IT services firm Version One, snagged €100m and €90m each, respectively. Others, such as Barry Napier's Cubic Telecom, closed 'lesser' rounds of €40m.

This makes otherwise-impressive rounds easy to melt into the background. Take the duo of Charles Dowd and Clive Foley, who raised €25m for their Dublin-based money-messaging start-up Plynk. In any previous year, this would be examined as a key point of the year for individuals rising up the ranks. But it's now becoming something close to a norm.

What has happened is that the tech sector in Ireland is maturing quickly. Those with successful companies are able to scale much quicker than young entrepreneurs in other industrial sectors.

Dublin-based software firm Intercom hasn't put out any recent commercial indices or taken recent additional funding. But when it next does, it would be surprising if it is not approaching 'unicorn' ($1bn valuation) territory. Yet the company is only six years old.

Not all tech wealth is accumulated as quickly. The Cork-based hi-tech call-centre firm Voxpro was 15 years old when it sold for up to €100m to a Canadian company in August. However, the extra years reflected husband-and-wife team Dan and Linda Kiely building the firm up from scratch and retaining almost complete ownership until its acquisition.

The booming tech ecosystem was kind to Irish entrepreneurs, even when their primary activity was in analogue services or products used by tech firms.

Dubliner Bryan Meehan may be the best example of this. His Blue Bottle coffee chain became synonymous with being the tipple of Silicon Valley and hi-tech firms in New York.

Building up a 50-strong chain in this US context led to a major prize in 2017 when Swiss giant Nestle bought a majority stake in the company for around €400m. That made money for Meehan, partner James Freeman and a few lucky investors, among whom were Bono, actor Jared Leto and celebrity skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The deal cemented a fairly stunning year for Meehan, who is also an investor in messaging service Slack and is known for being an environmental and business sustainability activist. He made news at the start of the year for selling San Francisco's most expensive home. The Pacific Heights house, which had been extensively refurbished by Meehan and his wife Tara, was sold for $21.8m (€18.5m) having been bought in 2009 for $6.95m (€5.9m).

The tech boom - and the peripheral businesses it lifts - looks set to be a long-term one.

Sunday Independent

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