Monday 11 December 2017

Punching above our weight - but for how long?

Many might disagree with the motivations Obama ascribes to us over issues such as protecting privacy
Many might disagree with the motivations Obama ascribes to us over issues such as protecting privacy
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Are Irish tech firms starting to see a breakthrough in investment cash?

Last week's figures from the Irish Venture Capital Association suggested so. There was a 41pc year-on-year surge in VC funding (to €401m) to Irish firms. Most of these were tech companies.

Compare this with the €7.9bn raised across all of Europe for tech firms during the same period. This means that Ireland, with 1pc of the population, is taking about 5pc of the continent's tech investment cash.

It also means that, on a per capita basis, we are almost level with the mighty US tech funding scene. 2014 saw $38bn (€32bn) in venture capital funding for US tech firms - roughly the same per head of population as Ireland.

Last year's haul was the biggest VC pot here in a decade. And while medical tech firms grabbed some of the largest individual funding rounds (Mainstay Medical's €15m and GC Aesthetics' €43m rounds among them), homegrown software companies are surging ahead in Ireland.

But before we declare a new era of 'hubs' and 'clusters', it's worth noting that we remain light years away from some of the key tech investment benefits and motivators that US companies enjoy. Chiefly, most of our funded tech companies are set up to be small players that aspire, at best, to be acquisition targets.

They have to be, as scaling quickly - a really important thing for tech start-ups - remains too difficult in Ireland and Europe compared with the US.

It is virtually unheard of for an Irish start-up to get €50m in funding. And it is exceedingly rare in the rest of Europe.

But in the US, it happens all the time. Americans understand that for a tech firm to rule the world and make gazillions, it needs to think - and invest - big. That means firms like Airbnb with €800m in funding, or Snapchat with $650m.

In Europe, some of our best tech hopes get walloped because we don't back them in the same way. UK-born Hailo, a popular service in Ireland, looked set to be a global phenomenon. But Uber, with its €5bn of funding and aggressive ambition, crushed it in the US.

Put simply, it's unlikely that the Collison brothers could have scaled $3bn-valued Stripe to anything like the global behemoth it is now if they had not decided to set up camp in California instead of Limerick or Dublin.

US President Barack Obama touched a nerve on this issue last week when he mocked European tech firms' limited horizons.

Europe's jealousy of US tech firms, he said, is the reason behind much of our "high- minded positions" on issues such as privacy and surveillance. These righteous stances, he said, are often bogus fronts used to throw up protectionist "roadblocks" against go-getting internet companies like Google and Facebook.

"We have owned the Internet," he told the US website Recode. "Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it in ways that they [European firms] can't compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is just designed to carve out some of their commercial interests… Sometimes their vendors - their service providers who, you know, can't compete with ours - are essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there."

Many might disagree with the motivations Obama ascribes to us over issues such as protecting privacy. But there is no doubt that anti-US sentiment exists in deep wells among many European power networks.

"Europe needs to stop being a colony of the new digital world," said French MEP Anne Sander during a December European Parliament vote on breaking up Google.

"It's not just about being defensive," added France's deputy minister for digital affairs. "We want European companies and industries to transform themselves and become more competitive."

French industrial strategists have an acronym for their targets: les Gafa (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). They see these firms as accelerating a dilution of their language and culture.

Germany is equally resistant but for different reasons which include, said Obama, "history with the Stasi". This makes Germans "very sensitive" to surveillance issues, he said.

But all of this anti-US sentiment in European countries may actually help Irish investment interests.

"If you look at Europe 10 years from now, Ireland is definitely positioning itself as the tech capital," said Sam Chandler, founder of Australian-American software firm Nitro, which has a growing office in Dublin. "It's a combination of things here and attitude is one of them."

The question is: how much? Will Irish tech firms build on the €400m attracted last year - or is that a ceiling?

Sunday Indo Business

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