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Time for Ireland to embrace its disruptors

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Our economy relies on exports - and our future export potential relies on the company founders with vision to grow and scale, not just in Ireland but globally (stock photo)

Our economy relies on exports - and our future export potential relies on the company founders with vision to grow and scale, not just in Ireland but globally (stock photo)

Our economy relies on exports - and our future export potential relies on the company founders with vision to grow and scale, not just in Ireland but globally (stock photo)

It's a time-worn maxim heard by anyone who has attended a business conference - the Chinese word for 'crisis' is the same for 'opportunity'. It isn't, but that hasn't stopped the fallacy from spreading.

In actual fact, weiji, the Mandarin for crisis, contains a character which has no direct translation in English but has a significant meaning that will be familiar to businesses - the moment or crucial point when something begins or changes.

We might call it by another name: disruption. That moment in a sector when innovation renders the existing business model obsolete.

And the champions of disruption are rarely the established order. They are the quick-moving startups, the dynamic early-stage companies with founders who have a bright idea, and then run with it.

It is why Enterprise Ireland last week hosted the annual Startup Showcase at Croke Park in Dublin, celebrating the achievements of the startup class of 2019.

Our economy relies on exports - and our future export potential relies on the company founders with vision to grow and scale, not just in Ireland but globally.

Last year, Enterprise Ireland, the second largest seed fund in the world, invested €24m in Irish startups - businesses we believe will disrupt the markets they enter and act as drivers for export growth.

Not all startups will go on to become disruptive exporters capable of hitting €1m in exports within their first three years - our benchmark for a high-potential startup (HPSU). But this does not mean they will not be successes in their sectors.

Last year, in backing the 127 startups we believe have that potential, we were planting a significant flag in the ground to capital investors that Irish innovation delivers disruptive growth. And that we believe it is sustainable.

Some 600 delegates attended last week's Startup Showcase 2020 event, many of whom were investors there to meet our class of 2019.

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This class included 91 HPSU firms, as well as 36 companies taking their first steps through our Competitive Start Funding programme.

To put this in context, the 127 client companies representing this year's class were selected from 1,400 applicants.

This offers an indication of the competitive landscape, as well as the appetite from founders to engage with Enterprise Ireland during the early stages of their business journey.

Innovation is a key driver in our selection process and some 13 of our HPSU companies were successfully commercialised in partnership with third-level research institutions - showing the value of the knowledge-transfer ecosystem that has evolved in the past 15 years.

It is worth noting the power of regional clusters and the strength in depth beyond Dublin.

Some 42pc of companies supported are located outside the capital.

The sectors our HPSUs are competing in are diverse, including ICT, medtech, fintech, food and manufacturing.

But so, too, are the founders - and this year we approved investment for some 38 women-led startups.

For us, innovation is the key differentiator that earmarks a startup as high-potential - a disruptor of the future.

From quantum computing, game-changing medical imaging and chocolate that is good for you, through to new banking platforms and drone delivery, the class of 2019 demonstrates this appetite for innovation in abundance.

But innovation cuts both ways. And this is why at Enterprise Ireland, we are not standing still.

As a facilitator to the startup ecosystem, we are developing new funding instruments and new funding models, as well as new ways to capitalise on disruptive and rapid scaling projects.

The formula for success centres on matching a founder's vision and ambition with Enterprise Ireland's investment, expertise and network to help them succeed.

After all, in the midst of difficulty lies opportunity. For all of us.

  • Niall McEvoy is manager, high-potential startup (ICT Accelerate), at Enterprise Ireland

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