Sunday 21 October 2018

Adrian Weckler: Admit it: Irish tech is on the up

The Dublin offices of Intercom, which is a rising force in Silicon Valley
The Dublin offices of Intercom, which is a rising force in Silicon Valley
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

After an extraordinary week in tech, it's worth pausing to take stock of how far Ireland has come with its indigenous tech industry.

Last week, a few remarkable things happened.

The Dublin software firm Intercom officially became a tech unicorn (valued at over €1bn), courtesy of a mammoth €101m funding round from US VC giants Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures.

As such, Intercom now becomes Ireland's biggest private tech company, as well as a rising force in Silicon Valley.

It's moving closer to territory inhabited by firms such as Stripe, a global player (though not Irish).

This shouldn't be glossed over: it's an extraordinary achievement. It doesn't just validate the work of the four co-founders (Eoghan McCabe, Ciaran Lee, David Barrett and Des Traynor) and their team of almost 500 people.

It also speaks to how Ireland's tech ecosystem is now genuinely maturing into a self-powered juggernaut.

The scale of the Intercom announcement was put into context by a handful of other announcements, which partly flew under the radar.

For instance, at the same time as Intercom was announcing its unicorning moment, a young Dublin tech company called Let's Get Checked (letsgetchecked.com) raised €10m in a funding round. Three or four years ago, this would have landed founder Peter Foley a slot on a national news bulletin because of the sum involved. Today, while applauded, it's not regarded as unusual.

At the same time, a Newry-based sports software firm called StatSports was part of a €1.2bn deal with the US soccer federation, which is expected to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of US soccer players wearing GPS vests designed by Jarlath Quinn's company.

And that's all just in one week. What will next week bring?

Anyone paying attention to the figures won't be surprised at the trajectory that Ireland is on.

Indigenous tech (and biotech) companies have grown from €522m in private venture funding in 2015 to €994m last year. That's around the same amount as Sweden, a country with twice Ireland's population and a capital city (Stockholm) that's regarded as a hotbed of innovative tech.

Ireland raised almost twice as much as Berlin (€540m VC in 2017), another famed European tech city with a population roughly the same as Ireland's.

We even track respectably against London (€2.9bn), a city with a population nearly three times that of Ireland's and which is supposed to be Europe's tech capital.

A heartening aspect is the breadth of tech development here, it's not just massive deals such as Intercom's €101m last week or €90m raised by Dublin-based IT service company Version 1 last year that are driving the industry.

Private seed funding has almost doubled here in the last 12 months alone, from €70m in 2016 to €131m in 2017. And because those figures come from the Irish Venture Capital Association, they don't include much of the other cash being privately raised through 'social' capital or friends and family arrangements. Neither do they fully include some state-backed schemes from the likes of Enterprise Ireland.

So the hundreds of tech companies being officially recorded as raising private funding almost certainly understate what's actually going on.

And with colleges and universities finally making expansionary moves - from salaries to new buildings and facilities - it's possible we'll see an Ireland in five years' time that will have at least twice as many successful tech companies, most of which are started and grown from Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway. By any measure, we're seeing something special.

"Ireland is now an incredible place to start and develop software," said Eoghan McCabe, chief executive and co-founder of Intercom, which landed that €100m round.

"When you and I first spoke about Intercom a few years ago, it was still kind of magical that there was a company building tech in Dublin for a Valley firm that would raise as much money as we did. It was a novelty then, but it's not any more. Now there is now a real industry. There are a whole bunch of indigenous or semi-indigenous companies doing this here. And then there are all these public companies that have set up research and development facilities in Dublin, too. It's all changed for the better. There's finally an ecosystem. Companies based in Ireland are now raising substantial money and they're going abroad, which is great."

As a society, we have a sclerotic approach to acknowledging our own achievements and milestones. (A handful of individuals are very good at it, not all of them charlatans.) But we should do it now. Ireland now has a genuine ecosystem where tech companies can germinate, give birth and grow, with global ambitions in sight.

"The technology community and the business environment in Dublin is maturing substantially," says McCabe.

I remember covering startups and tech firms five and ten years ago. Any funding round north of €1m for an Irish tech startup was considered a notable achievement. Today, while not run-of-the-mill, it's regarded as merely seed funding.

Compare that to other industries we have. Retail is struggling, property is erratic, agriculture faces competitive threats and white-collar professional service sectors are looking at existential dangers from artificial intelligence and automation.

To illustrate how things have changed, consider that a well-established national Sunday newspaper (The Sunday Business Post) is currently for sale for a fraction of some of the smaller funding rounds mentioned above. And even at that level, it's taking a while to make a sale.

The point is that we don't give our indigenous tech firms enough credit. They're outperforming the rest of us.

Sunday Indo Business

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