Saturday 19 October 2019

Dublin runs with the also-rans as Government admits we aren't at the races for top tech investments

Losing the Web Summit while telling local tech companies they can't expand are signs that Dublin has put a ceiling on its global tech ambitions

Paddy Cosgrave of Web Summit
Paddy Cosgrave of Web Summit
2010: Chad Hurley, YouTube founder
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey
2012: Patrick Collison, Stripe founder
Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla with Taoiseach Enda Kenny
2014: Bono of Elevation Partners & U2
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is Dublin's tech dream beginning to wobble? Last week certainly didn't do it any good. First there was the Web Summit's decision to move its tech conference for 30,000 people to Lisbon because of Dublin's sub-standard infrastructure and "user experience".

Then there was confirmation (from the ESRI) that Dublin can't accommodate growing tech firms for at least a year, due to a lack of office construction.

And then to top off a week when officials put back new transportation plans around the city - a main reason why tech firms mostly only locate in the centre.

When told of the Web Summit ditching Dublin, Finance Minister Michael Noonan said that Dublin was fine without the 30,000-person conference.

"I don't think that people will be disappointed," he said. "Dublin is choc-a-block with business at present. The hotels are full nearly every weekend."

Who needs new tech businesses when you have tourists?

If Noonan's comments were flippant, then Richard Bruton's remarks were positively depressing.

"I think this is a natural step," he said of the Web Summit's departure. "This is a very successful company that has now become an international success. This is the next chapter in its growth."

Yes, in case you missed it, that comment was from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

Ireland, says our industry minister, probably isn't a place for international successes seeking their next chapter of growth.

And then there was Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The "authorities", he said, "should look" at "improving facilities".

That's right - somebody should do something.

Irish tech entrepreneurs aren't impressed.

"It's yet another one of these 'Ireland doesn't scale' stories," said Joe Haslam, the Irish co-founder of European hotel reservation app Hot Hotels.

"We're brilliant at one-off stuff but by the third year, the charm has worn off and people start to ask why the city doesn't have a metro."

Haslam isn't alone.

"Events of that nature don't come around too often in Ireland," said Jules Coleman, Irish co-founder of European cleaning app He added: "We'll be lucky if we have something like that again."

Coleman's company recently merged with German cleaning giant in a €32m deal. She is one of a new generation of Irish business people who might take issue with Richard Bruton's comments about Irish companies needing to leave the country to become global players. (Although is now based between London and Berlin).

But is Bruton right about the ceiling on Irish tech ambition? Is it simply unrealistic to expect Dublin to be able to host a 30,000-person conference with facilities that rival other European cities?

And should we simply be grateful, as Michael Noonan says, that Dublin's hotels are doing well every weekend?

Some senior Irish technology executives may have doubts.

"We want more internationally competitive Irish companies, right?" said Twitter's Irish director, Stephen McIntyre in a tweet. He added: "I don't understand all the begrudgery about the Web Summit."

Some non-tech operators are also starting to focus on Dublin's lack of interest in upgrading infrastructure.

"On a per capita basis, cities like Manchester and London are spending two to three times as much as Dublin," said Gina Quin, chief executive of Dublin's Chamber of Commerce.

"As the Web Summit news proves, at some point this significant under-investment will come home to roost. Dublin and Ireland are missing out on investments and jobs."

Last week, there was no shortage of rival European cities ready to pick up the pieces of Dublin's perceived moment of weakness.

"We think the Irish tech scene will feel right at home in Amsterdam," said Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, co-founder of rival Dutch conference The Next Web.

"To be abandoned by such an integral, homebred event is a real kick in the crotch."

Veldhuijzen van Zanten is wasting no time in trying to cash in on the vacuum left by the Web Summit, offering a 90pc discount to Irish entrepreneurs for its May 2016 conference event.

But if Irish authorities have now established a ceiling on Dublin's tech aspirations, will it damage new investment into Ireland or merely limit existing tech companies' plans for expansion here?

IDA executives insist that this is not the case, saying that the pipeline for new job projects by foreign multinationals remains as strong as ever.

And the loss of the Web Summit, while potentially bad for Dublin in the long run, won't immediately affect the capital's international reputation too much, according to some foreign tech firms that are making Dublin their home.

"I don't think the location of the summit matters too much," said Sam Chandler, founder and chief executive of Nitro, an online document company that employs 50 people in Dublin and wants to grow here.

"There is such a concentration of tech companies and talent now in Ireland. And from a tax point of view, the structural incentives remain as strong as ever. So the event being located elsewhere won't change that."

Nitro, though, is one of many tech companies affected by Dublin's squeezed office market. It wants to expand to 100 people here but has found it "challenging" to find suitable accommodation.

So Dublin's tech sector will continue to have more to it than the Web Summit. And it will undoubtedly survive city planners' inaction over office space and modern infrastructure.

But there is now an identifiable ceiling to Dublin's ambition as a European tech capital. It's been difficult to put a finger on it in the past, because of Google data centre announcements, Facebook employee expansions and Tesla founders jetting in and sharing stages with Taoisigh.

What's clear is that while we'll always have call centres, language support and some engineering, Dublin may not have the ambition for a home-grown Stripe.

We may ultimately see ourselves as the cheeky, charming folk who put on great pub crawls - but are happy being small fries.

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