Sunday 16 December 2018

Just do it: Swapping Cisco for tech startup pays off for O’Sullivan

One of Ireland’s most experienced technology figures has moved from the biggest companies to the smallest. He tells Adrian Weckler that he is now preparing for a future between the two

New horizons: Altocloud founder Barry O’Sullivan sits on the board of Genesys and advises venture firm Permira as well as investing in medtech startups
New horizons: Altocloud founder Barry O’Sullivan sits on the board of Genesys and advises venture firm Permira as well as investing in medtech startups
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What do you do when you sell your Irish startup to a big US tech company for millions?

It’s a question that seasoned tech executive Barry O’Sullivan has been dealing with since his Galway-based firm, Altocloud, was acquired by Genesys early this year.

Despite being one of Ireland’s most experienced technology industry figures, most of O’Sullivan’s experience has been in running large multinational firms here.

A Corkman who has spent much of his working life in Galway, he spent 18 years at Nortel Networks, rising to become vice-president and general manager of the Galway-based Canadian company’s call centre business and then vice-president of enterprise voice for Nortel Networks Europe.

He then went to head up a big division in Cisco, the giant networking company, before leaving to start Altocloud.

He won’t say how much Genesys bought the company for in February of this year, but he and co-founders Dan Arra and Joe Smyth probably made more than they might have had his initial funding drive been more successful.

“It was really hard to get money when we were starting out,” says O’Sullivan.

“I mean, I thought I could walk in with my big Cisco CV and that people would be throwing money at me. But that didn’t happen, nobody would give us money. Partially it was because we were talking about artificial intelligence and that was in 2014.

“But it was a steep learning curve just diving into the deep end. Being the CEO of a startup is something I really didn’t know how to do.”

Ultimately, Altocloud went on to raise €2m, but the challenge of attracting finance meant that O’Sullivan ended up investing in the business himself. As it transpired, this may have helped his own bottom line when the company sold to Genesys.

“It all worked out,” he says. “We just learned how to do it. I knew was going to be heard. And I knew there were lots of new things I’d have to learn.”

Having sold up, O’Sullivan now sits on the board of Genesys and is a “senior adviser” to Permira, a $33bn venture firm that owns 50pc of Genesys.

“Basically, what that means is that I work with them to evaluate deals,” he says. “So that’s when they’re looking at acquiring companies or investing in companies. I will go in and take a look at the technology, how modern the cloud architecture is, how real the AI stuff they’re talking about is and so on.

“I look at whether it might all be smoke and mirrors.”

O’Sullivan says that after half of a lifetime in upper management of large corporate multinationals, he regrets not having “done” a startup earlier in life.

“I never missed any of the kind of trappings of being a senior executive at a company like Cisco,” he says. “I would say the stress level of being a CEO of a startup for me was about 10pc of what it was to be a senior executive at a company like Cisco.

“When I ran a $5bn business at Cisco, it was a continuous grind. There were always presentations to the board on investments and acquisitions and so on. And every big company has lots of politics. When you’ve got a job like that, at a company like Cisco, it’s a big job and it’s very well paid. You always kind of have to be on all the time, you know?

“What was most stressful was that decisions often took a long time to make. You would think that as a very senior executive that you would have the power of all the decisions you want to make. But quite a lot of stuff had to be presented and has to be decided with your peers. At a startup you can just do it.”

Sometimes when big multinationals buy local startups, they integrate a bit of technology into their own stream and do little else with it.

It’s a different scenario with Altocloud.

Only months after buying it, Genesys is scaling up the former Altocloud base in a substantial way. Galway’s new Genesys base is to get a new 200-staff-strong artificial intelligence research centre in one of the biggest high-end tech announcements outside Dublin this year.

The new jobs will be in research and development, machine learning, software engineering, user experience and data science.

“Genesys spends about $250m [€218m] a year on research and development, and Ireland is now going to be an important part of that,” says O’Sullivan.

Genesys, which makes and sells customer experience software, has more than 10,000 customers, including some of the world’s biggest tech firms such as Microsoft, Oracle, Airbnb and Uber.

It may not be the only thing in O’Sullivan’s future. He’s looking down the line at other technologies that he thinks may prove disruptive and “transformative”.

“I’m very interested in technology and healthcare,” he says. “There’s a huge opportunity globally for tech to make healthcare better in terms of outcomes for patients. I also think it’s interesting and in terms of controlling costs for people and for governments. So I’m investing in a couple of companies in Ireland.”

However, healthcare and consumer technology is a notoriously slow grind. The technology landscape is littered with the corpses of companies that thought they had the next big thing, only to fall flat when it came to adoption.

“For me, the big opportunity in general healthcare is related to the fact that it’s well proven that prevention is better than cure,” says O’Sullivan. “There are some big opportunities around medicine adherence. In other words, making sure people take their medicines and using technology to drive it so that patients know when they’re supposed to reorder their medications, when they’re supposed to take and so on.” Like pill boxes? “Yes, or some way of helping patients stick to their medications. There are also huge savings for the government in that.”

O’Sullivan also thinks that regulatory change will open up the market.

“Basic things like prescriptions or video consultations are very difficult to implement,” he says. “A lot of regulations have been set up to protect the incumbents. So I think you’re going to see a big push for regulatory change. And then a lot of new innovations will come in the area of pharmacies. That’s an area I’m particularly interested in. The nature of regulation means that pharmacy is expensive and you have to have lots of pharmacists with lots of manual processes involving face-to-face consultations between the pharmacist and the patient. That isn’t the case in the UK, for example, where you can mail or email in your prescription and you know that the drugs will show up.”

O’Sullivan says that Amazon’s acquisition of PillPack, an online pharmacy, in the US could provide a template of what may happen here.

“There’s definitely an opportunity to do something like that in Europe. So yes, a PillPack of Europe is something I’d be very interested in.”

One part of the Altocloud Genesys story revolves around Galway. Most tech jobs in Ireland still go to Dublin, particularly high-end research roles.

But Galway is emerging as Ireland’s second city when it comes to senior research technology.

“Galway is a close second to Dublin when you’re googling for places to live and work,” says O’Sullivan. “It has an awful lot going for it. The tech graduates here are fantastic. From our point of view, there is a lot of artificial intelligence data science capability. There’s also the issue that employees want to be downtown these days, not at the edge of a city. You can do that in Galway.”

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