Monday 23 April 2018

Tech riches and the search for an Irish unicorn

How likely is it that Ireland might produce a unicorn? For those not up on the latest hype-cycle tech jargon, a unicorn is a start-up that makes it to a €1bn valuation, sale or flotation.

We haven't had such a beast here in over a decade. Not since Iona, Trintech and Baltimore strode the Nasdaq has Ireland legitimately laid claim to any big native tech firms that can hit billion dollar heights.

But last week, a new candidate entered the field. Dublin-based Movidius develops chips that improve imaging and camera processes. It has become the leader in its niche. And with cameraphones, drones and the 'internet of things' exploding into life, Movidius's timing is perfect: the world's biggest technology firms want to buy its technology to enhance their mass market products and services.

All of which has led to one of Ireland's biggest ever venture capital rounds: €38m (bringing to €83m its total funding to date).

This doesn't mean that it's close yet to a €1bn valuation (co-founder Sean Mitchell told me that it has "a long a way to go" to get to that). But some very credible people think it is on a fast-track to this rarified level, one rarely seen in the indigenous Irish tech industry.

"I believe it will be Ireland's first unicorn," said Caulfield, one of Ireland's most experienced tech funders and an early backer of the company. "When you see the breadth of products they're in, they're dealing with the top customers in every sector."

Another seasoned investor, Atlantic Bridge's Brian Long, thinks it could be a candidate for flotation.

"This technology comes at exactly the right time," he said. "It's going to be huge."

Other investors and analysts I spoke to last week were equally upbeat about the company's prospects.

(At present, only Google is a disclosed customer. But the company is to start work with "another eight to 10 tech giants of that calibre", Mitchell told me.)

So is Movidius a lone outlier? Are there any other Irish prospects for the unicorn club?

There have been a couple of recent candidates. The payments processing firm Realex looked like it might have been a contender but its breakthrough service, an own-brand money transfer system, never quite made it off the ground. (It is nevertheless an unqualified success, having sold this year for €115m.)

Some might suggest that Stripe is the obvious Irish nominee. But can we really claim Stripe as a local? While it has certainly made it into unicorn territory with a valuation of over €3bn, it has been a US-based firm from the day it started. Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison, who are clearly responsible for the company's product strategy and growth, have previously said that this US paternity was its only realistic bet for them to grow the company as ambitiously as they wanted.

The good news is that indigenous tech companies are noticeably starting to scale up. This is evident both in the markets they're targeting and in heightened investor ambitions. Young firms like Dublin-based Britebill are now beating off heavyweight rivals to win major contracts from Fortune 500 firms (such as mobile operator Sprint).

It's no surprise that Aer Lingus is increasing the frequency of its direct flight between Dublin and San Francisco. And it's not just for the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters - my social media timelines are crammed with San Francisco check-ins from young tech startups such as Jayne Ronayne's KonnectAgain or Grainne Barron's Viddyad.

Irish tech firms are getting closer to a philosophy of thinking big as a default starting point. That is leading to larger and larger investment rounds.

Last year saw a 41pc rise in venture capital investment into Irish companies. This was dominated by tech firms. If this year's activity is anything to go by, we could be headed for our first €500m VC funding year.

"We had a big lift in the seed round numbers last year," says John Flynn, managing director of ACT Venture Capital. "But where you get a big bounce in the overall figures is when you get companies that can raise €5m or €10m."

"There is still a good stock of companies coming through," says Flynn. "They're in the right spaces, in internet and software, sensors and the internet of things. We're now seeing some of the scalability features that are common in consumer tech starting to seep into enterprise tech."

Movidius wasn't alone last week: another Dublin-based startup, CurrencyFair, bagged €10m in funding. It may now only be a matter of time before the country produces a home-grown Stripe.

Sunday Indo Business

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