Monday 24 June 2019

Send a message to the world - give Central Bank to start-ups

The Central Bank building on Dublin’s Dame Street
The Central Bank building on Dublin’s Dame Street

David McWilliams

What should we do with the iconic Central Bank building in Dame Street? Imagine if we did something creative. Rather than sell it off to be turned into a hotel (which is the plan), why not turn this fantastic site into a start-up hub offering extremely low rents to start-up companies, right in the centre of the city?

If we are serious about being seen as a start-up nation, the State has to make some big statements.

And what better statement than offering the symbol of a failed old Irish institution (a central bank that missed a massive property/credit bubble) to new Irish companies about to make their mark on the world?

It is a brilliant building to work in. I know because I worked in it. The views from the upper floors out across the city, past Trinity and on to Howth, are breathtaking.

It is right in the centre of the city, close to buses and trains. It could be a symbol of what Dublin could be. Symbols matter. Branding matters.

The state that prioritises helping new companies which will drive the Irish economy in the future over yet another typical property deal is a state that is serious about business.

Buildings can be more than bricks and mortar, they can stand for something and they have potential to generate a life of their own by being the centre of a living, breathing, 24/7 commercial ecosystem rather than yet another expensive city hotel.

The Central Bank owns the building, but as the Central Bank is an arm of the State, transferring the building over to start-ups would be as simple as one part of the State, the Central Bank, debiting another part of the State, let's say Enterprise Ireland.

As we, the people, own both of these public institutions, there doesn't have to be any actual transaction. There is just a debiting and crediting of State accounts and the deal is done.

The Central Bank doesn't need the €60m quoted for the building because the Central Bank has loads of money.

It makes its money through charging interest on money that it prints for free. Imagine, printing money for free (which is what it does) but charging real interest to banks on that money? It's like creating income out of thin air, a sort of monetary magic, if you will.

By converting the Central Bank into a start-up hub, it would lower rental costs for new businesses and create a vibrant place for young companies to work together.

Already Ireland has a huge multinational presence, and world-class multinationals engage with start-ups. In fact, almost all multinationals have programmes for start-ups. Wouldn't it be a great signal to send to these multinationals that the State is supporting start-ups in a real and meaningful way?

Irish start-ups are blessed with lots of talent here on our doorstep. For example, nine out of the top 10 global software companies are in Ireland, as are all 10 of the top 10 'born on the internet' companies, 15 of the top 20 medical technology companies, and nine out of the 10 biggest global pharmaceutical companies.

The start-up scene is vibrant. From medicine to music and semi-conductors to security, Irish entrepreneurs have built a broad spectrum of businesses that explore new ideas and disrupt stagnant industries.

In the last six months alone, €344m has been invested in Irish companies, with a total of €1.5bn in investment over the last three years.

In 2015, the total amount of money raised by Irish start-ups increased by 30pc to €522m. This was split almost evenly between Irish and foreign investors. In the first nine months of this year, over €540m has been raised by Irish start-ups.

Right now, there are 2,250 start-ups in Dublin. There are the same number in Amsterdam - but Amsterdam has three times the population of Dublin.

So all this is positive - however, there is no space for start-ups. Rents are high and a staggering 40pc of start-ups are operating from home. This means that there are no economies of scale. Each company has to do almost everything in terms of management and infrastructure costs.

If there was a dedicated 'hub' based in the centre of the city, lots of small companies could share these costs, bringing down overheads dramatically.

This is where the Central Bank building on Dame Street comes in. Can you imagine what making this available to new companies could achieve?

In addition, think of what doing something like this does to the brand of Ireland as an enterprise-friendly place to do business?

Ireland's brand is crucial to investment. Brand Ireland is what I call Ireland's 'soft power'. Soft power is the power of persuasion, not force. Soft power is all about getting people to do what you want, without forcing them.

So hard power is the heavy traditional powers of, for example, the military. Soft power, however, is the light, novel power of the imagination.

It is the hidden economic power of the arts, of bold statements from a government, like handing over an iconic building to start-ups, rather than flogging it to the highest bidder.

We should never underestimate soft power.

For example, it is now well known that the bosses of Google and Facebook sought out Bono's opinion before investing a huge amount of money here. Why was this?

It was because of the soft power that U2 created for this country over the years. This is incalculable. Bono's connections and U2's soft power was crucial.

Soft power is the power of the imagination and, for small countries trying to compete with the big boys, it is an essential part of our image.

You build a brand in small steps, over time. But you need to begin somewhere. Wouldn't using the Central Bank building, the scene of past policy failure, to launch a new Ireland, a start-up nation, seem like an excellent place to start?

David McWilliams hosts the Kilkenomics festival from November 10-13

Irish Independent

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