Cork: The real digital capital

12 Jul 2011

Cork is home to many great things and many fine industries, including technology, pharmaceuticals and engineering. But now it stands at the gateway to a fantastic future and could claim the sobriquet ‘Home of the Cloud’, as well as spawn futuristic medical devices industries.

When most Irish people think of accomplished locations in terms of technology success, there is one place that sits on everybody’s lips – Silicon Valley. But if you look closer to home there are few locations in Ireland where the industries of the future are so closely located as Cork.

Cork’s prestige as a technology hub is evident not only through the significant technology industry located there with household names like Apple, EMC, Big Fish Games and McAfee, but also through the sheer strength of other industries, most notably the pharmaceutical industry with players like Pfizer and Boston Scientific.

The key to Cork’s enduring success as a location for the digital industries of the future, which are driven by areas like cloud computing, online gaming and smartphone devices like the iPhone, has been its ability to adapt amid seismic changes in the technology world.

The best example of this is Apple, which has had a location in Cork since 1983. It began as a manufacturing hub supplying most of the world with Apple computers. At its peak in the 1990s it employed more than 2,000 people. However, with changes in the company’s business model and as manufacturing shifted to Far East locations, the local operation at its lowest ebb downsized to a few hundred workers. Today, Apple in Cork is home to many of the technology giant’s e-commerce and legal activities and it employs 3,000 people in the region.

In recent weeks, it emerged that Apple is to create a further 350 jobs in Cork at new 25,000 sq-foot offices on Lavitts Quay.

EMC, which has been based in Ovens in Cork since 1988, has like Apple marched in step with the various technology trends, sustaining its Cork workforce every bit of the way.

EMC Ireland country manager Jason Ward says that if you were to ask a question about the impact of EMC on Cork, you better turn it around and ask about the impact of Cork on EMC. “Back in 1988, Dick Egan, one of the founders of EMC, came here and chose Ireland, mainly due to skills but also due to family history in the region. It started off on a six-acre campus with 22 people and that has grown today to 2,500 people on 50 acres.

“EMC Cork is the largest manufacturing facility outside North America and over the years we’ve begun to embrace a lot of the technology the company makes. Virtually everything we sell and manufacture is delivered out of Cork, pre-configured, tested and built in Cork.

“Today in Cork, the campus has grown tremendously. While it started in manufacturing, today we have 25 different business functions out of Cork – supply chain, finance, engineering, R&D and over 36 different nationalities. It’s a really diverse culture down there now.”

Cork is home to a strong mix of multinational operations and globally-focused international services firms, as well as a strong array of homegrown entrepreneurial start-ups. For example there are companies like Irish semiconductor maker Firecomms, run by Declan O’Mahoney, which became the first Irish company to be bought by the Chinese.

Abtran, a business process outsourcing company owned by Kerry-born Ger Fitzgerald, has created 300 new jobs in Cork to serve global customers like BSkyB.

One of Ireland’s most successful indigenous software companies Qumas, which supplies software tools to governments and healthcare providers around the world, has its origins in Cork

The region is also home to a stunning cluster of fast-emerging medical devices and biopharma companies that could decide the future of healthcare. These include Solvotrin Therapeutics, which has developed cutting-edge products to handle heart and cholesterol issues; Radisens, which is developing an instrument to test for multiple diseases that requires only a single drop of blood and which recently receives a €1.1m venture capital injection; and BrePco Biopharma, which has secured €5.6m in funding for research into the treatment of critically ill premature babies suffering from hypotension.

Start-up support

The start-up scene is well supported by a growing mix of local venture capital and angel investors, bolstered by global success stories of firms like Cubic Telecom and HR Locker. Take, for example, Corkman Pat Phelan’s Cubic Telecom venture, which provides white label telecoms network services. It has received a €500,000 investment from Enterprise Ireland to tackle the Asian and Australian markets.

Another example is PCH International led by Liam Casey, whose global supply chain business is integral to the global supply of consumer electronic devices and in recent months has raised US$56m in venture capital.

Job creation is continuing unabated in the Cork region with companies like Aruba Networks locating in the city with 40 new jobs, McAfee which is increasing its headcount to 300 in the area, and Quest Software, which is halfway through its recruitment drive to create 150 jobs, ahead of schedule.

“You get a definite sense that something great is happening here,” says Denis J Collins, chairman of the it@cork movement, which represents more than 300 companies and organisations united by interests in technology. “It’s a hotbed for a cross-section of the IT industry. I think the fact that the region represents so much of what is happening in the global technology space – we are only at the tip of the iceberg.”

Cork: a hotbed of innovation, investment and expansion

  • Apple has signed a deal to set up an office in Cork city centre, which will house up to 350 employees.
  • BrePco Biopharma has secured €5.66m in funding for research into the treatment of critically ill premature babies suffering from hypotension.
  • US electronics retailer Best Buy is to deploy Locked & Found, a mobile product protection and recovery program from Cork firm Yougetitback.
  • Cork company SensL has signed a €1m, three-year, multi-project contract with the European Space Agency.
  • MSD is opening two new facilities at its site in Brinny, Co Cork, representing a €28.6m investment and 70 jobs.
  • Aruba Networks is to create 40 jobs at its new international headquarters and shared services centre in Cork.
  • McAfee is to create 30 jobs in Cork, at the company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) headquarters.
  • EMC has partnered with CIT to develop the world’s first master’s and undergraduate degree programmes in cloud computing.

Collins believes it is time for the region to consolidate this success and make it loud and clear. “I firmly believe, for example, we could create an International Technology Services Centre (ITSC) on the same model as the IFSC in Dublin and it could be an important hub for technology in Europe just like Silicon Valley is in the US, as well as being a bellwether for people who want to continue to invest here.”

However, to consolidate this success, Collins says there needs to be more joined-up thinking in areas like broadband infrastructure, pointing to the need to ensure that local multinationals and start-ups in the region can connect with major international fibre backhaul networks that pass Cork by as they connect financial centres like New York with London and Paris.

“There’s an opportunity, for example, to connect a tier 1 line to the transatlantic network being built by Hibernia Atlantic. The investment, estimated at just €15m, would be minimal by comparison to the overall value that it would generate in investment and jobs for the region for decades to come.”

When you think about personal computers manufactured at Apple in the past and the cutting-edge roles conducted there today, to the major storage units of EMC and virtualisation software of VMware and cloud work at Quest Software – Cork’s role in the journey of technology could justify the region’s claim to the title ‘Home of the Cloud.’

Anthony O’Mara, senior vice-president Trend Micro EMEA, one of the world’s foremost cloud security companies, is a prime example of what’s possible. O’Mara agrees with Collins that more needs to be done in terms of broadband infrastructure to ensure the region doesn’t lose out on the next wave of investment opportunities.

Anthony O'Mara

Anthony O’Mara, senior vice-president Trend Micro EMEA

Future is bright

But broadband aside, the region serves its multinationals well, O’Mara explains. “Trend Micro came to Cork on 1 July 2003 and we weren’t untypical of a lot of software companies at the time. We came over to manage a lot of transaction processing, finance and order management functions, but over the eight years we’ve grown away from transaction processing to a lot more value-added functions requiring a lot of very skilled technical people. A lot of application support is done from here, and a lot of business development.

“Our Cork operation has grown and added a lot more value to the company in the eight years since we started here. In those eight years we have moved from 35 people to 220 and currently we have over 30 open positions in technical areas looking for strong technical and language skills.

“Cork is the best place in Ireland for technology – the size just feels right. There is a cluster of companies and clusters within sectors down here, such as security software. I would encourage anybody coming to Ireland to locate in Cork,” he adds.

One example of a local firm that has benefited from the array of technology, engineering and biopharmaceutical companies is GxP Systems, which is looking to hire 20 engineers immediately to bring its workforce up to 60 people. GxP Systems is looking for automation, electrical, mechanical, manufacturing, validation and quality engineers with regulatory experience. The positions are primarily in the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors.

GxP CEO Conor Wall maintains there are a number of factors enabling firms like his to grow fast. “We’ve had companies like Pfizer and EMC here for the last 30 years or more and it gives a critical mass to the industry that there’s a standard of good companies in the region.

“That critical mass means the level of experience gained around the Cork hub is second to none and there is a supply of people who have developed their skills and knowledge within the industry. That in turn leads to better experienced people coming on board and companies coming in.

“The manufacturing base in Ireland is under pressure from lower cost bases elsewhere but there has been a skill level and innovation level drilled into the engineers and practitioners in the Cork area that is a stand-out feature.

“We haven’t had to struggle to find customers, which is a big issue when you’re starting off. We’ve had them on our doorstep. Cork is an internationally recognised hub, I can go and attend a conference anywhere in the world and I don’t have to explain where I’m from,” he says.

The burgeoning start-up scene is best evidenced by companies like Radisens Diagnostics, which has just opened an office in Boston. Radisens is developing an instrument to test for multiple diseases that requires only a single drop of blood and can be performed and interpreted by any general physician within minutes – think Dr McCoy’s gizmo in Star Trek and you’ll be on the right track.

Radisens is a fusion of everything cutting edge about Cork. Located at Cork Institute of Technology’s (CIT) Rubicon Centre, the company could one day emerge as a homegrown multinational that could create hundreds of jobs. Led by Jerry O’Brien, it has strong intellectual property with many worldwide patents pending.

“Absolutely, anything’s possible,” O’Brien says on the notion of building Irish technology companies that could become household names around the world. “I think for that you need to start on the R&D side.

“In Ireland’s case, we’re a small island with a lot of med tech start-ups and there are diagnostic companies like ourselves that have had to go to the Far East and US and that really is driving the entrepreneurial experience in Ireland, in turn leading to more jobs and opportunities.”

Topmost photo: Conor Wall, CEO, GxP Systems

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years