Selling Ireland’s technology sector: ‘the diamond in the rubble’

25 Jun 2009

You could argue that Eileen Sharpe has one of the most important sales jobs in the land. She and her team of less than 30 people spread across the globe are responsible for landing the multi-billion tech investments by multinationals that Ireland is still winning despite the global downturn.

As global head of IDA Ireland’s ICT division, Sharpe’s role involves ensuring Ireland stays relevant to win these investments: she regularly holds face-to-face meetings with the CEOs and senior executives of global tech giants, from Intel and Dell to Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

She does so in the face of “intense” competition from countries such as the rising BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations, not to mention eastern European countries like Poland.

Despite this, Ireland still punches above its weight. Earlier this year, as the full implications of the economic crash became apparent, Intel announced a €50m R&D investment in Shannon that created 134 new jobs. This news was followed swiftly by HP, with a 500-job investment in Leixlip that could rise to 1,000 jobs. Yesterday, Boston Scientific revealed a €91m R&D investment that will create 45 jobs in Galway.

Today, it is expected that the Tánaiste will announce another big jobs coup – that of a major technology manufacturer on the west side of Dublin. This follows other large investments in recent weeks by companies such as online retailer CDiscounts, which is creating 50 jobs in Dundalk, and healthcare IT firm Cerner, which is creating 40 skilled jobs in Dublin.

“We attract these investments because really these businesses work here – the innovation, the creativity and the ability to make connections and get the projects going. In the era of convergence, the ability to connect – as people and not just in terms of telecoms – is going to be pivotal in enabling the investments we want to capture.”

With two digital natives at home, Sharpe is a believer in technology. “There’s a generation that fears technology, but then there’s the emerging digital natives who have grown up with technology like the internet all around them. They are one of Ireland’s biggest selling points.”

Sharpe believes the multinational community in Ireland – 1,000 companies exporting €100bn a year – is full of unsung heroes who fight the country’s corner all the time.

“People like Jim O’Hara of Intel, Martin Murphy of HP, John Herlihy of Google, John Hennessy at Ericsson and the late Joe Gantley of Apple – they have made a massive contribution to the economy and the development of Ireland’s digital industries.”

Convergence will be a major theme of Sharpe’s work in the years ahead, and this means leveraging core strategic industries such as pharmaceuticals, ICT, medical technology and food industries.

“Intel, for example, isn’t just making silicon wafers in Ireland; it is also involved in a whole range of activities that will impact on the country in the years ahead. Its €50m investment in Shannon is at the cutting edge of technology, while its Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) involves collaborations with St James’s Hospital, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and National University of Ireland, Galway.”

The recession, Sharpe believes, has actually played to Ireland’s advantage. Existing investors are already citing falling costs.

“Despite the difficulties the country has had, the competitive advantages Ireland had three years ago are still there and are now, in fact, better. Electricity costs are still too high and hopefully competition will drive costs down. Commercial real-estate costs – while book value says there’s no real decline – the reality is they are down. In terms of people costs, attitudes have changed and now they too are more competitive.”

Sharpe warns that 76pc of all ICT CEOs are planning to fundamentally transform their business models over the next two years. The best illustration of this is Dell’s decision to close its manufacturing operation in Limerick, with the loss of 1,900 jobs.

“All the companies we have here are going to transform and we will lose certain activities and gain others. You need to realise that Dell continues to employ 2,000 people in Ireland and has been a very powerful contributor to the country’s development.

“In post-Digital Galway, 60pc of people were earning equal or greater salaries within three years and now Galway has the second-biggest medical device industry cluster in the world outside of Minnesota.”

She points to two of the country’s longest based ICT employers, Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft came to Ireland in 1985 to pack software into boxes, today it is involved in high-level software development and is building a $500m data centre in west Dublin. Apple came to Cork in 1981 to manufacture hardware, today the operation is driving new and emerging business models such as the iPhone.

To move forward, Sharpe says the country needs to realise it is no longer about trying to employ thousands of people assembling low-cost PCs, but it’s about getting ahead of the curve in areas like mobile, green IT and internet-based cloud infrastructure.

Going forward, the same principles of being “clear and focused” that apply to her team also should apply to ensuring a strong and vibrant start-up culture emerges in Ireland, she believes.

“We need to take more risks and be tolerant of taking risks. The first start-up never works, but maybe the second or third will. We need to realise this if we want a generation to emerge that will provide us with Ireland’s answer to Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Risk is part and parcel of the digital age,” Sharpe adds.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: IDA Ireland’s global head of ICT Eileen Sharpe is tasked with capturing major job-creation investments from players such as Microsoft, HP, Google and Facebook. She is pictured here at a recent meeting in Brussels with Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel