‘The future is not about geographic barriers’ – PCH International’s Liam Casey

28 Jun 2012

Cork technology entrepreneur Liam Casey

In just a few short years, Cork technology entrepreneur Liam Casey has gone from being a services provider to effectively being a kingmaker in the global consumer technology space. I’m not joking; he is already helping to create the gadgets we’re going to be buying a year or two from now.

Last week, Casey completed the next step in a strategy that sees Cork firm PCH International – which he founded and is CEO of – completely circumvent the globe from Cork to China and Silicon Valley and back again, and also make the leap from being a key provider of industrial design services to reaching the lucrative product development position.

What this means in ordinary English is a Corkman has built a global company that can design and make the smartphones, tablet computers, stereo headsets and personal computers that are a multi-billion-dollar industry.

PCH, which employs 80 people in Cork, revealed plans to employ an extra 1,500 people at a facility in Shenzhen near Hong Kong in a move that will grow employment to 3,000 worldwide.

The previous week, Casey’s company acquired a Silicon Valley product development company called Lime Lab, led by top product developers Kurt Dammerman and Andre Yousefi.

What this means (again in ordinary English) is a Corkman has the same capacity to prototype and build products as Apple’s Sir Jony Ive or Dyson’s Sir James Dyson.

Casey’s company has become the go-to organisation for much of the world’s industrial design talent and many up-and-coming consumer electronics giants coming out of Silicon Valley.

How to build a world-class organisation

Casey was in Cork late last week for a brief visit. He believes he has set a template that other Irish companies can follow to build truly world-class, lean organisations.

“You have to be global, you have to think global. In business, geography is history and you have to be able to scale and reach other markets,” he said.

To give a sense of the speed at which products are being created and brought to market by visionary entrepreneurs, he cited the example of Pebble Technology. In just 45 days the company, led by Eric Migicovsky, raised $10.3m on crowdfunding site Kickstarter from 69,000 backers after seeking just $100,000 to design a new smart watch. So far 89,000 watches have been ordered before it goes on sale in August.

“The future is not about geographic barriers. You can conceive a product and it can ship anywhere in the world, there are no restrictions,” Casey stressed.

PCH has revenues of $400m a year and masterminds the design, manufacture and distribution of hardware. In February last year it raised $26m from Triangle Peak Partners and Cross Creek Capital. That followed a previous funding round of $21m in 2008 from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Norwest Venture Partners and Focus Ventures.

In June last year, it emerged that two new investors, Temasek subsidiary Northbrook Investments and J Christopher Burch, joined existing investors in raising a further $30m.

PCH International’s acquisition of Lime Lab

Casey quote

I asked Casey about the impact buying a complete product development company in Silicon Valley will make on PCH’s future. The plans to buy Lime Lab include opening a new R&D lab, which will include a full prototyping lab, rapid photo printers, EE lab, soft goods lab and project space/incubator rooms for strategic PCH Accelerator start-up opportunities.

Casey explained that firstly it will boost PCH’s credibility on the product development front. The second part of his answer relates to start-ups in Silicon Valley and working with the next wave of entrepreneurs on the big technology bets of the next decade.

He cited one collaboration with an MIT graduate and rookie designer called Julia Hu, who worked with PCH on her idea for a gadget. Within a year her sleep-tracking device – Lark – is on the shelves in every Apple store around the world.

Industrial designers and product developers such as Philippe Starck and Jony Ive, Casey pointed out, are becoming the rock stars of the future.

“It’s all about taking a great vision and making it a reality in terms of a physical product like a computer, smartphone or a watch.”

But, he noted, he is very fussy about who he works with and has to know that heart and vision are going into creating world-beating brands.

“If an electronics retail giant came to me tomorrow and asked me to help them create an MP3 player and bring it to market, I’d say no. We only work with companies that are passionate about design, their brand and the consumer experience. Only then can we add value, protect the brand and help them make money.”

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