‘We need to have two universities in the global 50 and create 200,000 jobs’

30 Jul 2009

Cisco vice-president Barry O’Sullivan says Ireland needs to think big to survive the next five years.

My conversation with Barry O’Sullivan, a Cork native who is Cisco’s senior vice-president in charge of voice products, is a marvel of the modern age. We meet face-to-face via a high-definition screen and he is sitting nearly 9,000km away in Silicon Valley.

O’Sullivan believes that very soon the world of work – from every corporate to every small home office worker – will evolve towards these technologies.

“At Cisco we have reduced our travel times by 40pc, saving us hundreds of millions of dollars in travel expenses. We are touching 30pc more customers even with that travel reduction.

“Next year, we will bring this capability to homes with at least a 1.5Mbps broadband connection and a high-definition TV. The cost of videoconferencing is coming down rapidly.”

But O’Sullivan isn’t meeting me to talk about videoconferencing. He is fired up about how Ireland can emerge from its current economic trauma battle-fit. He pulls no punches.

“I have a 2:20:200 vision for this country. JFK declared in the Sixties how America would put a man on the moon. Ireland too needs targets that focus on deliverables. I don’t think it could be impossible that we could have two universities in the top 50 universities in the world. We could aim to have 20 companies listed on the NASDAQ and I think we could aim to have 200,000 people working in indigenous Irish innovation companies that include ICT and bio-pharma businesses.”

O’Sullivan is one of a group of Silicon Valley-based Irish technology executives who rose through the ranks of foreign direct investment (FDI) companies in Ireland and have decided to do something for their country. The Irish Technology Leaders Group learned the ‘can do’ attitude of the US elite and don’t see why the same propensity to think big can’t be embraced here.

In O’Sullivan’s case, he moved to California in the late Eighties as a senior engineer with Nortel. After 18 years with Nortel, he accepted a job with Cisco in 2002 and today he’s in charge of more than 3,000 engineers worldwide. He divides his time between Silicon Valley and his home in Galway. One of his greatest frustrations is how rarely Ireland gets mentioned in US boardrooms when potential venture and technology investment opportunities arise.

“I think Ireland still has a strong image in the tech world. It is very well regarded as a good place to do business in Europe. But amongst the venture capital (VC) community in Silicon Valley, the country is not known at all. When they think about investing overseas, they think about Israel and emerging markets such as India and China.

“While Ireland has done well on the FDI front, and multinationals see it as a good springboard into Europe, the other breed of investors such as venture capitalists don’t see Ireland on the map. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves.”

He says the ingredients that make places like Silicon Valley lead the world – strong universities, a cluster of successful self-sustaining innovation companies, a networked way of doing business and a strong VC community – aren’t all in place in Ireland, especially VC.

“But the Irish knack for networking is something we have an opportunity with that we haven’t yet leveraged. Ireland needs success stories and heroes for people to emulate.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, the heroes were property developers and that sucked in a lot of national energy. It’s been a while since we’ve had success stories like Iona Technologies. We have young Irish people doing great things in multinational companies or starting up their own businesses – they need encouragement.

“It is also the next generation coming through. The kids in school and college today represent our best hope and that’s where we should be focusing our energies. The one thing Ireland needs to start doing is change the way it incentivises entrepreneurs.

“The one thing I notice about Irish entrepreneurs is they spend so much time and energy pitching to civil servants about their ideas and getting just a small bit of funding. The civil servants, while they do great work, are being asked to pick winners and losers. That’s not healthy for either side.

“Enterprise Ireland has done a great job building international networks and connecting Irish companies with markets. But when it comes to picking winners and losers to support and funding new ventures, that has to start in the private sector.”

O’Sullivan says that supporting indigenous companies is every bit as important as attracting FDI and that incentives should be provided to local entrepreneurs to make them less of a risk to VC investors.

“Instead of just supporting FDI, why don’t we have venture investment such as covering 25pc of the cost of starting up a new company? For venture capitalists, there’s a de-risking that the Government can help with.

“If I’m an international investor, I would look at Ireland, the UK and other countries and all the ingredients such as the cost of doing business, return on investment and how can I minimise risk. Venture investment by the State would make a difference. I would like to see 200,000 people working in indigenous ICT and science industries, not in call centres.”

O’Sullivan says that schools and businesses that aren’t connected to 21st-century infrastructure are going to be at a major loss in the coming years.

“The Government’s recent 3G investment has to be welcomed because it is better than nothing. If you are in a school and you aren’t connected to the internet, the difference between your school and other connected economies is like night and day.

“We should approach hi-tech infrastructure as part of the National Development Plan. We seem comfortable about investing in roads and bridges and bailing out bankers, but when it comes to the digital infrastructure that will drive future prosperity we appear to hit a blindspot.

“We should look at being more assertive about taking our destiny into our own hands around bold infrastructure investments and incentivising our indigenous companies to go forth and grow,” he concludes.

By John Kennedy

This story is part of the Digital 21 campaign to encourage Ireland to develop a National Digital Development Plan, ensuring the country and itseconomy are strategically well placed to thrive in the 21st century. For more stories, and to add your comments, visit www.digital21.ie