Irish giants of Silicon Valley to save knowledge economy

22 Jan 2008

Despite over-used political rhetoric around Ireland’s ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘moving up the value chain’, senior Irish managers in Silicon Valley are concerned Ireland is not getting its deserved share of the global R&D pie and they intend to do something about it.

Talented Irish technology executives, who through the course of their career have moved up the ranks of Silicon Valley companies, have banded together to address what they perceive as an anomaly in how the R&D pie is divided around the world.

“In Silicon Valley, R&D chats tend to focus on India and China and Ireland rarely gets mentioned. Ireland has a great story to tell but we need to tell it better,” says Barry O’Sullivan, senior vice president, Voice Technology Groupns at Cisco. O’Sullivan leads a team of voice industry executives who are responsible for Cisco’s business units related to voice and unified communications.

Irish technology leaders based in Silicon Valley include John Gilmore, chief operations officer of Sling Media, Brian Fitzgerald, former vice president of operations at Intuit Inc, Niall O’Connor, chief information officer at Apple, Rory McInerney, director of engineering at Intel and Tony Redmond, chief technology officer at HP Services.

The network is committed to helping Ireland face up to the challenges involved in capturing new technology opportunities and raising awareness in the Valley of Ireland’s prowess in the R&D field.

“In general, Silicon Valley has a great talent pool; great universities and a critical mass of entrepreneurs and venture capital is what greases the machine and keeps it going,” O’Sullivan explained.

“Ireland is largely a mix of multinational divisions responsible for their own destiny and product line. The venture capital isn’t there for local companies to the same extent as Silicon Valley, where there are more supports, risks and capital available.

“The Irish skills story has certainly gotten better and the country has attracted a great talent pool of people from around the world, which gives multinationals access to a greater talent pool.”

However, O’Sullivan said there are limitations. “Broadband penetration is a concern. The DSL technology in Ireland is a generation old and we need to think of the next generation. Another issue is the R&D tax credits. Taxation is one of the key pieces that Ireland has held sovereignty over and quite rightly, but there’s more we can do. It is structured at present to reward increases in R&D spend, but not the total sum invested.

“If Ireland is intent on becoming a location for global R&D then it would need to change the structure radically. This would be like turning on a light switch and it would be great for indigenous companies as well,” O’Sullivan explained.

John Hartnett, senior vice-president of global markets at Palm in Silicon Valley said the network is intent on pointing Irish policy makers in the right direction in terms of how they communicate Ireland’s potential as an R&D location.

“The guys sitting around the table are a who’s who of technology in Silicon Valley and therefore we’ve got our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in areas like semiconductors, Web 2.0 and social networking. What we see on a day to day basis will be invaluable in helping the Irish education system gear up for future opportunties.

“We will also work with IDA Ireland in terms of understanding what it takes to compete here and land the big projects. Ireland has had a tremendous track record in attracting top technology companies across the US and we need to be really smart in how we continue to do this going forward. We’re not going to win deals the same way we did for the last 15 years.”

Hartnett continued: “The focus we see is on technology leadership, education in terms of developing engineering talent and the capability to deliver world class R&D.

“Moving up the food chain for Ireland is important. The country has definitely made great strides but the opportunity is there to go further and set the perception and reality of where Ireland is positioned.

“Yes Ireland has been a Celtic Tiger, it has been successful in technology. But this is not always recognised and the technology leadership of the country is not recognised in Silicon Valley.

“Before Christmas, the San Jose Mercury News had a report about where and who will be the next Silicon Valley in the world. Competitive countries led by Israel, India and China were mentioned but the perception of Ireland’s success so far isn’t here yet. The country has had major R&D wins but they’re not really visible outside Ireland,” Hartnett lamented.

He said the passion to make Ireland stronger and more visible in terms of R&D among Silicon Valley companies is certainly strong in the US ex-pat community and since the group formed last year, Irish executives across the States have been coming out of the woodwork to lend support.

“It’s like we put a giant Irish flag on the moon. A lot of success stories of Irish business people living and working in places like San Diego, Boston and New York are being revealed to us and it’s very impressive,” Hartnett explained.

By John Kennedy