High-tech society: Irish start-ups and the social web

20 Aug 2009

A winner of both the 2008 and 2009 Eircom Innovation Fund, tech entrepreneur and co-founder Pieter Oonk talks about new webmail application SocietyMail and socially-oriented Irish tech start-ups

MOST of us have a web mail account like Gmail, Yahoo! or Hotmail as well as social networking accounts: how does SocietyMail add to the user experience?

SocietyMail is an add-on that organises the social aspect of your inbox. While we use our email for basic communication, we are increasingly sharing information and connecting with friends on sites such as Facebook.

SocietyMail makes more sense of your inbox by pulling the social media and social connections from the mix and making sense of it.

What this means for the end user is that if I receive email from you, SocietyMail will pop up and initially ask some questions such as ‘is this the same Joe Bloggs with whom you are friends on Facebook?’ or notify you of that friend’s recent activity on one of your social networks. It will also gather together all the photos, video, weblinks or other media that has been exchanged between you and that friend.

Will SocietyMail be increasingly relevant to ‘the next web’?

In the new web of the coming years, you don’t necessarily need to own the social graph or a huge database of users because increasingly databases are opening up to third parties will be more open so it is the relationship or the context of a relationship that is becoming more interesting.

The Eircom Innovation Fund chose three winners this year, including SocietyMail, which were focused on the social web – do you think this space is a growing trend for Irish start-ups?

Definitely, I think so, and at the same time last year’s winners were also built around the social web. Our company, Locle, along with Touristr and HeyStaks was socially oriented, but the trend is even stronger this year with SocietyMail, DiaryPlan and BeeHerd.

I think what helped us with developing SocietyMail was knowing that it could be something Eircom really wanted, a webmail add-on it might possibly integrate into its own mail service.

It is great to see that there is a company out there that says: ‘we will run an open competition; anyone can enter and make suggestions. If you have a good business plan or idea, we will nurture that’.

This is a very attractive proposition for both parties as it could be something that Eircom might want to launch as a branded product or service offering.

How has the Eircom Innovation Fund helped Locle in the past year?

While winning the award didn’t impact on our user base as such, it did give us plenty of exposure, generate news about us and it is a nice accolade to have.

These types of funds or competitions benefits them in the real sense that they attract smart people to work with them and it changes public perception of these big companies.

Is prize money alone enough to get a start-up off the ground?

It depends. I like the fact that this year Eircom has collaborated with Waterford Institute of Technology and its Telecommunications Software & Systems Group to provide business coaching and incubation space.

While we already have an office, this is invaluable for entrepreneurs and start-ups out there that don’t.