The key to Ireland being Europe’s Silicon Valley

15 Sep 2011

Australian Bill Liao co-founded one of Europe's first Web 2.0 social networks. Living in Ireland he believes in the country's potential to become the Silicon Valley of Europe. He says we need to start by removing unnecessary bureaucracy for entrepreneurs

To be the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’, Ireland needs to be one of the best places in the world to start a business, tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Liao tells John Kennedy.

In the US the tech sector is regarded widely as the last bastion of full employment. The same could be said in Ireland, but few realise that. If the property bubble and global recession taught us anything, it is that we need our own sophisticated home-grown industries alongside multinationals to thrive and provide jobs.

One person who does realise this is a seasoned entrepreneur who has been involved in several IPOs in Silicon Valley, Europe and Australia, and is famed globally for his philanthropy and environmental pursuits.

That person is pledging millions of US dollars of his own cash and has come out of retirement to help fund and grow Irish technology start-ups, as well as teach Irish kids how to programme and ensure future employability.

That person has chosen to make his home here in Ireland, yet only last month got his Green Card from the Government after three attempts.

Bill Liao’s background

An Australian of Chinese descent, Bill Liao, along with Lars Hinrichs, co-founded Open Business Club in Hamburg in 2003 as a platform for business professionals and renamed it XING in 2006. XING was one of the first Web 2.0 companies to go public and has grown to become one of the world’s leading business-to-business social networking portals.

Liao is noted for his philanthropic endeavours and is a driving force for a number of environmental and humanitarian causes, including for planting 20m sq kilometres of new trees by 2020, and has volunteered for The Hunger Project in Uganda, New York and Mexico.

Liao recently joined Ireland-based venture capital firm, SOS Ventures, and has invested in Startupbootcamp, which is run by former XING CFO, Irishman Eoghan Jennings.

He has also joined forces with 18-year-old Cork technology entrepreneur James Whelton to run a nationwide initiative, the Coder Dojo, aimed at fostering software coding talent among Irish schoolchildren.

“It horrified me when James told me that there was no computer programming courses for kids in Ireland. The course James did in secondary school was all about how to use Excel. That’s just insane,” says Liao.

“The Department of Education announced recently that they had just trained 50 secondary school teachers in how to programme, but they taught them how to programme in a language called SCRATCH, which is for kids. My kids learned SCRATCH when they were just eight.”

Need for change in supports and education

Liao says there needs to be a greater understanding at a senior political level that education reform and our approach to supporting businesses needs to change. At a family level, access to and understanding of the importance of maths, science and computing are vital.

I suggest to him that if most parents in Ireland found their child programming a computer they would tell the child to go out and kick a football instead.

“I’m all for a kid getting out and kicking a football. But if the kid was sitting inside and their mother came in and asked what they were doing and the child said they were studying law because they want a law degree – there isn’t a mother in the country that is going to kick the kid out to play football. But if the child said he or she was figuring out a mathematical problem because they want to programme something, they are out the door.

“This is something we need to fix. It really is the mums of Ireland who have the destiny of the country in their hands.

“You are throwing all your kids at sectors like law with no job prospects at the end of it. Yet I could find work in about two seconds for anyone who can programme software.

“I can find work for them globally, not just here but anywhere on the planet and they could stay and live in Ireland. What other job allows you to stay in your home country and yet work globally?”

Bye-bye to bureaucracy


Liao has argued that if Ireland wants a share of the global digital economy and to be the Silicon Valley of Europe, it needs to make the country one of the best places globally to start a company or choose to base a start-up. That begins by getting rid of bureaucracy, making the most of Ireland’s powerful brand and start talking up the country’s successes.

“I believe Ireland could be the Silicon Valley of Europe, so much so I’ve come out of retirement and joined a venture capital firm to maximise the number of investments I do.

“Despite having had to apply three times for my Green Card, my mandate is to invest millions of dollars in start-ups in Ireland. SOS Ventures is in the process of finishing its first investment in an Irish start-up.

“Ireland has some fantastic companies. I can see an enormous number of very good things coming and I haven’t been exposed to the whole market yet. Our doors are wide open. I’m particularly interested in seeing those really early stage companies that need €50,000 to begin with. I am extremely optimistic despite massive opposition.”

Liao believes Ireland could and should be more advanced in terms of the digital economy, start-up culture and education reform.

“What happened as far as I can tell is the previous Government abdicated all responsibility to the civil service. The civil service became a law onto itself. Everyone is complaining about the massive payouts retiring civil servants are receiving. I would say fantastic! Pay the compensation and get them out the door immediately. Then you can get a breath of fresh air.

“If the new Government works with the next layer down and says ‘that was then but this is now’, the country has some chance of success.”

Returning briefly to education, Liao urges curriculum reform. “If you look at education in this country, in general it is not dissimilar from the US. In fact it tries to be more and more like the US. The US model for education is utterly broken. So to try and interact with something that is already broken is a really bad idea.

“Finland has an excellent education system. What they’ve done is said that there are no single teacher classrooms anymore. Every classroom has to have two teachers or at least two assistants and a teacher. If you have a team teaching a bigger class then they hold each other to account.”

Liao concludes by noting that digital infrastructure is crucial to the future of enterprise and employment in Ireland.

“It is criminal that rural broadband isn’t on the national agenda. If you made sure there was high quality broadband everywhere and advertised that fact internationally, NAMA would disappear as a problem because you’d have no problem filling all those houses and buildings.”

Bill Liao will be a keynote speaker at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin on 30 September 2011.

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