Alastair Blair: ‘As office space risks running out, Dublin needs an IFSC for start-ups’

25 Jun 2015

Accenture's Alastair Blair warns that Dublin is running out of start-up space, which is critical as this is where FDI of the future will come from.

Dublin has a six-to-eight month window before available start-up space in the city centre is ‘sold out’. A visionary solution is needed as start-ups will represent the next wave of FDI, warns Accenture’s country manager for Ireland Alastair Blair.

Blair warned that space has overtaken funding as a critical issue for start-ups born in Ireland as well as those coming from overseas, attracted by the diverse European technology talent that flocks to the city.

“The next wave of foreign direct investment into Ireland will be start-ups.

“It is important that we get this right,” he warned.

Blair heads up Accenture’s local workforce of more than 1,600 people in Ireland, and prior to this he was head of Accenture’s Financial Services business in the UK.

He said that if it is accepted that start-ups will lead the next wave of FDI then bold and imaginative strategies around space and community need to be devised that will make Dublin an attractive place that overseas start-ups can envision locating their first overseas operations alongside indigenous Irish start-ups.

‘If start-ups are the next FDI opportunity for the country then we should be preparing accordingly’

“We need space and we need even more space. The other thing we need is proximity. Start-ups need to be able to be close to each other and I don’t believe having the physical distribution of start-ups over 10 or 12 locations in the city to be very helpful.

“I’ve seen the kind of communities of start-ups that are emerging in San Francisco where they are all within walking distance of each other — it is incredibly powerful.”

Dublin’s start-up vision needs to catch up with the reality

Blair said that what could work would be a start-up oriented version of the IFSC, a kind of district or building that start-ups could coalesce around.

“I’m not talking about building or facilitating something that would be around 20,000 sq ft and would house 150 people. We need to build for the future. Where we think we might need 20,000 sq ft why not build 100,000 sq ft or more and create space in the city centre that could house over 1,000 start-up executives and then some.

“We did this before with the IFSC when we identified financial services as an inward investment opportunity. If start-ups are the next FDI opportunity for the country then we should be preparing accordingly.”

He cited the Dublin Convention Centre as an example of what could happen if you simply build something and let them come. “There isn’t a week where there isn’t some international convention being held there.

“In terms of start-ups this is one of the very few situations where, like the IFSC, we should build it and let them come. I’ve never seen so many possibilities in terms of start-ups, local and international, that span areas like fintech, agritech, medtech and other areas like hardware.

Accenture in Dublin recently ran a 12-week lab for start-ups where entrepreneurs developed and road-tested their innovations under the guidance of mentors from AIB, Bank of Ireland, FEXCO, Google, PayPal, State Street, Citibank, Realex Payments and Ulster Bank.

Immersing himself in the start-up ecosystem, Blair said the need for space is a paramount concern for start-ups created in Dublin and venture-backed start-ups from the US west coast deciding on Dublin to spearhead their international expansion.

Examples of what can be possible when technology giants that were still quintessentially start-ups when they chose to locate in Ireland are evident in the case of Apple in Cork in 1981, Google in Dublin in 2003 and Facebook in Dublin in 2008. Apple currently employs 4,000 and is believed to be potentially planning to double in size. Google employs 5,000 people in Dublin directly and indirectly, while Facebook is building a €200m data centre in Clonee and could potentially double in size in Dublin to 1,000 people.

Blair said greater cooperation between IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland is key to the new generation of US companies that are effectively start-ups setting up in Ireland.

“We need a location for start-ups where people will walk in and go ‘wow’. Things like the IFSC people can picture. But we can’t in due respect capture the same start-up/FDI surge if everything is spread out over 15 locations with 70 people in each place.”

Blair said the idea isn’t his alone and is actually an opinion shared by notable individuals such as Dublin’s Start-up Commissioner Niamh Bushnell.

“We need a very broad coalition – with a small ‘c’ – to join the dots and decide if we are going to do this.”

Dublin risks being ‘sold out’ in terms of space for start-ups

Blair said it is key for Dublin City Council and respective planners and developers to put some thought into how Dublin is going to house local and international start-ups at a time when office space is at a premium.

He said there is a tendency to underplay the great relationship Ireland has with the US west coast, particularly the bridge between Dublin and San Francisco.

Blair added that planners would be also wise to avoid the gentrification wars that have dogged San Francisco and said that planning a start-up district or hub would need to be done in a considerate way that takes in the economic benefit for the local area and the quality of life of the city.

“Manage this now rather than blindly stumbling into issues,” he urged.

“If we don’t have the physical space for more start-ups, within a six-to-eight month window Dublin will be ‘sold out’ from a space perspective and that’s not a good thing.”

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