Cisco kid returns to Cork with a ‘three Cs’ formula for making Ireland the next Silicon Valley

21 Jan 2013

Cisco SVP Barry O'Sullivan, RTE's latest 'dragon' on Dragons' Den

Cork native Barry O’Sullivan is senior vice-president in charge of tech giant Cisco’s US$2bn a year voice products business. The latest addition to RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den divides his time evenly between Silicon Valley and his home in Galway and returns to Cork this week to join the ITLG ‘Gathering’ in the city.

Today and tomorrow in Cork, some of the most prominent Irish and Irish-American executives in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street will form their own version of the ‘Gathering’.

Former Palm executive John Hartnett, along with his colleagues like O’Sullivan and Intel SVP Rory McInerney, formed the ITLG to address an apparent failure by Irish business leaders to harness their diaspora unlike Israel, which worked its diaspora so much it can count 60 technology firms listed on NASDAQ, while Ireland can only count a handful.

The success of the ITLG, which includes former Intel CEO Craig Barret as chairman, in rallying Ireland’s globally dispersed business elite in just five years, has in fact become a template for other nations to follow and last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton selected the ITLG to spearhead her Global Diaspora Forum, which seeks to engage the diaspora from India, China, Israel and other nations.

For O’Sullivan, who rose up the ranks at Nortel as a senior engineer before joining Cisco in 2002, Ireland in the last 10 years was distracted from using innovation to fuel growth.

He says Ireland went “walkabout” somewhere between the successes of Iona and Trintech in the late 1990s and the past few years, where young visionaries like the Collison brothers from Limerick whose Silicon Valley e-commerce start-up Stripe is being tipped as the next US$1bn success.

O’Sullivan was recently added to the Dragons’ Den line-up, the programme in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to try and obtain investment finance. The show has become increasingly tech oriented. Existing judge Gavin Duffy now sits on a panel that consists of seasoned tech investor Sean O’Sullivan from Avego, Derry-born Peter Casey of Claddagh Resources, one of the world’s largest IT recruiters, and young entrepreneur Ramona Nicholas of the Cara Pharmacy chain.

O’Sullivan is adamant that while Ireland, or anywhere else on the planet for that matter, can never hope to replicate Silicon Valley – unique for its concentration of money and global tech talent – there are still things Ireland can do right, and he cites fellow dragon Sean O’Sullivan’s Open Ireland initiative to grant visas for skilled engineers as an example.

Capital, culture, connectivity

“There are three things we need to get right if we hope to compete in a world where tech innovation is key. These are capital, culture and connectivity.

“On the capital side of things, Ireland needs to invest US$300m of new capital every year if we are going to fund a generation of new innovative SMEs. Venture capital in Ireland has grown 42pc in the last four years so we’re going in the right direction.”

However, O’Sullivan warns there is a global issue with venture capital and Ireland is not immune.

“It’s like it’s almost too easy to start a software company now. Now you just sign up to Amazon Web Services and build out your software. But what this means is globally, and not just in Ireland, there are loads of companies getting seed funding and then they’re running into a bottleneck when it comes to getting Series A funding.

“To scale a company you need that Series A funding of US$8m or US$10m or more and that’s going to be hard to get. So there’s plenty of seed money around but not enough money to scale.

“To create the culture you need plenty of success stories and role models for young people. Fifteen years ago we had Chris Horn and the Maguire brothers and now we have the Collison brothers, guys like James Whelton, who set up the CoderDojo movement, and 12-year-olds starting companies. These kids are building a global movement and that really helps with the culture.

“But this takes time, and you need success stories and people talking about them and more young people being inspired.”

On his final point of connectivity, O’Sullivan says Ireland needs a non-stop flight between Dublin and San Francisco, California, to consolidate the gains Ireland has made in terms of the companies that have and will continue to invest in Ireland and ensure Irish entrepreneurs are talking to the big guns of venture capital.

“For start-ups in the tech space, it’s not actually about China first, it’s about Silicon Valley and we need to focus on getting the connectivity right,” O’Sullivan concludes.

“We’ve made great progress in terms of the three Cs of capital, culture and connectivity in the last number of years. Compared to where we were five years ago, it’s good. But we can’t afford to get distracted again.”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Norah Casey as an existing Dragons’ Den judge. Casey has in fact departed the show for the upcoming season. Thanks to reader John Breslin for spotting this error.

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