As digital spirit goes, Cork is second to no one

12 Oct 2015

While Dublin may have scale, Cork has the tech heritage and is taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to formulating start-ups and digital enterprises and inspiring its young entrepreneurs, writes John Kennedy.

Cork people’s pride in their city and county goes without saying and jibes about the “real capital” never get old, only amplified, if they ever have to live somewhere else, like Dublin. But jokes aside, it is no laughing matter when you consider the strong heritage the city has in terms of technology: Apple has been there since the early 1980s and continues to grow; Cork has a strong tradition of electronics and semiconductors; it is the pharmaceutical capital of Ireland and some of its youngest technology companies, including Xanadu, Trustev and Teamwork, are blazing their own trail and are growing fast.

These thoughts occurred to me on a whistlestop visit to the city last week where I met with organisations like the Tyndall Institute and the Irish Maritime and Energy Resource Cluster, as well as the President of UCC, Dr Michael Murphy.

In early November, will be holding a Cork Week to celebrate the hold the city and county has on Ireland’s digital destiny.

In the 1990s, I used to make it my business to take the train down to Cork and get tours of the manufacturing plants of Apple and pharma giants like SmithKline Beecham. It was hard to put my finger on it back then except to say there was a clarity of purpose that can often get lost in the hustle and bustle of Dublin.

From talking to individuals like Dr Murphy, or Dr Kieran Drain, the CEO of Tyndall, or Val Cummins, director of IMERC, that clarity of purpose still exists. Just like with the TSSG in Waterford, there is a focused and thoughtful approach to discovering method and helping companies grow.

Independent thinking

As UCC prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole on 2 November, Dr Murphy reminded me that the first professor of mathematics at the university had no formal qualifications but went on to write the seminal work Laws of Thought and has been called the father of the digital age for his influence on mathematics and logic.

UCC has formed an alliance with the Blackstone Launchpad entrepreneurship programme that allows students and graduates to just walk in and get support and mentorship.

In fact, Dr Murphy said the university is taking a long view on how start-ups evolve and that it would encourage students to drop-out and pursue companies that could create jobs because they can always return to education.

It is no accident that passion and enthusiasm for technology and frustration with the status quo led to the creation of the CoderDojo movement in Cork only four years ago. Today the CoderDojo movement is a not-for-profit organisation where, through a network of volunteers and kids teaching other kids, there are more than 480 dojos operating in 48 countries worldwide. Within Europe alone CoderDojo classes teach more than 25,000 students how to code.

At the Tyndall Institute, Dr Drain, a seasoned technology industry veteran who has held CEO leadership roles with several US electronics companies, spoke with pride about key breakthroughs at Tyndall such as the ability to make the junctionless transistor even smaller and other breakthroughs that could extend the live of Moore’s Law and that build on the heritage of the Irish scientist John Tyndall. The Tyndall Institute has grown to more than 460 researchers, scientists and engineers, who are pushing the boundaries of science and electronics. Achievements include five patents in 2014 alone, 10 spinouts and a turnover of more than €30m.

Clarity and thought and vision were also to be seen in IMERC’s decision last week to open a new innovation space for marine-oriented start-ups, called the Entrepreneur Ship at the harbour in Ringaskiddy, to capitalise on opportunities in the blue economy. Start-ups based in the Entrepreneur Ship are located adjacent to the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI), the Irish Defence Forces Naval Base and University College Cork’s new Beaufort building, which houses the MaREI Research Centre and the LIR National Ocean Test Facility.

“The Entrepreneur Ship is a place of convergence between entrepreneurial talent and the explosion of new ideas and technologies coming from areas such as robotics, big data, biotechnology, power generation, cybersecurity, unmanned systems, and power storage as they relate to our ocean and energy systems,” said Val Cummins, director of IMERC, last week.

Further west of Cork city and out to Skiberreen there are plans to create a rural digital hub in an old bakery building that could create 500 new jobs, with 75 or more guaranteed in the start-up phase.

The Ludgate hub initiative is named after Skibbereen native Percy Ludgate, who lived less than 100 metres from the building. He took his place in the history of digital technology by designing the world’s first portable computer in 1907. The 10,000 sq ft hub is the first of its kind in a non-urban area in Ireland.

Absolute focus

Back in Cork city, young tech company Teamwork is in the process of doubling its size to 100 people as companies like Disney and eBay snap up the company’s project management software and the company achieves revenues in the region of several million euro.

Another Cork-based start-up, Trustev, is blazing a trail in the area of payment security and its CEO Pat Phelan, a former Cork butcher who returned to college and embarked on the start-up journey, is now leading the company’s charge from New York while the vital product development takes place back in Cork.

Xanadu Consultancy, a company based in Blackpool, Cork that provides software and consultancy to the online gaming sector is hiring 120 people in the areas of marketing, programming and data analytics.

Only established in 2011, the company has been constantly expanding. “Our continued expansion is a reflection of our absolute focus, international customer wins, invaluable client feedback and increasing market demand,” Mark Brosnan, CEO of Xanadu, said when the jobs were announced.

The key words here are “absolute focus” – words whose meaning often gets lost in cities like Dublin or bigger hubs like San Francisco or London.

In summing up, UCC president Dr Murphy said last there was a rebellious spirit, a determination to do things differently but also an originality of thought that can set Cork entrepreneurs and innovators apart and that this must be fostered.

This is something other regions of Ireland could emulate and learn from. But Cork faces its challenges too. The majority of venture capital investment in Ireland is still heavily weighted towards Dublin, and Cork has no dedicated districts or locations that start-ups can cluster around like the Digital Hub or the so-called Silicon Docks in Dublin. With imagination and determination that, of course, can change.

But, even still, free from distraction and with absolute focus, Cork can teach us all a thing or two about fostering digital spirit and enabling young entrepreneurs.

Cork city image via Shutterstock

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