Enterprise Ireland CEO believes Ireland can build its own icons

11 Oct 2021

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland. Image: Maxwell Photography

Speaking at the launch of International Markets Week, Leo Clancy offers a glimpse of Enterprise Ireland’s ambitious vision for the next decade.

Monday (11 October) marked the beginning of International Markets Week, a major event in the Enterprise Ireland calendar where hundreds of companies will connect with market advisers from 40 overseas offices to help accelerate their international growth.

More than 1,600 individual meetings are scheduled to take place virtually this week while a panel discussion involving Enterprise Ireland CEO Leo Clancy was livestreamed Monday morning.

Though there is little doubt that dealmakers will be looking forward to getting back to doing business in person, there is also certainty that there’s something to be gained from what has been learned during the great virtual experiment.

“People are very open to what the future brings,” said Clancy. “There’s a lot of different ways to address markets now.”

We’ve adapted. We’ve learned flexibility. And, according Clancy, that does two things: “It makes you more resilient. It also opens up new opportunities.”

‘The transformation of Ireland from a location that attracted tech to being a digital capital globally in tech has been immense’

Clancy spoke to Siliconrepublic.com fresh from a panel discussion involving some of Enterprise Ireland’s clients sharing their experience over the past year. Rosy Temple, CEO of Magee clothing, told us how a company around since the 19th century was finally embracing e-commerce. Fidelma McGuirk, CEO of software start-up Payslip, revealed how the pivot to virtual meetings with buyers, first driven by necessity, is now going to become an everyday part of how they conduct business.

‘A lot of optimism’

A survey of exporting companies by Enterprise Ireland shows that they may have been bruised by recent crises, but are bouncing back. More than half (56pc) have seen an increase in exports in 2021 compared to 2020 with only 11pc reporting a decrease. And a massive 91pc are optimistic that sales will increase again in 2022.

With four eventful months behind him as the new head of Enterprise Ireland, succeeding Julie Sinnamon, he has been most impressed by the resilience of Irish companies and the positive outlook. “We’re seeing a lot of optimism across the board,” he said.

Over the past 18 months, Enterprise Ireland has given advice and support to more than 8,000 companies on surviving the pandemic, and thousands more in the context of Brexit. There was also a boost in direct financial support from the Government for Enterprise Ireland client companies.

This support for SMEs and start-ups bodes well as we head into the announcements for Budget 2022. Clancy is buoyed by evident support for the SME agenda from Government ministers including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD. “They really understand it, they really value it. They really want to drive it on. So I think that recognition, support and awareness at the political level couldn’t be higher,” he said.

One thing the Tánaiste is hugely supportive of is formalising remote working across the Irish workforce, and Enterprise Ireland is keenly aware of the need for companies to adapt to this new world of work.

According to Clancy, the workforce is demanding change and workers are ready to seek out the companies offering flexibility. “You’re in a scarce talent market trying to attract people in, so you’ve got to put some stakes in the ground,” he advised. “What we’re hearing on the ground is that the employee expectation across most industries is very high and it’s very hard for employers to ignore.”

Ireland’s new icons

Straight in the door and Clancy is already in the midst of developing a new strategy for Enterprise Ireland. Over the next couple of months, the State agency will reveal its new three-year roadmap, which Clancy says will also come with “ambitious vision” for Irish enterprise up to 2030.

“What I’m hearing is huge ambition,” he said. “Everyone is really primed for what is going to be an ambitious and positive next three years.”

Reflecting on his previous eight years as head of technology in IDA Ireland, Clancy sees clearly what has already been achieved for this sector in Ireland.

“The transformation of Ireland from a location that attracted tech to being a digital capital globally in tech has been immense,” he said. “We were a location for tech businesses to invest in because it was convenient. And now we’re a tech location that people invest in because they can draw on the best talent in the world here in Ireland.”

‘We’ll see more tech companies of scale coming out of Ireland in the next five to 10 years’

Some have warned this heyday of foreign direct investment from the tech sector into Ireland could end with the new tax regime agreed by the OECD nations last week. Others see it as an opportunity for renewed support of indigenous business. Clancy, however, is eager to point out that this is not an either/or situation, where foreign direct investment must suffer for native enterprise to flourish.

“I think that’s short-sighted and I think it’s wrong, to be honest. I think FDI is still in rude good health, but I do think that we are primed to really scale Irish enterprise,” he said.

He cited a recent interview with John Collison where the Ireland-born Silicon Valley millionaire said that his company, Stripe, could have been started in the Dublin of today, but not as things were when the company was founded in 2009.

But let’s not forget the Irish companies doing great business internationally who have grown here. Tom O’Leary from Icon, the clinical trials specialist, sat alongside Clancy in today’s panel discussion, explaining the company’s recent role in vaccine development.

Earlier this year, Icon announced a $12bn acquisition to create one of the world’s largest contract research organisations.

“They’re an Irish company that has been grown from the ground up,” said Clancy. And when he says “we will see more Icons”, I think he means that in every sense of the word.

“We’ll see more tech companies of scale coming out of Ireland in the next five to 10 years. We’re going to see companies hit that level and that that’s going to be one of the big planks of our strategy – supporting the ambitious Irish entrepreneurs to stay Irish, to grow their businesses out of here, to hopefully float them and challenge all of the global household names over the next 10 years.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.