The evolution of the Irish tech entrepreneur

4 Feb 2022

Image: © fran_kie/Stock.adobe.com

Enterprise Ireland’s Jenny Melia reflects on how Ireland’s tech start-up community has transformed over the last two decades.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

Enterprise Ireland started 2022 with a new three-year strategy targeting, among other things, increased support for entrepreneurs. Unveiled last month by CEO Leo Clancy, the new strategy laid out plans for the State agency to support 450 early-stage companies over the next three years and grow its cohort of high-potential start-ups by 20pc.

Future Human

Jenny Melia leads the high-potential start-up (HPSU) team at Enterprise Ireland and, having been with the organisation for more than a quarter of a century, she has seen her fair share of strategies launched.

“When you look at the strategies, they actually give you a really strong flavour of where we were as an economy at that time,” said Melia.

“You can see in the strategies around 2006, 2008, we were in a very strong position. You go through the financial recession then, 2008 to 2010, and the next strategy was very much around jobs. We had so many people, in terms of the downturn, who were looking for employment. And one of the things that jumped out for me then in terms of that strategy was the focus on supporting more entrepreneurs.”

More recent challenges include Brexit, which prompted Irish enterprise to shake off its over-reliance on the UK market, and, of course, the pandemic we are still living and working through. Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on the way we work, from global supply chain infrastructure right down to individual productivity.

Emerging from this disruption are strong and resilient Irish businesses with global ambition. 2022 has only just begun and already we’ve seen the minting of two fresh new Irish tech unicorns – private companies with a valuation of more than $1bn – in Wayflyer and Flipdish.

Two other Irish tech unicorns, Stripe and Intercom, started out in Silicon Valley but are now running major operations out of both the US and Ireland. Going to California was the right move for many entrepreneurs then but now, a decade on, things have changed dramatically.

Stripe co-founder John Collison said in 2020, that it’s “entirely plausible” that you could set up Stripe in Dublin now. He was speaking in the context of the changes Covid-19 had wrought across the world but, coupled with the $100bn fintech’s decision to be dual-headquartered in Dublin and San Francisco, it’s a testament to how effective changes to the start-up environment here have opened up huge possibilities for a new class of entrepreneurs.

The new class

Melia has noted a significant change in the kind of entrepreneur she encounters. Back in the days following the 2008 financial crash, we had what she called “forced entrepreneurs”.

“Entrepreneurship mightn’t have been their original career path, but that was where their working life brought them,” she explained.

Now, we are seeing “latent entrepreneurs” stepping up to grasp emerging opportunities. Some may even be inspired, Melia said, by Collison’s comments.

“It does make that latent entrepreneur, that young entrepreneur, that female entrepreneur, or that entrepreneur who might have come to Ireland to work in one of our multinationals, and maybe they and two or three others are thinking about stepping out to do something – it makes them think we can afford to take the risk, that there are sufficient supports to help de-risk the project.”

Of course, you can never fully eliminate risk. Failure is an occupational hazard for all entrepreneurs, no matter what their type, so what’s important is having safety nets to help these pioneers of industry bounce back when they fall.

‘We have very generous entrepreneurs in Ireland who are genuinely prepared to throw the ladder down to the people who are coming behind them’
– JENNY MELIA

“Some of the projects will work, and some of them won’t. And sometimes it’s not the first one that works,” said Melia. “It’s the learnings from the first and the second that go on to make a really brilliant third company.”

Safety nets for serial entrepreneurs are made up of the fabric of a supportive start-up ecosystem, of which Enterprise Ireland is just one strand. While it takes a national approach, regional supports across the country are essential to the knitting together of this broader strategy.

The establishment of these supports alongside improved infrastructure and the shift to remote working across the country has been a boon for regional development. Working from home has seen some decide to make a move away from the capital, and creating jobs outside Dublin remains a key pillar of Enterprise Ireland’s strategy.

Regional development

An idyllic view of the modern Irish entrepreneur is exemplified by Fidelma McGuirk, founder and CEO of Mayo-based Payslip. Melia distinctly recalled a profile of McGuirk which pictured her against the backdrop of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and Croagh Patrick.

From this scenic location, she beamed into Enterprise Ireland’s virtual International Markets Week conference last October. “Fidelma talked, as a Wexford woman, about setting up business in Westport and being able to set up business in Westport because she had the access to talent and she had the broadband she needed,” said Melia.

Melia believes that remote working and its promise of better work-life balance presents “a real opportunity for us to get more talent into the regional areas and to give opportunity to latent entrepreneurs who are in the regions”. And on the entrepreneurs’ side, as well as the beautiful scenery and broadband, rural regions need co-working spaces, accelerator programmes and all the trimmings of a healthy start-up community. This, she said, gives Irish entrepreneurs a choice: “To actually be able to choose to grow their business there rather than feeling they have to move to that more urban location to catch the talent”.

Melia is well placed to remark on the evolution of Ireland’s regional start-up infrastructure. About 15 years ago she was working with university incubation centres across the country. Since then, she has seen investment in community enterprise centres and new local stakeholders put these locations on the entrepreneurial map.

Some regions have chosen to play to particular strengths such as the fintech cluster in the south-east and bio-based immersion programmes taking advantage of the concentration of life sciences activity in the west. The regions, through Local Enterprise Offices, business incubation centres and more, are “honing in on how they do more together to make their region a better place to start and scale a business,” said Melia. “It is the combination of those activities then that really gives us the bang for the buck.”

Solid foundations

Entrepreneurs in Ireland also benefit from a tight network of fellow founders. The founders of Stripe and Intercom are known to pay it forward in their homegrown start-up community, and it’s a trait commonly found throughout.

“We have very generous entrepreneurs in Ireland who are genuinely prepared to throw the ladder down to the people who are coming behind them on that scaling journey,” said Melia. “I see that every day, and not just in the high-potential start ups. I’ve seen it over the last 26 years in Enterprise Ireland. I always say what a privilege it is to be working with these people on a daily basis.”

The new breed of Irish entrepreneur is built on these strong foundations, lending an air of confidence that comes from the experience of many. Melia sees the number of entrepreneurs “now in a position to go again” as a sure sign that there are exciting things to come. And it gives Enterprise Ireland a bank of eminently more investable entrepreneurs to choose from.

“I’m a big believer in smart money,” she said. “Money is great, don’t get me wrong. But money that comes with scaling experience and international scaling experience is so much more valuable.”

And Irish start-ups are attracting plenty of outside investment too. “We have seen a big increase in international funding coming into our start-ups,” said Melia. “Ireland is on the radar for international funders.”

Ireland’s longstanding reputation as an international hub for major STEM businesses also continues to be a pillar for its start-up community. Between the Irish companies scaling here and overseas multinationals that have set down roots in Ireland, Melia sees no shortage of options locally for a start-up to find a customer to take them globally.

“I’m really feeling at the moment, after coming through the last 18 months, that we’re on the cusp of great opportunities now in Ireland,” she said. “And we have a real opportunity to make Ireland an even better location to start and grow a business.”

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com