Enterprise Ireland CEO wants women founders to get 50pc of funding

14 Feb 2018

From left: Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnnamon; Coroflo CEO Rosanne Longmore; Minister Heather Humphreys, TD; and Enterprise Ireland chair Terence O’Rourke. Image: Fennell Photography

Ireland is setting a new international benchmark and leading the field for funding women-led tech firms.

Internationally, the funding level for women-led companies is typically 6pc or lower. Enterprise Ireland is bucking this trend, with 35pc of all high-potential start-ups (HPSUs) backed in 2017 being women-led.

For the CEO of Enterprise Ireland, Julie Sinnamon, 35pc is still not good enough.

‘This is not an Irish problem, it is a global problem. Only 8pc of tech entrepreneurs globally are female, so it is a big problem’

Sinnamon was speaking with Siliconrepublic.com at the agency’s annual Start-up Showcase in Croke Park where it was revealed that about €31m was invested in Irish start-ups in 2017.

181 promising start-ups received support from Enterprise Ireland, out of which 55pc were from outside of Dublin.

To keep up the regional momentum, Enterprise Ireland revealed a new €500,000 Competitive Start Fund for regionally based start-ups.

In 2017, 90 new HPSUs were supported. These are companies that have the potential to create 10 jobs and €1m in sales within the next three to four years.

Enterprise Ireland revealed that in 2017, 67 investments were made in women-led start-ups, or 35pc of all start-up investments last year.

The global ambition is real

Speaking with Silconrepublic.com, Sinnamon said that Irish start-ups have to go global from the get-go and the agency has been working hard to match companies with buyers.

“We open the doors and we also provide information to buyers in advance.

“I often say people don’t buy from us because we are nice people. It’s the innovation that people around the world are looking for, it’s in Ireland, and we are trustworthy and we deliver.”

As the Brexit storm clouds continue to gather over the UK, Sinnamon said that Irish companies are increasingly looking to additional markets and geographies.

“The UK has always been an important first-reference site for many of these companies, but we are finding at present a growing ambition to look at other markets.

“Many companies here today have started in the eurozone, the US and Australia, for example. It [Brexit] is actually forcing companies to think differently and try to look at the product and service and decide which market is appropriate.

“The UK is and will always be an important market, but the start-ups here are thinking global.”

Since taking the helm of Enterprise Ireland, Sinnamon’s leadership has been characterised by a methodical and disciplined approach to ensuring more women founders and women-led start-ups succeed.

“The first thing we did was look at what the problem was. In 2011, just 7pc of our HPSUs had a female member of the founding team. Today for HPSUs, it is 28pc.

“This is not an Irish problem, it is a global problem. Only 8pc of tech entrepreneurs globally are female, so it is a big problem.

“When we started there was a lack of ambition, a lack of confidence, a lack of access to funding and a lack of role models. Females are more influenced by role models. So, putting a spotlight on the successes – because there weren’t enough of them – exacerbated the issue. We have addressed each of the problems, and the good news, and what is pleasing for us, is that we analysed the problem and have had good success in reaching 28pc.

“Many people are holding their breath, saying that the job is done. The job is not done. The key thing is that we keep that momentum going. I see the 50pc as a figure that is on my horizon and above it. So, to me, it is a work in progress and we look forward to attracting more female founders to work with them to grow.”

Irish women founders set a global example

Meanwhile, recent figures from TechIreland.org showed that Irish women founders are still in the minority across core tech industries in Ireland.

Out of 1,700 indigenous tech companies in Ireland last year, 300 have women founders.

“We tracked about €79m in funding last year for female founders out of a total of €600m,” said TechIreland’s Niamh Bushnell.

She said that this is a strong figure compared with international levels and that there are a lot of start-ups led by women founders – including Soapbox Labs and Nuritas – excelling in areas of deep tech.

However, while Irish women founders punch above their weight, it is worth remembering that, internationally, the overall situation remains bleak.

“It is a sad story. All over the world, female funding is really, really low, well below 10pc and more like 5pc. And, while we [Ireland] have it in the teens and are very strong in terms of female funding, a lot of the credit goes to Enterprise Ireland who, at the seed round stage, give a lot of funding for female founders and have special programmes for them.”

Ultimately, Bushnell believes that what women founders need is a place at the table when it comes to funding decisions.

“And they need to be believed when they tell big and ambitious stories about what they are capable of delivering on. So, it’s really much more at this stage about recognising the best of the crop across all areas, recognising those female founders, believing in their capabilities and giving them the money to do the job.”

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