Ireland needs to be the land of 1,000 welcomes for global start-ups

2 Nov 2015

Ireland: the land of 1,000 welcomes for global start-ups?

The multinational investments of the future will be very different to the capital investments of the past and Ireland needs to act faster than other countries to welcome global entrepreneurial talent, writes John Kennedy

This week is an auspicious week for Dublin’s tech scene insofar as it will be the final Web Summit after five years of steady growth in the city that fostered it. It may be the last for three years as it shuffles off to Lisbon or it may be the last forever. Who knows? There are a lot of mixed feelings about its departure and how the whole situation was handled, and no one comes out well from it as far as I can tell.

But what it did do was shine a beacon on Ireland and bring global entrepreneurial talent and leadership to Dublin at an unprecedented scale. In the war for investment and talent, such moments will be increasingly valuable.

I’ve pointed out before that some of this country’s most valuable and fast-growing internet companies were just around five years old – still quintessentially start-ups – when they selected Ireland as a location to spearhead their international growth: Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Uber to name a few. And let’s not forget Apple, when it chose Cork in 1980, was precisely five years old. Still a start-up.

Now the war for talent and tech investment is going to be razor-focused on even younger, faster-growing companies and the nations with their heads screwed on will be trying to get their founders to leave Silicon Valley, Hanoi, Mumbai, Philadelphia, Singapore or Manila and locate in their country instead.

This was obvious to me last week when the Israeli city of Tel Aviv revealed it is planning to introduce a new start-up visa aimed at entrepreneurs from around the world who plan to work in the city for 24 months on innovative projects. Tel Aviv’s greatest challenge is the integration of international talent, with it having a 40pc lower share of international talent than Silicon Valley.

“The Start-up Visa will enable foreign entrepreneurs from around the world to develop new ideas in Israel, which will aid the development of the Israeli market,” said Israel’s Minister of Economy Aryeh Deri.

In recent weeks, the UK unveiled a new team application feature for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa, which will allow entire teams from start-ups to locate in the UK and which has been hailed as revolutionary.

Realising that the US has been steadily losing start-up founders to other countries, there have been calls by members of the European start-up scene for the creation of a Europe-wide start-up visa for founders.

Ireland has been no slouch when it comes to making it easier for founders to locate here, but that has only been a recent development and comes after years of lobbying by multinationals eager to bring talented engineers ashore. Indeed, many non-EU tech workers living in Ireland still bemoan the bureaucratic nightmare of renewing their visas every year and having to endure long queues every time.

Remove the frictions and the riches will follow

It is definitely a system that has its share of frictions. If Ireland is serious about maintaining a tech industry and capturing future waves of multinationals, these frictions need to go.

Jobs Minister Richard Bruton is well aware of the skills shortage of tech workers in Europe, with some 700,000 unfilled ICT job openings across the EU.

Ireland needs to move fast. Bruton himself admitted at the Silicon Republic Jobs Forum two years ago that every year about 1,200 people are granted work permits and that this was to grow by 700 through simplification of rules and extending the range of occupations that can have fast-track access. He promised to reduce the amount of bureaucracy by about one-third.

If anything, as the war for talent intensifies, this is only a drop in the ocean as countries move faster and faster to sweep up founders to locate on their shores.

France harbours ambitions to make Paris the start-up capital of Europe and in a very generous package aimed at luring overseas tech start-up talent to France, Digital Economy Minister Axelle Lemaire has created a new visa package called the French Tech Ticket.

The French Tech Ticket, in alliance with the city of Paris, provides foreign entrepreneurs with a work visa, between $14,000 and $28,000 for each team member, free office space in an incubator and an English-speaking administrative adviser.

The move is similar to that of Chile, where every six months dozens of teams are granted a visa, a $32,000 grant and free mentorship.

What has Ireland done to face this competition? In July, the Irish Government created  a new €500,000 Competitive Start Fund that will provide up to €50,000 in equity supports for 10 successful start-ups to start their businesses in areas like internationally-focused manufacturing or internationally-traded services. The fund is part of Enterprise Ireland’s strategy for increasing the number of high potential start-ups (HPSUs) that have the potential to employ more than 10 people and achieve more than €1m in export sales within three years.

While it shows the policymakers are cognisant of the international picture, it is only a start.

The ace up our sleeves

If I was a policymaker – which I am not because the bureaucracy I would face would probably break my heart – I would look at everything Ireland has achieved in the last 30 or 40 years in building up a multinational tech scene and look at ways to encourage the international talent we have here already to also spin-out and create a start-up.

It’s one thing to encourage the next big thing to come to Ireland but what if it is already here, under our noses.

Perhaps Irish founders, as well as potential founders who have come to work at Google or Facebook or Intel from India, China, the US or elsewhere, who have been working side-by-side could be encouraged to spin-out and create companies on these shores.

There is growing evidence of former Google and Facebook alumni who are doing precisely this and a new cadre of seasoned entrepreneurs with exposure to international best practices are starting up in Dublin and elsewhere.

While multinationals may be jealous of losing talent to start-ups, they could also keep a stake in the game by jointly investing with venture capital firms and Enterprise Ireland in these new ventures. This is also a move that would play well in terms of potential acqui-hiring strategies, again another pillar of future multinational investment.

The term ‘joined-up thinking’ is often overused but seldom pursued. In the war for talent, Ireland has the biggest tech companies, a tech workforce of more than 100,000 people and, despite the weather at times, it is a good place to live.

It’s time to play to our strengths, open our eyes and look around us. It would require creating new kinds of start-up team visas, new kinds of funding and a level of collaboration between IDA and Enterprise Ireland and the Departments of Jobs and Foreign Affairs with a vision to make Ireland the go-to global destination outside of Silicon Valley to start-up.

But that is a vision that requires commitment. Are we ready for that?

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Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin, image via Shutterstock

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