Irish ed-tech finds a start-up middle ground to keep the momentum going

15 Apr 2014

(From left) Lord David Puttnam, Ireland¹s first Digital Champion; Alan Maguire, co-founder, Versari Hub; and Jonny Parkes, co-founder, Versari Hub; check out the technology of Versari Hub company SureWash at the hub¹s recent opening. Photo by Naoise Culha

Ireland has a rich education-technology heritage dating back to the early years of computing. Businessman Pat McDonagh, for instance, spent most of his career in the computer-based training industry – the first steps of e-learning in the Eighties.

“It was rudimentary by today’s standards, but that’s how far back the pedigree goes,” said Alan Maguire, founder of Versari Hub, a dedicated facility for early stage learning technologies companies.

From this heritage comes a wellspring of entrepreneurs eager to catch the ed-tech wave. In the US, 2014 has already been declared a banner year for ed-tech, with 99 start-ups hitting a record US$500m in funding in the first quarter alone, according to CrunchBase.

Putting accelerated start-ups on ICE

“There are bigger opportunities outside of Ireland but, for now, I think to bang the drum of ed-tech in Ireland there’s no better drum to bang than Versari’s,” said James Galvin, the hub’s head of marketing.

Located south of the river Liffey in Dublin city centre, Versari Hub offers a turn-key solution for start-ups, with furnished office space and shared services, such as access to Galvin and his team.

“The acronym we use is ICE: infrastructure, capital and expertise – and you can pick as much or as little of that solution as you want,” said Maguire.

If accelerators such as Wayra and the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) are primary school for start-ups, Versari Hub is a second-level institution readying them for the big leagues.

Accelerator programmes run for a specified time frame, after which start-ups are ejected into the business world in a state Maguire compares to “a foal that’s learning to stand for the first time, and very often it can’t do that.”

This is where Versari Hub can step in and offer support, infrastructure and services until ed-tech businesses find their feet – however long that may take.

Community service

Operational since November 2013, Versari Hub members are enjoying the community dynamic. “We’re all under one roof so it means we can all help each other, and you wouldn’t get that in an agency environment,” said Galvin.

“I think it’s a proven fact that hubs work,” said Lee Lindsay, studio adviser at Adaptemy, which builds adaptive technology to teach Leaving Certificate maths. “Whenever you get people together that specialise in the same industry, naturally, they’ll bounce off each other.”

Social learning platform BlikBook moved to the hub from Sandyford. “We were actually slumming it in one of our investors’ offices, so moving in here was fantastic,” said Conor Noonan, academic relationship executive.

Noonan also noted the communal advantage. “It’s definitely good to hear what everyone else is doing. We have a nice area downstairs where everyone can have a chat or have a couple of drinks on a Friday, and it’s definitely beneficial,” he said.

Different targets, same challenges

The start-ups working with Versari Partners (Maguire and Jonny Parkes, hub co-founder) cover all aspects of education technology. Maguire described the scope as ‘cradle-to-grave learning’, encompassing StoryToys, publishers of interactive children’s storybooks for the iPad, and SureWash, an educational tool for hand hygiene implemented in 10 Irish hospitals.

Operating within such a wide domain, the companies based in the hub are not competitors, yet they are wrestling with the same fundamental challenge facing all young companies: scalability.

Talent development software provider EmpowerTheUser was based in Trinity Enterprise Centre in Dublin for three years before working with Parkes and Maguire.

“We were a little bit isolated down at the Trinity Enterprise Centre because not a lot of businesses there were doing the same thing,” said Declan Dagger, CEO, who believes the hub’s ed-tech focus provides a good cross-pollination of ideas.

“If we had tapped into this when we spun out (of Trinity College Dublin) in 2010, it would have made a bigger difference sooner – but it’s never too late!” he said.

Destinations of excellence

For Maguire, Versari Hub’s success will come when these businesses establish their own offices in Ireland or, indeed, anywhere. “We’re trying to help them get to the stage where they don’t need us anymore,” he said.

The plan for the future is to expand the hub into a destination for ed-tech excellence, and then replicate this model around the world. “We’ve enough conviction around it now already,” said Maguire.

With high demand for the last remaining office space, Maguire is confident Versari Hub will soon outgrow its current base, and he has global growth in his sights. “We will do more of these. It’s just a case of when and where,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 13 April

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.