Make your own revolution in Ireland: the start-up island

5 Oct 2015

A bigger, bolder vision for the industrial future of Ireland is needed

As the Budget looms, the opportunity exists to remove frictions and make Ireland the perfect place to create the industries of the future, harnessing the maker’s revolution, the internet of things and a new enterprising spirit sweeping the country, says John Kennedy.

IoT Makers Week

Back in a previous century, when I was an earnest young fellow preparing for my Leaving Cert, I would interrupt my studies some days and walk to the local church and light a 10p candle. As if this would make a difference to the outcome.

Observing this ritual one day, my dad quietly took me aside and gave me the best advice of my life: “You know what, John? God only helps those who help themselves.”

Tipping the scales of fate

I never forgot it, and those words came to mind this week at the confluence of a number of events.

Less than two weeks from now, the Irish Government will reveal its Budget for 2016, and vital changes required to allow entrepreneurial enterprises to flourish will hopefully be addressed. The tax treatment of entrepreneurs in sectors like technology is absurd, and capital gains tax is only primed to serve a defunct construction industry from a boom time we would all like to forget. What I am talking about here is the need to create an Irish alternative to the UK’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). Our outmoded “friends and family round” BES system and punitive capital gains tax systems are creating frictions that are pushing entrepreneurs to set up in the UK to be in a position to reward talent.

‘In the 21st century, geography is history’

This week is IoT Makers Week on, and all this week we will be highlighting the companies, institutions and individuals – like Intel’s Philip Moynagh – who are at the cutting edge of a major opportunity that could ensure Ireland is leading rather than following in the next industrial revolution. This is a world where sensors, computers and the ability to make your own stuff could turn any backyard entrepreneur into an industrialist of the 21st century. From start-ups like Drop, which has created an ingenious kitchen scale that paired with an iPad could turn any bumbling cook into an award-winning pastry chef in minutes, to Cork-headquartered PCH, which has created a US$1bn global hardware empire developing products for Apple and Beats, the Irish have a fighting chance. “Geography is history,” PCH CEO Liam Casey constantly reminds us. He is right.

The evidence is abundant: Intel is planning to turn Dublin into the world’s first internet of things city, starting in Croke Park; farm machinery player Keenans is harnessing the internet of things to enable farmers to guarantee the perfect steak, which would be cooked in a restaurant in Rome or New York; Glen Dimplex is harnessing the internet of things to create smart heating systems; Kingspan is using IoT to create the next generation of solar photovoltaic products; and a chip made by Dublin start-up Movidius, that can map a room in 3D, is at the heart of Google’s vision for the internet of things.

This week is also the week of the Startup Gathering. Last week at a dinner in Dublin’s city centre, I ran into one of the Startup Gathering’s chief organisers, Andrew Parish, who told me that, this week, more than 400 events will take place around the country, all geared towards harnessing the enterprising spirit in Ireland and helping would-be company founders to learn and be inspired. At the start, he said, Startup Gathering aimed to create 50 countrywide events. “So it really has steamrolled,” Parish said.

The start-up island … believe it

If we are serious about making Ireland the start-up island of Europe, and turning cities like Dublin into Europe’s pre-eminent digital city, we need to remove the frictions of doing business. We need to reward endeavour, and make growth from enterprise and hard work an inevitable result, not a lucky outcome.

Every time a Budget coincides with a looming general election in Ireland, the politicians tend to start revealing potential goodies. If anything, the State has been tight-lipped about any changes to capital gains tax, but some of the things to leak out are possibly fantasy. At the weekend, for example, one story doing the rounds was that returning emigrants with skills sorely needed may get reduced income tax of 30pc. For anyone who has started a business, or for individuals who have been paying 51pc all through the dark years of recession, keeping the economy running, this would be a bitter pill to swallow. Are there special measures too for them?

What is needed is a set of measures that make it possible for companies to compete fairly in the war for talent, for individuals at any location in Ireland who have an idea and the will to make it happen to innovate. Clever initiatives like SURE, which allows would-be entrepreneurs to reclaim 60pc of income tax for the previous six years, are a step in the right direction.

Instead of short-term policies, make Ireland the kind of place where business is fair and to where emigrants would want to return and be enterprising.

But the enterprise and entrepreneurship spirit in Ireland may not be as potent as we are being led to believe. The most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) – which normally puts Ireland in the vanguard of entrepreneurship – showed us to have slipped into the 16th position. Ireland rated 6.5pc, below the European average of 7.7pc.

What is missing from the picture are the visionary, even imaginative, steps needed to transform Ireland’s industrial landscape. I’m talking on a scale that matches the boldness of visionaries like TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass.

If the country really is focused on entrepreneurship and technology, then why aren’t entrepreneurship and coding part of the curriculum? Coding already is in the UK.

If we really want to catch the next industrial wave, why aren’t we investing in the facilities and resources to facilitate invention – create a maker’s space in every principal town of every county with CNC machines, lathes and 3D printers for local entrepreneurs of any age to access. Why not?

Why not open up rooms in libraries or abandoned schools or office buildings, which, with a bit of heat and WiFi, could create the spark for local start-ups to work in?

A rising tide lifts all boats: no location should be left behind

Despite rankings like GEM, I believe the enterprising spirit is actually alive and well. In August, it emerged that an old bakery building in Skibbereen, Cork, was to be renamed Ludgate@Skibbereen, potentially creating 500 new jobs over the next five years, with 75 in the initial phase.

“The hub will act as a catalyst for local economic development by initially housing up to 75 digital, technology and science innovators,” Leonard Donnelly of the Ludgate hub steering group and former chairman of Dublin Digital Hub Development Agency explained at the time.

If it could be done in Skibbereen, then surely similar things can happen in Navan, Athlone, Letterkenny, Tralee… Why not?

In Tramore, one of the most promising software companies ever to emerge from Ireland, NearForm, is creating 100 jobs at a former Waterford County Council building.

Even this morning, the fruits of enterprise were revealed. Just yards from O’Connell Bridge, software company Ammeon announced 100 new software jobs just months after the company announced another 30. It employs 200 people and is growing very fast.

In Kildare, a group of entrepreneurs decided in 2013 to create their own craft brewery. Today, Rye River Brewing Company announced 100 new manufacturing and executive jobs, as well as 150 construction jobs for a new brewery and visitor centre pending planning permission. Having learned their craft at global brewing giants Diageo, Heineken and Molson Coors, Niall Phelan, Alan Wolfe and Tom Cronin had a vision to build the best little brewery in the world.

From a standing start in late 2013, Rye River Brewing Company has grown to almost 60 employees, produces a range of 15 beers, including six of their own brand – McGargle Beers – and is a distribution centre for imported brands such as Bavaria and San Miguel, along with craft beers from Innis & Gunn in Edinburgh. They also supply private label contracts with Lidl, and supply some exclusive brands to Tesco and Dunnes. Company turnover has increased from €189,000 in 2013 to €5.5m in 2014, a 2900pc increase, and they forecast a further growth in turnover to €16m by the end of 2015. Current exports are to 14 countries and further growth is expected to come from the domestic market, as well as additional targeting of the UK, US, European and Asian markets. No small beer then.

So whether it is beer, farm machinery or must-have consumer electronics, the maker’s revolution is here/ The economies of scale barriers are disappearing and, as Liam Casey said, geography is history.

We just need to remove the frictions and help ourselves.

IoT Makers Week explores the internet of things revolution and the makers driving it with reports on from 5 to 9 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #IoTMakersWeek on Twitter.

Ireland image via Shutterstock

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