Q&A: How to turn a rural town into an international start-up hub

3 Nov 2016

Gráinne Dwyer, Ludgate Digital Hub CEO, pictured with board member David Puttnam. Image: John Allen Photography

Gráinne Dwyer, CEO at Ludgate Digital Hub and co-organiser of National Digital Week, answers some of our questions ahead of Skibbereen’s big tech event.

Gráinne Dwyer is CEO of the Ludgate Initiative in Skibbereen, which recently launched a co-working hub with one of the fastest broadband connections in the country. The €1m 10,000 sq ft Ludgate Digital Hub has attracted start-ups from LA, Chicago and London and is now being used as a case study for Europe on how to rejuvenate rural coastal communities.

Dwyer is also co-organiser of National Digital Week, a digitally focused conference aiming to explore opportunities for digital in rural areas. The conference ran for the first time last year, with over 1,600 attendees and 80 international and national speakers.

Future Human

Inspirefest 2017

What will National Digital Week bring to the busy tech calendar?

National Digital Week is beginning to attract a cult following, with over 70pc of attendees to date registered as return visitors to Skibbereen. The audience is a mix of national and international start-ups, SMEs, tech and digital enthusiasts, industry leaders, third-level students, female entrepreneurs, corporate employees and those looking for inspiration.

The event is unique as it is in an unusual rural location and is supported by event partners, AIB, Vodafone and Google. We don’t do early-bird discounts, VIP areas and ‘gurus’, and ultimately our pricing is affordable. Attendees can expect to get full access to all stages, workshops and one-to-one clinics, lunches, teas and coffees with the inclusive ticket price.

National Digital Week is like a mini festival where attendees can enjoy activities around West Cork as well as access to all entertainment in the arenas each night, including Céilí Allstars, Booka Brass, Dr Feelgood & the Electric Mayhem, and DJ Ian Richards. Attendees from last year liked our informal but quirky approach and the networking opportunities are fantastic. You could even be sitting for lunch with speakers from Uber, Airbnb, Just Eat, and lots more, which gives the event a very personable dimension.

The Google workshops and Google Digital Garage [are] a fantastic selling point for us, as it provides attendees access to expertise they would only find in London or Dublin. The one-to-one Google Digital Garage clinics will be a big hit again this year!

If you attend National Digital Week, it is assured you will have a fantastic experience, make valuable lasting connections and if you are a start-up, you might even bag yourself some investment financing.

How have things been going for the Ludgate Digital Hub?

Since opening, we have had an unprecedented demand in use for the Ludgate Digital Hub. By now, we are averaging over 150 users of the hub every month. We are now home to regional meetings, off-site programmes for large corporates, and a base for local and visiting businesses. We secured our first company from Silicon Valley who have relocated to Skibbereen. We have recently launched a Call II for the Ludgate Seed Capital fund which is valued at over €450,000. This has attracted interest from national and international start-ups and we hope to process all applications before Christmas.

What did it take to get the Ludgate Digital Hub off the ground?

The concept around Ludgate developed in November 2014 when a group of local entrepreneurs and business people met to discuss what could they ‘as a collective’ facilitate in Skibbereen. The Ludgate initiative was ultimately to create a digital roadmap for the region; sustaining jobs, enterprise and digital education which will create a sustainable future for Skibbereen and the wider West Cork area.

‘There has been little or no state investment in Skibbereen for the last 30 years so a self-help model was the only option for the town’

There has been little or no state investment in Skibbereen for the last 30 years so a self-help model was the only option for the town. Looking towards Government should no longer be option A for rural areas. Places like Skibbereen, Dingle, Dungarvan and Westport, to name a few, all have savvy business people, fantastic community spirit and a willingness to work in collaboration to create a future for their local town. It is now just up to the Government to meet these communities halfway.

What are the key selling points to attract business to Skibbereen?

We have four core selling points which we use to attract companies.

One: State-of-the-art office space equipped with a 1GB connection, meeting rooms, training and innovation spaces, and video-conferencing suites to ensure all start-ups can remain connected with their clients and networks. With our 1GB connection, geography is no longer a limiting factor of where start-ups can locate. The Ludgate Hub offers broadband connectivity provided by Vodafone of 1000 Mbps, as the town is connected to Siro’s 100pc fibre-optic broadband network. This has turned Skibbereen into a ‘1 Gigabit town’.

Gráinne Dwyer, Ludgate Digital Hub CEO and co-organiser of National Digital Week

Gráinne Dwyer at the Ludgate Digital Hub. Image: Valerie O’Sullivan

Two: Talent. We have a comprehensive database of skilled professionals in the area to match with re-locating start-ups. By matching talent with our affordable rates, it proves an attractive option for start-ups. Our board has an extensive global contact list which offers an additional angle to locating in the Ludgate Hub, especially for those looking to scale internationally.

The Ludgate Hub offers mentorship to tenants, which can prove an invaluable resource to early-stage start-ups. To say as a company you have been mentored by our board member Ronan Harris (managing director of Google UK and Ireland) or Lord David Puttnam (Oscar-winning film producer) is something Irish start-ups would not normally have easy access to. We have 11 high-profile board members which mentor our tenants when requested. If they do not match the sector of the start-up, they will use their contact list to ensure they get access to the right people.

‘Ours is is a very attractive option for those looking for an alternative outside of Dublin, New York or Berlin’

Three: Our 1GB town offers scope of development way beyond the Ludgate Hub. We run a number of local projects encouraging all to use the 1GB connectivity to its fullest potential. We have an e-retail scheme called eStreet; iPad and digital literacy classes; secondary school courses which teach coding, HTML and Java; as well as a range of other programmes. By encouraging the town to utilise the connectivity, it provides scope to develop Ludgate 2 and Ludgate 3 in other office spaces around the town.

Four: Lifestyle. It is no secret that West Cork can be considered the Riviera of Ireland. Our location on the Wild Atlantic Way, stunning scenery, world-class artisan food, access to schools (without waiting lists), access to affordable accommodation and a typical six-minute commute to the workplace is a very attractive option for those looking for an alternative outside of Dublin, New York or Berlin.

And what are the weak spots?

The most challenging aspect of the initiative is to address the lack of digital education for all citizens of our community. There is no point in communities getting a 1GB connection if they do not know how to use it. Our board member, Lord David Puttnam, who is Digital Champion of Ireland, has tirelessly campaigned for the digitisation of Ireland and he encourages young and old to utilise technology as a means and way of making life easier.

‘There is no point in communities getting a 1GB connection if they do not know how to use it’

The Ludgate Hub features in a four-part series called Making Ireland Click and the site has some fantastic resources on how to get access to training and how to utilise technology. We need to create a pipeline for future employees for the tech companies of Skibbereen in 2020, so we run tech modules in the local secondary school. Everything is now possible with our 1GB connection.

Do you see this model for a rural digital hub being replicated elsewhere?

We have been working on the Ludgate Hub initiative for over 18 months now, and many ask, ‘How has Skibbereen become so successful?’

To answer them, in brief, I say Skibbereen is surfing a wave of positivity which boosts the community. I explain that they need to identify their unique assets, and the rest is risk, grit and determination.

In the case of the Ludgate Hub, the 1GB fibre-optic connection creates opportunities for the town to develop employment and foster enterprise, as a location is often irrelevant for service-based industries. Digital will negate the need to focus on geography, in a locational sense. Coming from a geography graduate, I am careful how I phrase that sentence!

‘Rural towns need to identify their unique assets, and the rest is risk, grit and determination’

If communities can work together and come up with a cohesive plan, Ludgate can be replicated nationally. Since our launch, we have been contacted by over 20 villages and towns around Ireland reaching out and looking to see how Ludgate was created. They all have empty post offices, empty Garda stations and abandoned premises. Once you have the willingness of the community to help themselves, good things will happen. Each town can create their own digital roadmap, bespoke to their own local strengths.

The Ludgate initiative is also akin to the Google Kansas project, where a 1GB connection facilitated the growth of 121 new companies within two years. I was selected to represent Ireland at the European Digital Assembly in Bratislava in September where I showcased Ludgate as an example of best practice, and it received unanimous praise as a blueprint for rural Europe. We have also been selected as a finalist for the European Best 1GB Broadband Project 2016 and will travel to Brussels after National Digital Week to hear the result of the competition.

What would you like to see from a renewed Government plan for this region?

I think projects like the Ludgate initiative [have] hopefully inspired policymakers to think outside the traditional models of out-of-town enterprise parks and the historic drive to have an exclusive urban focus for job creation. We have proven that areas like Skibbereen could be the test bed for the next generation of new Googles or Facebooks. We have attracted start-ups from Miami, Illinois, LA, South Africa and London.

‘We have proven that areas like Skibbereen could be the test bed for the next generation of new Googles or Facebooks’

In time, I think we have given confidence to [the] Government to showcase alternatives for international start-ups to locate in areas like Skibbereen. We now have a very attractive menu for those looking to locate in Ireland. Initiatives like the PorterShed in Galway can help promote coastal cities like Galway, and we can represent the south-west of Ireland.

I think renewed plans to focus clustering of sectors in regional Ireland would be welcomed; co-working and office spaces are only buildings without experienced networks and people. I think a greater focus needs to be placed on developing regional hubs with experienced business people like our board, who have the expertise to drive and support job creation.

We can learn a lot from what has failed in the past, in terms of regional and rural action plans. Bottom-up initiatives like Ludgate [are] the most sustainable option for areas like Skibbereen. Once the community and Government can work together to create local blueprints for development, success is more likely.

National Digital Week returns to Skibbereen, West Cork from 10 to 12 November, expecting over 1,600 attendees for two arenas with over 80 speakers. National Digital Week 2015 was a sell-out, and you can book online for 2016 at digitalweek.ie, and follow @DigitalWeekIrl and #NDW16 on Twitter for updates.