‘You can build a company in the regions with more conviction now than ever before’

28 Sep 2021

Patrick Walsh. Image: Dogpatch Labs

Ahead of the first NDRC accelerator demo day at Dogpatch Labs, Patrick Walsh talks to Siliconrepublic.com about the changing shape of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem and the way we work.

Late last year, Dogpatch Labs took on a mighty challenge. Awarded the €17m tender to manage NDRC, the early-stage start-up accelerator backed by the Irish Government, the new team in charge decided to give the programme a full makeover. All that, and during a pandemic too.

Today (28 September), marks a milestone for the first NDRC accelerator by Dogpatch Labs. A midpoint demo day will see the cohort of 11 start-ups share their progress and pitch to investors, plus an expected audience of hundreds tuning in virtually.

Despite the challenges that were no doubt involved in bringing this event together, Patrick Walsh, Dogpatch Labs’ founder and CEO, is far from worn out from the process. He’s simply effervescent with excitement.

Walsh takes an optimist’s glass half-full take on the past year’s challenges, celebrating all he has learned from the world’s great virtual experiment.

“We put a lot of energy into getting good at digital,” he said. This included serious investment from Dogpatch in new gear for meeting rooms and a purpose-built broadcast studio with five different cameras and staff specially trained on how to run it.

“When you’ve got a masterclass of 100 people coming in, it’s got to be great,” Walsh explained. “You don’t want to lose that energy, so we’ve invested in getting serious about virtual.”

Walsh is particularly proud that one participant claimed a Dogpatch-hosted event was their best virtual experience since Covid began. “That was the standard we set out for ourselves: Can we be really world class at this?”

‘The mission we laid out was to accelerate the development of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem. I didn’t say Dublin’s start-up ecosystem’

Dogpatch has already proven capable of running a world-class start-up hub under regular circumstances, counting Intercom, Boxever and Teckro among its alumni. The expectation is that today’s demo day will prove the success of its turn to virtual. And the long-term plan is to fuse the two for something even greater than the sum of its parts.

“We had to start virtual only. Now I very much see – and the demand is – that it will be hybrid,” Walsh revealed. He is in no doubt that certain elements of early-stage ideation such as whiteboarding, strategy sessions and big-picture think-ins can work best when everyone’s in the same physical space, but his goal is to combine this with the advantages gained from the flexibility of remote work.

Again, though, this represents a challenge.

“Hybrid’s actually harder in some ways than virtual-only,” Walsh admitted. “So to some degree, I think, everyone still needs to master hybrid. We’re not fully there yet, but it is an interesting challenge.”

And while it may be easier to lean in to one way or the other – with everyone on site or everyone remote – Dogpatch is taking the lead of the start-ups it’s incubating and tackling the tricky balancing act of achieving best of both.

“I think people are starting to figure out their new work patterns,” said Walsh. “We see that in our start-ups.” The common approach, Walsh observed, is to have two days with certain teams in the office, and that’s when collaborative sessions such as whiteboarding are scheduled. And then there are days around that to fire off emails and tackle the admin.

‘The default is hybrid or virtual-only. Fully in-person five days a week is almost gone to zero’

The reason for taking on the challenge of creating a hybrid accelerator is the advantages it offers. Walsh swears that Dogpatch couldn’t have secured the speakers it did in the last six months – such as Irish entrepreneur Laura Modi, the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco start-up Bobbie– had in-person appearances been a necessity. The NDRC teams, too, have benefitted from breaking free of a location requirement.

“There’s a bunch of people interacting with us from isolated parts of Ireland that probably might not have the opportunity otherwise to come in,” he said. “And not just people who are in rural communities. We’ve also had mums that might not be able to leave their home because they’re taking care of their children – they’ve been tuning in in different ways.

“It has actually supported how many people we can reach and the level of diversity that we’re actually seeing come through many of our programmes.”

This is an important factor for Dogpatch Labs, which has committed to the work it takes to ensure diversity and inclusion on its programmes. As with many conscious organisations these days, there are diversity and inclusion targets, KPIs, audits, unconscious bias training and even an in-house D&I lead. But there’s always room to learn more in this evolving area, and Walsh is a willing student.

“We’re always looking for diversity in every sense of that word,” he said, and even credited Dogpatch’s commitment to the cause as the reason for visits from royalty over the years.

‘We are going to see a long-term revival of the regions based on this big digital shift’

Dogpatch Labs’ first NDRC cohort of 11 start-ups was announced in June, and Walsh is particularly proud of the broad spectrum they cover. You’ve got cybersecurity, edtech, creative media, team-building, compliance and hiking all in a vibrant mix.

And it’s not just the diversity of sectors; the founders themselves showcase a spectrum of skills. There are ex Intercom and Stripe engineers alongside a teenage Young Scientist winner. There are also non-technical founders bringing different perspectives from their respective backgrounds.

In all, the NDRC demo day is a stand-out event not just for the State-backed accelerator but for Dogpatch Labs as a whole. The past year has seen its pre-accelerators, CTO and CEO breakfasts, and regional founder weekends continue amid shifting parameters. Adapting and getting on with it – just what good entrepreneurs are expected to do.

And, true to the form of the optimist, Walsh sees the silver lining that has tempered the darker clouds of this pandemic. In the empty half of the glass, he knows that, “Covid has been really tough for everyone. I know for a lot of regional communities, it has been a lot to contend with.” But on the other hand: “I really do believe that we are going to see a long-term revival of the regions based on this big digital shift, and that will only continue.”

In Walsh’s mind, the pandemic has been a shot in the arm for Ireland’s regional economic development, if you’ll forgive the pun. “You can go and build a company in the regions with much more conviction now than ever before,” he said. “We’re starting to see in Portershed, teams that are globally focused. The founders are hiring people across the country.”

Dogpatch currently has three regional partners – Portershed in Galway, Republic of Work in Cork, and the RDI Hub in Kerry – fulfilling a vision Walsh had from the outset.

“When I started Dogpatch, which was just in a furniture store on my own, the mission we laid out was we wanted to accelerate the development of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem. I didn’t say Dublin’s start-up ecosystem. I didn’t say our own company,” he said.

“I always had this sense that we would be better if it was a stronger ecosystem around us, but we also had an opportunity to make it a stronger ecosystem.”

Walsh, very much following the Brad Feld school of thought on borderless start-up ecosystems, is intentional about creating this connected patchwork across the country, through hubs and pools of mentors, as well as spaces and events in which to share knowledge.

Across that network, these fledgling companies could well be shaping the future of work to come. “These are companies that are just being created, so they’re creating their ways of working, their cultures. Everything’s being created for the first time. It’s a blank canvas,” said Walsh. “They don’t have to think about what they were doing last year because last year didn’t exist!”

And the future for those start-ups, just like Dogpatch, appears to be hybrid. In the entire NDRC cohort, not a single company is considering a working model consisting of five days a week with everyone in an office, and a couple are looking likely to go fully remote.

“I think the default is hybrid or virtual-only and fully in-person five days a week – at least across the 100 or so start-ups that are in Dogpatch today – is almost gone to zero,” said Walsh.

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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.