Digital diplomacy meets California dreaming

2 Oct 2017

Image: Alessandro Colle/Shutterstock

The idea of creating an Irish tech ambassador to Silicon Valley is a novel one. But first, we need to remember that every Irish entrepreneur and tech executive is an ambassador, writes John Kennedy.

Last week, a British writer who was touring various start-up ecosystems around Europe interviewed me. She had just returned from Dublin and she asked me about factors that made the city’s ecosystem – let’s face it, the entire ecosystem in Ireland, north and south – unique.

I rattled off a host of factors but settled on one overriding reality: “We are alone on this little island in a very big world – we have no choice but to think global.”

‘If we support our entrepreneurs with the right things at home – a good seed funding ecosystem, relevant employee share ownership schemes, a CGT system that rewards risk, and more – there is no reason why every start-up that goes abroad cannot be an exemplary ambassador for Ireland’

The truth about tech entrepreneurship across the world today in 2017 is that every start-up, every entrepreneur is working off the same digital canvas; the same software languages, the cloud, the same app stores, the same compute limitations, varying broadband speeds, the same devices …

It’s what they do with that stuff – their insights, perceptions, their own solutions to sets of problems – that makes those entrepreneurs and their business ideas inimitable.

That’s why I find different ecosystems fascinating and why cities such as Helsinki, Paris, Austin, St Petersburg, Manchester, Stockholm, Amsterdam and many others appeal to me.

It is not that the tools or technologies they start out with are unique or any better than elsewhere. It is the set of circumstances – the environment, the education system, even the political landscape – that shapes their perceptions, informs their ideas and results in their unique, innovative take on things.

Within Ireland, we have towns and cities that have captured their own magic dust. Dublin is a bit like a mini San Francisco (and is sadly beginning to inherit some of the problems, such as expensive accommodation and gentrification); Cork has an energy and worldly outlook that is hard to top; Belfast is industrious, nuanced and focused; Galway has grace and gets on with it; Waterford, thanks to research bodies such as TSSG, is punching way above its weight; Sligo is worth keeping an eye on.

These ecosystems carry the stamp of their respective entrepreneurs and some of their regional personality, but we must also acknowledge the role that bodies such as IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland have played in cultivating and fostering the environment they thrive in.

We talk about start-ups today as if they are something new, but there have always been start-ups. They just happen to be fashionable now. It is not very long ago that the word ‘entrepreneur’ would conjure up suspicion in Ireland.

We must also never forget how IDA identified and cultivated some of our biggest overseas tech employers when they themselves were start-ups and very young in their development.

Apple (founded in 1976) was just a puppy when it was attracted to Cork in 1980, and now employs more than 5,000 people in the city and growing. Microsoft (founded in 1975) was 10 years old when it came to Dublin in 1985 to put blue discs in boxes. Today, it employs 1,800 people in Dublin and has invested more than €1bn in the city. Google (1998) was five years old when it was enticed to Dublin in 2003, and it is now the biggest private-sector employer in the city, with more than 5,000 direct and contract workers. Facebook (2004) was just four years old, and it is now hurtling towards 2,000 people in Silicon Docks, with talk of another 1,000-strong Facebook operation planned for Dublin’s north side.

A few people in IDA Ireland in the 1980s had the right instincts, and those instincts continue to hold true today.

Ireland’s digital culture is informed by how these agencies took the baton that was offered by the policies of Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker back in the 1960s, to create an open economy captained by legions of educated young people. They went out in the world and the world came back with them.

Those young people, from the 1980s to today, have delivered value, and many have rose up the ranks to become senior leaders at Silicon Valley tech giants. Just look at the success of Irish people at Intel, such as Ann Kelleher, Rory McInerney, Noel Murphy, Paul Scully, Margaret Burgraff, Eamonn Sinnott, Joe McDonnell, Ann-Marie Holmes and John Healy, all of whom hold coveted vice-president ranks at the chip giant. The head of Apple Europe is Cathy Kearney, and not many people realise that the CIO of Apple for the past decade or more has been Irish man Niall O’Connor. Indeed, the CIO of chip giant Xilinx is Kevin Cooney.

Entrepreneurs such as Pat Phelan (who sold Trustev two years ago to TransUnion for $44m) and PCH’s Liam Casey (known as Mr China because of the business empire he built up in Asia), as well as Viddyad’s Grainne Barron in San Francisco, are more than capable ambassadors for the will, capability and ambition of Irish people.

Does Ireland really need a tech ambassador in Silicon Valley?

And so last week, a curious thing happened. The British Irish Chamber of Commerce (BICC) produced a policy paper ahead of the looming Budget 2018, with some interesting recommendations.

Among those recommendations was a call for the creation of an Irish tech ambassador to Silicon Valley.

The response to the story was interesting because while a lot of people thought it was a good idea, a similar number of respondents said such a role was unnecessary.

Dissenters said that with Brexit looming, we need to fix problems on the ground, such as sufficient seed funding and outmoded tax policies for entrepreneurs.

Some said it was unnecessary because we already have our ambassadors in terms of the sterling work conducted by IDA Ireland in the Bay Area, the work of Enterprise Ireland in Palo Alto and, of course, the Irish consulate in San Francisco.

I have seen this network in action and it is impressive.

Four years ago, I got off a plane in San Francisco, checked into my hotel, took a walk into the balmy night and wound up at a dinner in the art deco wonderland that is the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange off Market Street, chatting to Web Summit’s Daire Hickey, FirstCapital’s David Ivor Smith, Silicon Valley Bank’s Claire Lee (then with Microsoft Ventures) and John Pryor (then with RocketSpace, now with Twitter in London). Within minutes, my schedule of who to know and who to meet in the following days was filling up.

Across Silicon Valley, the reputations of individuals such as Belkin’s Kieran Hannon and Stripe’s John and Patrick Collison precede them.

Our best ambassadors are our people, and it was clear from certain responses that the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the Irish consulate general all do a fine job already.

Not only that, let’s not forget the fine work of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, led by John Hartnett in San Jose, in fostering deep links between Ireland and the broader business community all across the United States.

The Irish-American tech community in Silicon Valley, and indeed on the east coast, is close-knit but also open and welcoming.

That does not mean the BICC proposals weren’t without merit. The ambassadorial idea certainly provoked and inspired responses, but recommendations to expand the Special Assignee Relief Programme for new hires and to reform the capital gains tax (CGT) regime need to be taken very seriously.

These recommendations also included reform of the employee share-based remuneration regime to reflect the UK’s Enterprise Management Incentive scheme as well as measures to raise the entrepreneur relief lifetime cap to €15m, to expand the Start-up Refunds for Entrepreneurs scheme from €100,000 to €250,000 and to cover investments by the self-employed.

In Budget 2018, the CGT issue needs to be dealt with decisively.

All in all, the idea of a tech ambassador to Silicon Valley seems novel, but our ambassadors are already there. They are our people, they are our agencies and, collectively, it is about our vision and ambition.

What we need to do right now is fix the tax supports on the ground in Budget 2018, and give entrepreneurs a fighting chance so only the best will follow on foreign fields.

If we support our entrepreneurs with the right things at home – a good seed funding ecosystem, relevant employee share ownership schemes, a CGT system that rewards risk, and more – there is no reason why every start-up that goes abroad cannot be an exemplary ambassador for Ireland.

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