The interview: Cathal McGloin, Red Hat Mobile

26 Feb 2015

Cathal McGloin, VP, Red Hat Mobile

In September, an important piece of Irish technology industry history was made when Red Hat acquired a company from Waterford called FeedHenry for €63.5m in cash.

FeedHenry CEO Cathal McGloin, now VP in charge of Red Hat Mobile, says the company is now spearheading a lot of Red Hat’s mobile ambitions.

McGloin is a man very much in demand. As we speak he is in North America and is facing a punishing three week trek that takes in Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week followed by business trips to Sweden, Switzerland, France, the UK, Ireland and back to Barcelona again.

He attributes this activity to a young Waterford-based technology company called FeedHenry that is now at the heart of Red Hat’s plans to expand substantially through enabling enterprises in mobile.

“When you’re the shiny new toy in the company everybody wants a bit of you.

“Everybody at Red Hat is focused on mobile and it’s a core part of Red Hat’s journey, they have been changing their focus from open source Linux to moving further up the stack to middleware and cloud technologies and mobile is definitely a space that’s at the edge for them.”

What’s remarkable is how one of the biggest software vendors in the world is basing its mobile direction on a company that emerged from academic research in a south-eastern college in Ireland.

FeedHenry was spun out from Waterford Institute of Technology’s Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) in 2010.

The company created a ‘mobile first’ platform for organisations that include Aer Lingus, Baystate Health and O2 UK. The company has offices in Dublin, Waterford, and Staines in England and Massachusetts in the US.

A year ago, the company secured €7m in a funding round led by Intel Capital, leading to the creation of more than 100 jobs at FeedHenry’s Waterford and Dublin offices.

The FeedHenry platform offers developers the flexibility to create native (Android, iOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry), hybrid, HTML5 or web apps. 

FeedHenry has an open and extensible architecture based on Node.js for client and server side mobile app development.

When the news came that a four-year-old tech company from Ireland’s south-east was to be one of the biggest tech acquisitions in Irish software industry history, it was a reminder that innovation can be fostered in any corner of Ireland.

“What’s interesting about it is that it’s not just FeedHenry, there are a lot of other young companies emerging in the south-east, too. It’s a genuine cluster that’s emerging around Waterford,” McGloin says, pointing to fast growing start-ups such as NearForm.

“Hopefully we will see a lot more companies that will be inspired by FeedHenry and will want to do the same.”

McGloin said he is hopeful that the success of FeedHenry will spark the same cycle of repeat entrepreneurship that followed in the wake of companies such as Iona, Baltimore and Norkom.

“I think the whole cycle of success breeding success is something that needs to be encouraged in Ireland.”

He says while agencies like Enterprise Ireland would like companies to go the distance and scale rather than being acquired there is often just as much a return for the economy from companies that get acquired because it creates a multiplier effect in terms of repeat entrepreneurship.”

A formula for success

FeedHenry’s original founder Barry Downes is also the CEO of TSSG and McGloin says TSSG has fostered an entrepreneurial, can-do attitude that supports the spin out of new companies.

“TSSG’s original formula was getting Europe and Enterprise Ireland to support its projects and by the time I joined FeedHenry they were very successful at getting collaboration to occur between the college and industry.

“Another factor is a lot of the people who work at TSSG do so on a contract basis – so they had to eat what they kill – and became adept at finding and funding the next project, the next contract. They are very versatile and are some of the best people you could ever work with because there’s an unbeatable can-do attitude among them.

“The genesis was to go out winning EU research projects and this has been transformed into spinning out start-ups.”

But McGloin warns that just because TSSG has sparked upon an effective formula for spinning out start-ups, it is a road fraught with difficulties in terms of creating a commercial body from what is a State body. “There is still a lot of work to be done and Enterprise Ireland is tackling it, but there still hasn’t been a large number of spinouts from research to date.

Red Hat’s acquisition of FeedHenry effectively means Red Hat is now present in Ireland’s south-east.

“We are working within Red Hat to make the team in Waterford stars and working with the Red Hat people to continue to build out and invest in Waterford.

“We want to show them talented young people, the close links with colleges and research, the lower cost in comparison to some of the hot places like Dublin or Berlin or London. The truth is IT skills are in short supply in the Dublin region and being able to build an ecosystem in Waterford is great. Galway was able to build out a whole non-Dublin ecosystem in the Eighties and Nineties.

“I think the advantages of Ireland in terms of R&D are well known and the challenge is getting the staff. When a new company comes to Dublin they just poach from each other. But having a decentralised centre of excellence is not a bad option, Waterford is just an hour and half from Dublin, so why wouldn’t you?”

The south-east is becoming a mobile centre of excellence

Vitally for the south-east, McGloin explains that FeedHenry is becoming the core team behind Red Hat Mobile which is all of Red Hat’s mobile initiatives.

“Our team gets to be the lead team behind all the mobile initiatives, we get to be the centre of excellence.

“Mobile is permeating everything: cloud, VPN, middleware all sorts of things. We are finding that as long as we can grow our business – North America and EMEA, but we are also under pressure to move into Brazil, Latin America and Asia-Pac in the second half of this year, mobile will be central.

“We are really going to be growing the Red Hat mobile business over the next 12 months and my hope is that Waterford will be a central part of that as an R&D location

“Red Hat takes a decentralised approach to R&D and it has centres all over the world. We want to ensure that as it grows mobile, the FeedHenry team becomes a key part of that.”

Cathal McGloin will be a keynote speaker at Waterford Institute of Technology’s TSSG Industry Open Day on 3 March

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