The right ecosystem

6 Oct 2011

Organisations such as NDRC (the National Digital Research Centre) have a major part to play in fostering start-ups in Ireland, says director of commercial development Dan Crowley.

Dan Crowley, director of commercial development at NDRC (the National Digital Research Centre), believes there is more recognition nowadays of the need for an ecosystem of innovation to support entrepreneurs.

“It’s no longer just about the sole, entrepreneurial visionary leader being successful against the world. There has been a shift in society in terms of how we view entrepreneurship. The dotcom era was marked by irrational exuberance and there was a sense that building internet businesses was easy. In fact it isn’t and there is more of a realisation of that now,” he says.

“Technology has made it easier for people to build websites and mobile apps, but this doesn’t make the market side any easier. All the same challenges still exist.”

Set up four years ago, NDRC is an Ireland-based investor in collaborative digital innovations based on research. Its investment programmes are tailored to enable innovators, researchers and established companies to translate great ideas into income-generating products and high growth businesses. It has a dedicated commercialisation team, a neutral space for teams to work alongside other digital innovation projects, and an investment fund.

Crowley believes entities such as NDRC have a big role to play in more start-ups getting off the ground in Ireland.

“The traditional route that became prevalent in Silicon Valley was having a great idea, raising venture financing and then building a business. This is only the reality for a very small percentage of start-ups and has become much more difficult now,” he says.

“Start-up companies always need to learn from and be surrounded by people in their own community. You need a central facility and location that brings financing and business and domain expertise together. Younger entrepreneurs in particular find this helpful.”

Entrepreneurs are generally made, not born, in Crowley’s view. “All of the evidence and my own experience point to the fact that fostering entrepreneurship is much more about the environment. Some people take advantage of their environment more so, but the success of global hotspots like Silicon Valley or Cambridge tells us something about the need to surround people of all ages with the entrepreneurial spark.

“We have to make it OK for people to take risks and to fail. This needs to start early and involves a cultural shift in the way young people are educated at all levels. But I don’t think we should wait for the State to fix this, because I don’t think it can, although it can help.

“If we want to see positive change, we need to take responsibility ourselves, go back to universities or schools as entrepreneurs and show people that there are folks that have taken risks and that you won’t get anywhere unless you try.”

We shouldn’t get to the point, however, where we say failure is fine in all circumstances, Crowley continues.

“The question is not whether you failed in starting a business, but why. If you failed for all the right reasons it will be relatively easier to raise investment a second or third time for new ventures.

“One area where I think we can make a positive change in this regard in the short-term is to help to improve the ecosystem; to help people to fail earlier if the venture is not going to ultimately work out.

“This means bringing individuals in early in their start-up history, surrounding them with expertise and contacts and helping the company decide which direction to point that’s going to reduce the rate of failure. People are better off knowing if something is going to fail before putting their careers on the line.”

The accelerator business has traditionally applied to web and internet-based ventures, but Crowley thinks there’s a recognition that this needs to be broadened out and particularly in Ireland where we have substantial scientific infrastructure.

“A lot of investment has gone into science in universities in the past 10 years. Accelerators can play a role in bringing that to market and not just with web-based applications. There’s a swathe of technologies in artificial intelligence, in health sciences and also in biosciences where accelerators can help. However, these areas need a slightly different kind of accelerator from the ones that people might be familiar with in Silicon Valley,” he says.