Paul O’Connell: Why I am relocating Uprise to Dublin

17 Oct 2017

Uprise founder Paul O’Connell. Image: John Kennedy

Dublin has the connectedness and the ‘go get it’ attitude needed for start-ups, says Paul O’Connell.

Limerick native Paul O’Connell is relocating his Uprise tech festival to Dublin from Amsterdam, where it all began three years ago.

Uprise 6 takes place next Thursday (26 October) at the RDS in Dublin, and will be the second time Uprise has been held in the Irish capital.

‘It’s really about creating room to grow. I need it to grow faster’

Describing itself as ‘the SXSW of Europe’, Uprise 6 will mainly be about people engaging on the topics of tomorrow in terms of digital communication, policy and design. As well as four conceptual stages, its hallmark is a busy start-up marketplace and a lively pitch battle, featuring 10 international and local Irish start-ups. While not one for the fainthearted, it is mesmerising to watch.

Design it and they will come

A former designer, O’Connell takes a design-led approach to the event, with an emphasis on expression and themes. Uprise 6 in Dublin will have a Product Innovation stage, a Fintech and Entrepreneurship stage, an Investment and Recruitment stage, and a Culture and Beats stage.

“It’s really about creating room to grow. I need it to grow faster,” O’Connell said.

He explained that the support structure exists in Dublin to enable Uprise to grow at the pace he envisions.

“It is more the love child of a conference than a festival,” he admitted. “The first four Uprise events in Amsterdam couldn’t have happened elsewhere because the vibe was perfect. But, to be honest, the support I’ve received in Dublin far outshines what we’ve gotten in Amsterdam. Dublin City Council, for example, have been fantastic to work with.

“The principle that made it an easy move, was that I need Uprise to grow faster and I have the access points I need in Dublin, not in Amsterdam.

“And seeing what is happening in the UK with Brexit means that, from a fintech perspective, there are only a few choices for financial institutions left in the EU. Because the Irish financial ecosystem is modelled on the British system, Ireland stands to gain.”

He said that while Amsterdam has a thriving start-up scene, the long-established finance houses, family businesses and old money of the merchant city mean that the willpower to grow isn’t as apparent as it is in Dublin.

“They just don’t have the same ‘go get it’ attitude as Dublin. It is too safe.”

Deconstructing start-ups and funding

O’Connell said that as start-up festivals go, Uprise is different in that it doesn’t pander to venture capitalists. “They don’t like pitch battles because they aren’t being lionised in the judging process.

‘Products can collapse but talent will always keep producing’

“Also, the world of funding is changing. We are now entering the world of ICOs [initial coin offers]. Ethereum is building investments through code and it is deconstructing the idea of venture capitalism and disrupting entitlement.

“The structure of Uprise is about the migration of people, thinking and money, rethinking diversity and how organisations of the future approach recruitment.”

O’Connell said that Dublin needs to play to its strengths as a go-to location. “There’s an attractiveness and fondness of Irish people that applies throughout the world – it should be utilised. The Web Summit was shortsighted in its abandonment of the sense of culture and community and people wanting to come to Dublin.”

When it comes to start-ups that present at Uprise’s marketplace and compete in the pitch battle, O’Connell said he is looking for entrepreneurs, both Irish and international, that have a fighting spirit.

And he has little time for start-ups that expect everything for free.

“I’ve seen companies that have funded themselves by going to accelerators for four or five years.

“Do you just want to stand there in your branded t-shirt and screen waiting just for people to come to you? Fuck off. We only want to help the start-ups that help themselves.”

And that’s why the pitch battle, sponsored this year by Stripe, is a lively experience. Last year’s event saw UK start-up Smith & Sinclair win out over Carlow’s Cyc-Lok when Melanie Goldsmith stole the show by rapping to Nelly’s Hot in Herre.

“It was feisty. It should be that way. Pitch battles are usually not meant to be fun. They are meant to be challenging. Accelerators generally create the factory-style start-up, and there is nothing that will challenge you more than getting out of your comfort zone in front of a crowd.

“In a way, it sums up what we believe: you may always be investing in talent and products. Products can collapse but talent will always keep producing. Seeing people perform and defend their start-up and their idea in front of a rowdy crowd is a great way to ascertain talent.”

Ultimately, O’Connell said the core difference with Uprise is that it is about blending ideas and nationalities, not about pecking orders or job titles.

“It can be intimate without being too small. We are always trying to build something unique. That’s what we have always been trying to do and what I am personally trying to do.”

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