Open Ireland: winning the battle for global talent

17 Apr 2012

Founder of Avego and SOSventures' managing director Sean O'Sullivan speaking last month at the Silicon Republic Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin

Arising out of the response to his keynote at Silicon Republic’s Digital Ireland Forum in March, tech entrepreneur and investor Sean O’Sullivan is the force behind a new advocacy movement called Open Ireland, which champions Ireland’s future as a hub for tech talent.

O’Sullivan, better known to some as the latest addition to RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den, caught the imagination of many at the Digital Ireland Forum on March 23rd last, with his bold assertion that Ireland could double its population in the next 20 years, take in some 75,000 skilled immigrants a year and become the gateway to Europe for China.

The reaction has led him to launch a new “grassroots advocacy and campaigning organisation” which goes under the title of Open Ireland.

“Open Ireland comes out of March 23rd,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s only three weeks old. Originally I had just planned to give a talk and I thought it would end there. However, I was blown away by the response to my talk and the tremendous number of people coming to me saying ‘we need to do exactly that’ – bring tech talent to Ireland and open up Ireland as a Gateway to Europe for China.”

“Those ideas resonated with people as big picture ideas for the long term vision they subscribe to, so I’ve kind of been drafted in by people who don’t want to let the idea die.”

As a result, the busy tech entrepreneur has found himself to be the driving force behind the Open Ireland movement. Numerous requests to keynote at upcoming events on the subject, contacts from dozens of companies and organisations, and meetings with Ministers and senior officials have been keeping O’Sullivan busy alongside the day job, but now he’s calling for like-minded people to come on board and make their voices heard. “We’re now starting to assemble a steering committee for this new movement to get people aware that there are some alternatives for Ireland’s economic challenges.”

Welcoming tech talent

A key issue for the movement is the importance of facilitating the entry of tech talent from overseas. “We have great talent in Ireland,” says O’Sullivan. “The problem is it is too difficult to get more talent in from overseas as our internal capacity to produce this talent is limited.

“Here in Ireland we have the world’s leading companies producing products for the world, yet we only have a 4.4m population trying to produce software and high tech products for a population of 6.8bn people. Obviously that’s difficult to do unless we get the right talent pool, so that’s what we are setting out to achieve, to open up and have Ireland be the world’s first English-speaking country to truly have open borders for extremely highly educated English-speaking tech talent.”

So what would success look like for the Open Ireland campaign? “There are a couple of very specific goals, that hopefully the Dáil could sign in by executive order in just a few days if they were so moved. The specific goal we are putting forward is to, in the next year, open up to allow up to 50,000 top technical talent into the country in a more fluid way, with less restrictions and less hassles than has ever existed before in Irish immigration policy.

“The second goal is to become essentially a major gateway for China into Europe, and the way to start that could just be to be the first European country to allow Chinese citizens to travel to Ireland without requiring any lengthy visa process.

Transforming Ireland

“These are very bold yet simple proposals, but if you think of the repercussions of what these two simple actions could do, it could really transform the Irish economy, and we could really be in a situation where we are once again worrying about managing our rapid growth rather than the situation we’re in now, worrying about the epic levels of debt and where we’re going to get the jobs to employ our people.”

He refers naysayers back to the sixties, to the words of the then-Taoiseach Sean Lemass: “Nationalism economically and socially is inescapable from internationalism”.

“I think if we recognise that it was the openness that Ireland put in place back then that got the country out of the difficulties of the 50s and 60s and began the development of Ireland from poverty to a leading technological nation, then we can recognise that we need to play on our strengths again,” says O’Sullivan. This is a continuation of a theme. We’ve succeeded at this before. We can do it again.

“We have to look at what the alternatives are. Do we like what we are doing now? Is it working for us? My answer is it is not. We need to do something quite different,” he says.

O’Sullivan is encouraging others to get behind the movement. “I’d love for people who are excited by the idea to come to the site and register their interest and to relate their own stories and add their own ideas as to how to move Ireland forward by being more open and by developing Ireland as the Silicon Valley of Europe.

“So we’re looking for people to become members, and for like-minded people to be involved on a steering committee. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to get involved in this activist campaign.”

O’Sullivan believes and hopes that there will be support from public and private sector alike. He points out that Open Ireland is non-partisan and will work closely with universities, government ministries and policy makers to advance Ireland’s prosperity.

“This is not a campaign that is against anything,” says O’Sullivan. This is a campaign that is for something.”

Silicon Republic is a supporter of Open Ireland. Interested parties are invited to become supporters at the Open Ireland website.

Sean O’Sullivan and Bill Liao will be speaking to Matt Cooper this evening on The Last Word on Today FM about Open Ireland.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human