Wayra Ireland: ‘It’s bringing together high-value people. They are raising the bar for start-ups’
Telefónica supports entrepreneurship through start-up accelerators in 13 countries and the first Irish group has just graduated
Left to right: Karl Aherne, director of Wayra Ireland, Liam Casey, founder CEO of PCH International and Richard Whelan, CEO of Popdeem Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
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It’s crunch day for 11 young companies that form the first Irish graduating group from Wayra, Telefónica’s start-up accelerator.
A stage has been set up near the cluster of their open plan offices in the Dockland headquarters of Telefónica’s Irish arm, O2 (which will now be sold to Three, although Wayra Ireland will continue here as apart of Telefonica, according to O2).
One by one, each company makes a pitch to a packed audience of investors representing venture firms as well as corporate-investment arms such as Google Ventures.
Collectively, the group has already done well, closing, or obtaining commitments for, some €3 million in funding. But today caps their nine-month incubation in Wayra, before they pack up their belongings and head into the real world.
Wayra is a young project; it was launched in Telefonica in Latin America in 2011 to support entrepreneurship, particularly among recent college graduates. It quickly spread throughout the company, which now has 13 start-up accelerators: six in Europe and seven in Latin America. Over 250 start-ups have gone through the programme.
This is the first intake of companies in Wayra Ireland, which vary in focus from gaming, betting and publication design to fraud detection, social rewards and wifi network management. Some are run by seasoned entrepreneurs, professionals and technologists, others by newly minted graduates.
Companies who enter the programme – chosen after a tough, extended interview process involving a team of judges primarily from outside Telefónica – share a floor of workspace at O2’s headquarters, get access to a range of expert mentors, are provided with financing of €40,000, and introductions to O2 customers (about 50,000 in Ireland) and its technology suppliers such as Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Microsoft.
Of the 11 companies, all have customers, while nine have pilot programmes with businesses and relationships with Telefónica customers, says Karl Aherne, Wayra Ireland’s director.
Opening those kinds of doors is significant for start-ups. “Companies don’t want to deal with really small companies. But we can smooth the way for them.”
Aherne works with the companies on product innovation and development, and to introduce them to potential clients and customers. He says that by adding the extra few months to the accelerator – most run for a maximum of six months – “we are really able to drive product innovation”.
This, he says, is what then makes the final investor-day event meaningful for the accelerator companies. “It makes the investor day so much more real. Companies are able to show real traction, show investors how they’re going to fund their business,” he says.
During the accelerator programme, company CEOs meet every two weeks to present a set of goals they will pursue over the next fortnight.
This gives the companies presentation skills but, also, an obligation to face a tough audience, as everybody scores all of the other CEOs at each meeting on their performance against their stated objectives. All start-ups come in with a beta version of a product, says Aherne.
They must then focus on fully developing that product, as well as setting clear business goals.
“We’d work with them in detail on where they will be in five years,” he says. “That’s because investors don’t invest in a product, they invest in the business. We need to make sure we keep the pressure on, that they focus on deliverables, and that they have the best product for the best customers. If you get the right customers, everything else will follow. And they all focus on the global market. If the focus was only on the Irish market, they wouldn’t be here.”