Flying high: how Ireland can become a global start-up leader

Avolon CEO Dómhnal Slattery sets out some practical solutions that could pay immediate dividends for the Irish economy

As an entrepreneur who has spent the majority of his career in Ireland but travelling to the four corners of the world, I absolutely believe this statement.

But I wanted to know what it takes to change “can” to “will”. That was the genesis of Project i, a several months long endeavour that included visiting some of the start-up hot spots around the globe to identify the key building blocks for a world class, sustainable innovation hub that can deliver to Ireland employment, tax revenues and the answers to some of society’s most difficult challenges.

I am proud to say that Avolon, a start-up less than 10 years ago, is now a major player in the aircraft leasing sector, a space where Ireland is most certainly "best in class".

The centrality of Ireland to this $50 billion-plus market is no accident, but nor was it inevitable or even likely; in this most international of industries Ireland’s success is the consequence of entrepreneurial endeavour, financial acumen, hard work and an attitude and culture that others around the globe find compelling.


These are strengths that can be applied to any industry and that can’t easily be replicated. However, they are not sufficient.

Our research identified five pillars that have been key to the success of the world’s great start-up hubs – Silicon Valley in San Francisco, Boston, Berlin, Stockholm, London and Paris. They are education, early-stage funding and support, accelerator, venture funding, growth and exit.

It is clear to me that the combination of our inherent national strengths with the application of these best-in-class policies and practices means that Ireland would allow us change “can” to “will”. Here’s how.

Education: Entrepreneurship should be a subject on the curriculum from primary school. Nowhere in our educational system do we have a structured focus on entrepreneurship. The unfortunate consequence is a culture that may fail to embrace entrepreneurial endeavour not only as a legitimate ambition but a laudable one. This is a mistake – to retain our best and brightest, attract our diaspora home, create sustainable high-value employment and swell the government's tax receipts, we need great new businesses launching, succeeding and staying in Ireland. The first step to achieving this is from an early age to embrace the idea of entrepreneurship, risk-taking and the necessity for failure as a learning step towards success.

Early-stage funding and support: We cannot continue to rely on Enterprise Ireland and our universities to shoulder the burden here; their resources are finite and they need help. Private investment in start-up businesses is a requirement for a healthy innovation hub. Tax incentives similar to those in the UK are required to enable a steady stream of companies to graduate from campus to viable business.

Acceleration: A vibrant accelerator hub is a strategic imperative and a must-have if Ireland is to truly excel on a global stage. The clustering effect of like-minded individuals, coupled with mentors, in a physical space has proven to be a crucial component of every leading hub. International venture capitalists and private equity firms come to accelerator hubs, they spend time there and, ultimately, they invest there. This is where funding to scale is achieved.

The Trinity College vision for an accelerator hub in Grand Canal is a meaningful step in this direction, and deserves the support of all key stakeholders.

Venture funding: A world class accelerator would automatically attract more international venture funding, which would seek to partner with Irish companies. Venture capitalists write the big cheques, the ones that transform and scale companies overnight. We need them here instead of the status quo which currently sees our best and brightest start-ups going abroad to seek them out.

Growth and exit: On growth and exit, fundamental changes to our tax system to create stronger incentives are required. Investors and risk-takers need to be rewarded for their endeavours. They also need to attract and retain key employees who can be encouraged to take a chance with start-ups through incentives like share options to be realised on exit. A significant re-engineering in our capital gains tax structures would have an immediate and positive impact on our start-up ecosystem. Our research indicates that tax incentives towards investment would result in increased tax revenue for the State coffers and, more importantly, it would keep companies in Ireland, retaining employment, seeing their profits reinvested here; and sustaining the cycle of entrepreneurship and success.

As well as those practical proposals we see Project i as the start of a conversation crucial to Ireland’s economic interests in a global setting. Where once the world was at the mercy of an arms race, today the race is on for intellectual capital. That is the real currency of global start-up innovation. We can compete in this race, we can lead in this race.

We can accelerate that journey today by committing as a country – our educators, government, business community and diaspora – to simply state the objective publicly and often: before the next decade is out Ireland will become a global leader in start-up innovation. That is the goal.

It is absolutely attainable.

Dómhnal Slattery is chief executive of the global aircraft leasing company Avolon. The company released a paper titled Project i on April 24th, aiming to position Ireland at the forefront of global start-up innovation. You can read Project i at