Innovation hubs keen to get show back on the road
Despite new challenges for start-ups, Covid-19 has opened up great possibilities
‘I worry about the detrimental impact of any more delays on Ireland’s start-up community as a whole,’ says Dogpatch co-founder and chief executive Patrick Walsh
When Dogpatch labs in Dublin’s CHQ reopened its doors last Monday there was a slew of budding entrepreneurs champing at the bit to get back inside. “The very early start-ups have found the lockdown hard because it’s very difficult to be innovative over a Zoom call. You really need people together to brainstorm,” says lab co-founder and chief executive Patrick Walsh. Walsh expects to see companies gradually drifting back over the summer months but for now it’s the hot deskers and the one and two people businesses who seem the most anxious to return.
Dogpatch is normally hopping with about 500 people in 120 companies and more than 10,000 visitors a year. For now, however, its programmes will continue online and physical occupancy will be capped. This is not ideal for a hub that’s a business in its own right and Walsh does not underestimate the challenges this brings, but his main focus is on reopening and he is emphatic about the need for hubs everywhere to regain full momentum as quickly as possible.
“I worry about the detrimental impact of any more delays on Ireland’s start-up community as a whole,” he says. “Supporting our indigenous entrepreneurs has never been so important and it’s a big concern that a lot of the great start-up infrastructure that has been build up here in recent years is now vulnerable. France has given €5 billion to support its start-ups and we need to ensure that Covid does not mean that less people here are getting funded and less people are able to take their businesses to the next level.”
Accelerator hubs help fast track good business ideas. But floating on top is something equally valuable but a lot harder to measure. It’s best described as the camaraderie of shared purpose and it’s what happens spontaneously when you put a group of energetic entrepreneurs together. It’s also what gets lost when you take them out of the hub environment.
“It was relatively straightforward to move our regular sessions online,” says Eamon Curtin, director of UCC-based accelerator Ignite. “What’s been a lot harder to replicate virtually is the informal side of things with its serendipitous moments when people chat and network and learn from each other. We have been encouraging our entrepreneurs to see Covid as one of the many challenges they will face when building a business and we have taken a lot of positives from the situation. For example, access to advice and to potential customers became much easier for them because people were more available. That’s made our companies think more globally about their potential markets. The lockdown also gave us access to really top speakers who might otherwise have been travelling the world and people are simply getting more done because they’re not commuting.”
Ignite normally has 20 start-ups per programme and the autumn intake will be back on campus although not fulltime. Instead, the delivery method will be blended because of the lessons learned during Covid about the practical benefits of doing some things online.
It’s business as usual at The PorterShed in Galway, according to Mary Rodgers, CEO of Galway City Innovation District. “For us it is all about creating high-value sustainable jobs so it is imperative we don’t lose focus,” she says. “Around 30 companies have returned in principle but in reality, about 20 people are using the space every day at the moment. We remained partially open during the pandemic to provide essential services and have now reconfigured our space to safely accommodate the majority of our members.
“Our companies have a tech focus and have been pro-active in pivoting and addressing the needs of the changing market and future requirements,” Rodgers adds. “Video Sherpa pivoted its online video editing tool into healthcare while Clearbookings, which normally provides event management software, is now providing a ‘staggering’ software tool that manages visitor entry to national attractions.” Another PorterShed company, Marteye, was founded during Covid-19 to help marts sell livestock online.
Niall Larkin is programmes leader at the NDRC where the building, which normally houses about 40 companies, has been dark since March. That said, there was no interruption to the current accelerator programme which moved online. “Covid-19 put a stop to face-to-face meetings, but it also opened up great new possibilities. Suddenly, nobody had any reservations about setting up meetings over Zoom. Everyone was in the mindset to pause and gaps started to open up in everyone’s calendar. This kind of access is a game-changer for start-ups,” Larkin says.
“Some of the new elements we had planned for the current cohort had to be put on ice as we made the shift to 100 per cent remote but it also afforded us the opportunity to introduce many new elements that have worked out really well,” he adds. “For example, as everything was over video, sessions were easily recorded and transcribed allowing us to really enhance the power and impact of the coaching. Daily ‘stand-up’ meetings were held over video link, which was also new. This gathered the cohort every morning to share successes and blockers, to spur one another into action and to give everyone the opportunity to tap into their networks to help others in the group. We also had video conference ‘socials’ where everyone received food and beverage deliveries and joined a call where teams took turns to deliver a light-hearted talk about some success or failure in their past. Finally, running our investor showcase online extended the reach of the event into the investor community locally and internationally.”
We’re encouraging people to see the time lag as an opportunity to improve their products further
Tom Flanagan, director of Enterprise and Commercialisation at UCD, says that the College’s Nova innovation hub now has “five-star social distancing and other precautions in place,” as the great return begins. Nova stayed open during the restrictions because some of its companies were working on Covid-related products while others were conducting lab experiments that needed to continue. With the opening of an extension last year Nova can accommodate up to 50 companies and 450 people at full strength.
“Some of our companies will come out of this relatively unscathed and some will have done well because they were in the right area at the right time,” Flanagan says. “A small number will have been challenged in terms of product or investment and things like clinical trials have been delayed. That said, we’re encouraging people to see the time lag as an opportunity to improve their products further.”
Nova has been providing one-to-one assistance to its companies and Flangan says it is advising those knocked off track by Covid to regroup and look at tweaking their offering to manage with what funding they still have if next stage investment is stalled. “Investors are definitely holding back in general but, that said, three of our companies still secured investment during the last three months,” Flanagan says. “In ways, the crisis has been good for our entrepreneurs because they can pack meetings that might have taken them a week to do in an overseas market into a day with Zoom with no time lost to travel. Video calls have also proved a very efficient way of getting things done.”