Irish talent boosts Berlin’s status as technology capital
High cost of living in Dublin is only part of the reason why young Irish are giving it a go in Germany’s capital
William Hollacsek, co-founder and chief techology officer of Grandpal, and Brian Daly, co-founder and chief executive.
In the past decade, squeezed out of Dublin by euro and housing crises, pragmatic Irish tech talent have made a beeline to Berlin to help lift its reputation as Germany’s tech capital.
Europe’s largest economy is number two in the EU for tech investment, behind the UK – and is poised to snag the top spot after Brexit – with €4 billion investment in 2018, up 35 per cent on 2017.
Ahead of this year’s 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the unified city-state government has identified tech and tourism as the capital’s two best drivers of growth.
Steady growth of 2 per cent is anything but a given considering the wartime destruction and flight of industry, the Cold War economic freeze, and post-unification cold turkey, weaning itself off subsidies.
While Hamburg and Munich are keeping pace in the tech field, The Irish Times gathered a group of Irish tech talent around a beer garden table in Berlin to discuss the opportunities they have found in their adopted home.
His idea: take the problem of old-age loneliness that prompted Willie Birmingham to found Alone in 1977, and drag it into the 21st century.
After meeting his French-Vietnamese partner at a startup weekend in Berlin, their platform recruits volunteers and links them with fee-paying nursing homes or family members seeking company for elderly relatives.
So far 11 nursing homes and 600 grandpals have signed up since first launching in Ireland, Brian says, but being in Berlin is what has enabled the company to survive and thrive.
“If I started Grandpal in Dublin we would have run out of money by now,” he said. “Here, we can afford to pay ourselves lower salaries and still have a good quality of life.”
Grandpal is based in Berlin’s Porsche Digital Lab, one of many incubator spaces set up and subsidised by blue-chip German companies anxious to tap ideas bubbling up in the capital.
Another Irishman using dual-tech bases of Dublin and Berlin is Patrick Wheeler. The 45 year-old’s company Setfire, which he runs with his German wife Sandra, focuses on emerging technologies – virtual and augmented realities – as a medium for training, education, and entertainment.
“I like Berlin because it has the right balance of scruffy, creative, ugly, and beautiful to keep me interested and it’s very much a city where people actually live in the city,” he said. “Berlin has ... access to a large local market and is a well positioned hub for access to the larger European market, making it attractive to venture firms and larger companies looking to establish incubators.”
When Mark MacMahon from Sutton, Co Dublin arrived in Berlin a decade ago he remembers a city with plenty of tech ambition but no real track record beyond ripping off others’ ideas.
Now the city has its own native ecosystem of companies that have spread across the Continent, like banking startup N26 and table-booking service Quandoo, where he works as director of engineering.
“Berlin was attracting artistic types and designers and eventually that manifested its way into the startup culture,” he said.
The global squeeze on talent has made itself felt in Berlin, he notices, and tech salaries and rents are increasing at an exponential rate. But unlike London or San Francisco, Berlin has – for now at least – retained a greater liveability factor.
“I think Berlin is definitely maturing as a city, just at a slower rate than other cities and that is quite nice,” agrees Elaine Barry from Ballincollig, a Berliner for 12 years and now running the software consulting business for Pivotal of San Francisco.
“Berlin has changed a lot but the pace still doesn’t feel quite so frenetic as elsewhere,” she said. “What keeps me here is the fact that the city keeps you guessing.”
“I had been conditioned to find a job, buy a house,” she said. “But I wanted something else. I can feel a bit freer here.”
Irish tech workers in Berlin are wary about direct comparisons with Dublin because, in many cases, the two cities are competing for different business, funding and developers.
Daly suggests Dublin is the better place to recruit senior talent, while Berlin is the better place to start a company. Wheeler’s observation of FDI companies in Ireland is that true innovation is rare. Anyone who reaches middle-management, he says, soon sees that all more senior product development innovation are consistently assigned to, or created in, the US.
“In Dublin, they’re all gravitating towards the big tech companies whereas here it is more startup,” says Wheeler. “What I found exciting having moved to Berlin was having more opportunities and the right conditions to really build your own ideas into products.”
Beyond that, both the Irish and German capitals have limitations when it comes to investment beyond initial seed money, Wheeler says.
“There are good incubators here in Berlin but if you want to go for seven-figure funding in Berlin you’ll have difficulty doing that and will have to go looking to Munich or Frankfurt,” he said.
Daly feels Berlin is light years ahead of Dublin on funding with up to 60 venture capital firms compared to a handful in the Irish capital.
Around the beer garden table, talk eventually turns to the question of language. Daly of Grandpal says he is getting on fine with English, and knows big employers like Zalando have English as their working language.
Wheeler says that, in the thriving gaming sector, English is the default language. But interacting with authorities – even if it is just to shout back at Berlin bus drivers – will require a readiness to pick up some German.
Working at Quandoo, McMahon speaks English but – after a decade here – warns of the limitations of not speaking the local language.
“In previous positions German was a huge advantage,” he adds. “Having German is a credibility issue, not having it is a deficit.”
As for the cloud of Brexit, Irish tech workers in Berlin see it as a unique opportunity for Ireland to position itself as the EU’s leading English-speaking destination.
But Jenny Allen from Swords, Co Dublin wonders if this unique selling point will eventually evaporate on Ireland as ever-more people in places like Berlin adapt English as their working language.
“Eventually we will lose our attractiveness to those people who want to live in a cosmopolitan, fun and vibrant place because plenty of other cities in Europe have magnetism: Amsterdam and Barcelona to name a few,” she says.
After nearly a decade in Berlin, working from September for search company Elastic, she is conflicted when friends or work colleagues here tell her they’re contemplating a job offer in Dublin.
“Eventually they learn how horrifically difficult it is to get somewhere to live, the horrific public transport and then there’s the weather,” she said. “You can’t change the weather but fundamental things need to change in Dublin to improve the infrastructure.”
All the tech Irish-Berliners around the table agree that living in the city is very different to the rest of Germany. But MacMahon says working life in Germany – in tech or outside – is an interesting encounter with one’s own unconscious prejudices and stereotypes.
“We have been brain-washed by the Brits towards the Germans,” he says. “When I have Irish visitors here they can’t believe the free-wheeling spirit and the smoking in bars. The Irish and Germans I know here are definitely contrasts but we balance each other well: the Germans are more concentrated and efficient, the Irish use humour to break things up a bit.”
PANEL: Berlin Startup Monitor 2018
309 companies employing 8,000 people
35.2 – Average age of founder
16% – Startups with women founders
42% – Startup founders who have business background
27.2 – Average number of employees
74% – Startups that are team efforts
7.7 (out of 10) – level of happiness of startup workers with their lives in Berlin
33.2% – Share of German venture capital pie won by Berlin, twice as much as Munich’s 15 per cent
40.2% – Startups with turnover of more than €1 million in 2017
60% – Startups which report difficulties recruiting in Germany alone
€63,000 – Average German salary of a developer with eight-plus years experience (Honeypot.io survey)