Start-up Soundings

If any country can emulate Silicon Valley, it’s Ireland

 

Over the past few months I have written in this column about young Irish companies who have made the move to Silicon Valley to realise their dreams of global leadership. Having spent the past month in California reconnecting with friends and colleagues, it became clear to me that the current generation of Irish founders is following in the footsteps of pioneers – Irish leaders who have already made it in Silicon Valley – in start-ups, large technology companies and venture capital. People who moved from Ireland to the Bay Area in the days before the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), before Silicon Docks, before the Web Summit.

The list of well-known success stories is long. Limerick man John Hartnett rose through the ranks at Apple, ran worldwide sales at Palm and went on to found the ITLG and venture capital firm SVG partners. John Ryan, from Tipperary, moved to Silicon Valley in 1974. In 1983, he founded Macrovision, based on a technology which eventually became the world standard for video copy protection, and which today is included in virtually every DVD player and cable/satellite decoder worldwide. The company was floated on the Nasdaq in 1997. Symantec board member Anita Sands, originally from Co Louth, was previously group managing director at UBS.

Last week, I caught up with two of Ireland’s current Silicon Valley success stories: Shane Buckley, chief executive of wireless solutions provider Xirrus, and Conrad Burke, chief executive of solar player Innovalight, which was acquired by DuPont. I asked them what makes Silicon Valley different, what it means to be Irish in the technology business and what they made of the current Irish start-up scene.

Corkman Shane Buckley is a serial Valley success story. Before Xirrus, he led Netgear’s commercial unit to 50 per cent revenue growth over two years, and previously, as international president for Peribit Networks, he grew the company’s international business to account for 60 per cent of corporate revenues. He is clear about what makes Silicon Valley different: “The level and pace of innovation is unparallelled. Nowhere on earth is there the density of investors and entrepreneurs like this market. Companies can scale from a few employees to a few hundred in a matter of weeks”

Originally from Wicklow, Conrad Burke founded Innovalight in 2005 and served as the president and chief executive until August 2011, when DuPont acquired the company. Burke believes in the cultural diversity of Silicon Valley: “It’s a melting pot of smart people from all over the world that come to America with big dreams. Here, there is no stigma with taking bold risks, or even failing with those big ideas.”

Both leaders believe being Irish helped them along the way. “There is a distinct benefit coming from a small country, and that is the need for its citizens to always look outward,” says Buckley. “The Irish have always been received positively in the US, given the strong connections between our two countries.”

Burke credits the Irish penchant for storytelling: “I have found that Irish people – and I would be guilty of this – have a unique ability to tell stories, tell of their dreams, and connect with people from all cultures. That skill translates quite well in opening doors, accessing investors and customers and telling the story of your company and your product.”

Burke is also bullish about the Irish start-up scene: “I am impressed, and maybe even envious, when I see what is happening in Ireland currently versus when I left Ireland many many years ago. A new generation of Irish people, a generation of confident entrepreneurs, a breakaway culture of people that have a can-do attitude is flourishing in pockets all around the country, and that is very exciting. If any country has a chance to copy the Silicon Valley model and succeed, that would be Ireland.”

Buckley says there is still work to do: “To succeed in the start-up world, Ireland needs to build the necessary infrastructure required to attract entrepreneurs and their investors. This needs government support to ensure venture capitalists are attracted to Ireland as investors.

“Other key requirements are the availability of flexible/low-cost accommodation, low-interest financing from banks and other institutions, tight integration between universities and the startups themselves, and the support from government agencies to expand the company’s reach outside of Ireland. Finally, the telecommunications infrastructure has to be first class to ensure startups can leverage the latest technologies.”

Irish-American Rich Moran has a unique perspective. Formerly a partner at investment firm Venrock, Moran was recently appointed president of Menlo College, the business college of Silicon Valley. “The rules are different in Silicon Valley,” he says. “The penalty for failure is to learn and try again. The belief that one can be successful regardless of age or experience permeates the air. There is a belief that all things are possible and it is a special place in a special time.

“Being Irish can almost always be a conversation starter, and it might get me in the door in some places, but that’s it. Without ideas and stories and expertise the story ends. Luckily, the Irish are good with ideas and stories and expertise.”

All three have stayed connected to Ireland through the ITLG, and all are positive about the direction Ireland is headed. Rich Moran sums it up: “I gave a talk in Ireland not long ago. The title of it was, ‘Stop saying you’re sorry’. The Irish can be sorry about the weather, sorry about asking for investment capital, sorry about being successful and a litany of other things. I think we are over that now.

“I believe in the Irish spirit and am proud of all the great startups that have developed there in the last few years.”

Barry O’Sullivan is a dragon on Dragon’s Den and chief executive of Altocloud, a Silicon Valley start-up with a base in Galway

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