Over the past four days, Enterprise Ireland hosted hundreds of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs of the last two-and-a-half decades along with the cream of the latest crop of highly innovative start-up founders at a series of events at the RDS in Dublin.
Marking the 25th anniversary of Enterprise Ireland’s establishment in 1998, the highlight of the week was Wednesday’s Enterprise Ireland Summit where more than 800 business people, investors, and other stakeholders in Ireland’s enterprise community gathered to look back on the achievements of indigenous industry over the past 25 years and to look forward to the next steps on their continuing internationalisation journey.
Other events included the International Markets gathering where Enterprise Ireland advisers engaged in hundreds of face-to-face meetings with clients to discuss their future growth ambitions. The 600-strong audience at the Start-Up Showcase on Tuesday morning heard insights from successful company founders on how they overcame challenges and achieved their growth ambitions.
“One of the aims of the showcase is to celebrate the start-up class of 2022 and to bring together the venture capital and start-up communities along with Enterprise Ireland advisers in a very special way,” says Enterprise Ireland chief executive Leo Clancy. “Enterprise Ireland is a major supporter of start-ups through seed and venture funds and other measures. Last year was a record year for us with 161 start-ups supported.”
The nature of those start-ups has changed considerably over the years, according to Enterprise Ireland executive director Kevin Sherry. “Back in 1998 you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of female led companies among the start-ups supported,” Sherry says
“Last year, 36 per cent of them were female led. That didn’t come about by accident. It’s the result of a huge effort by Enterprise Ireland along with other stakeholders in trying to change the shape and diversity of Irish start-ups. They are the future of Irish indigenous industry.”
That’s not all that’s changed over the past 25 years. In 1998, the Enterprise Ireland client base of indigenous manufacturing and internationally traded services firms had total sales of €21.8 billion; exports of €8.5 billion; and employed 130,000 people.
By 2022 those numbers had risen to €62 billion in sales; €32 billion in exports; and more than 218,000 employed directly with about the same number employed indirectly.
The increase in indirect employment has been particularly striking. “There has been a dramatic transformation in the scale, make up and structure of indigenous industry,” Sherry points out. “These companies now spend much more and outsource so much more, the scale of their impact on the economy has increased quite dramatically.”
The sectoral figures are no less impressive. Total exports for internationally traded services were €1.16 billion in 1998; they are now €6.1 billion – a 530 per cent increase. Industrial and consumer products have risen from €2.5 billion to €9.8 billion, while food exports have grown at an equally rapid rate from €4.7 billion to €16.2 billion.
Enterprise Ireland founding CEO Dan Flinter was among the contributors to the Enterprise Ireland Summit. He attributes the remarkable progress made by Irish enterprise to a variety of factors but highlights increases in skills availability, access to capital, and innovation capacity as among the most important.
“I was among the first generations who benefited from access to university education,” he notes. “The impact of that increased investment in education only became obvious 30 years later. The huge number of people coming out of third level improved the intellectual capacity of the nation. The benefits of that to Irish enterprise became apparent in the 1990s and since.”
It took time to build investment in innovation. “The lack of investment at the time was a question of mindset,” Flinter says.
“It was hard to convince people that investment in research and innovation would pay off as there were no immediate results or benefits. It took time to show the results.”
Access to capital has been no less important. Flinter points out that there was precious little equity finance available in the Irish market 25 years ago and that Enterprise Ireland had to play a direct role.
Since then, the organisation has backed 77 seed and venture capital funds which have allocated €922 million to Irish companies and leveraged just short of €5 billion in additional funding. Its most recent seed and venture scheme ran from 2019 to 2024 and committed €183 million to 13 seed and venture funds and leveraged almost €1 billion in additional capital. The result is that Enterprise Ireland is now ranked the number one seed funder in Europe by Pitchbook in terms of deal volume.
“Access to capital is very important at the early stage,” says Dr Barry Flannery, founder and CEO of Zerotech. “Everyone lines up to invest once you’re established.
“The important thing to say is Enterprise Ireland were tremendously supportive from the very beginning. They put seed money in, and the New Frontiers programme was very important to us as well. We got great support from the very highest level in Enterprise Ireland, and they continue to be very supportive.”
There is also an element of success begetting success, according to Vivian Farrell, CEO of Shannon-based Modular Automation. “It’s great to hear the success stories of companies like Combilift, McHale, Abbey Machinery, and others. These companies are going from strength to strength and opening new facilities all the time in Europe and beyond,” Farrell says.
“They are part of a great community of other Irish businesses who are willing to help each other and share their experiences.”
She has played that role too. “I’ve often had Enterprise Ireland direct people my way. They might be a couple of years behind us in moving into the US market, for example.
“I’m always happy to share learnings of what worked for us and what didn’t and help other businesses avoid some of the pitfalls and learn from our internationalisation journey.
“You can always dip into the Irish enterprise community. There is always someone there who has done it before you and can help make you the connections to take the next step forward. There is real power in that.”
Martin McVicar, founder and CEO of Combilift, stresses the importance of research, development and innovation. “Throughout the 25 years of our existence we have always focused on R&D (research and development) and export markets,” McVicar says.
“We invest 7 per cent of our turnover in R&D every year, and it was even higher than that in the early years. We have a large team of design, software, and mechatronic engineers. Product development is in our DNA.”
Developing new products is just the start, however. “It’s about getting products into the market, that’s where a lot of companies fall down,” he says.
“Over the years we have worked very closely with Enterprise Ireland to get into overseas markets. We needed to put our people on the ground in those markets to scale our business. We need more companies to have that ambition to scale in their own right and not wait to be taken over by a multinational to do it.”
The week long celebration of Irish enterprise culminates today with the Scaling, Sustainability and Driving Innovation Business Leaders Conference where the audience will hear inspiring stories from Irish companies on what they have achieved, how they scaled their businesses, and where the opportunities and challenges lie ahead within the international environment.
“When we look back over the last 25 years, probably our greatest source of pride and joy in Enterprise Ireland is seeing Irish companies compete and win against tough competition in international markets with superior products and services,” Kevin Sherry concludes.