How should places outside Dublin compete for tech investment? This continues to be a big issue. Dublin soars, others struggle.
So what should smaller towns do? Here are the factors that count when building a regional tech ecosystem.
1. The importance of local champions
You can have all the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, task forces and cross-political support you can muster. But if you don’t have at least one or two local burghers who relentlessly drive everything on, including events and infrastructure development, it’s an uphill task to gather investment.
John Breslin (of NUI Galway) has been a stalwart in driving Galway’s tech ecosystem forward, as have other individuals like Altocloud co-founder Barry O’Sullivan, ExOrdo boss Paul Killoran, OnePageCRM founder Mic Fitzgerald and Priviti Group’s Dave Cunningham.
In Skibbereen, SuperValu owner John Field provided a central building so that the small town could develop a tech hub called Ludgate. (Glen Dimplex president Sean O’Driscoll, a local, was also instrumental in putting up finance.) That facility is now flying with lots of tech startups and growing interest from investors. Small communities in counties such as Kerry are on the map because of outspoken voices such as Stockbyte founder Jerry Kennelly.
For those who reach for the sky, big things can happen. Paddy Cosgrave sold Dublin as a story to an international technology audience. He did it largely because he pushed and pushed to the point of breaking, sometimes getting up people’s noses. But he did it. He hustled and negotiated and promised and believed.
2. The undeniable value of a ‘hub’
Just like local champions are important, developing an identifiable hub (please excuse the jargon) is a huge step up to establishing sustained investment and jobs in a town. While many big towns have growing tech companies within their borders, some have them scattered in different areas. Bringing them closer together, ideally in a central location, increases the town’s marketability to tech investors.
There are some good examples of this. In Galway, a few local tech companies came together and created Portershed, which is now full. A second building is planned. Coworking spaces also act as effective hubs in some instances. Some of the best examples involve towns taking advantage of new broadband rollouts.
In Tralee, local entrepreneurs Ken Tobin and Tom O’Leary based a coworking space (called HQ Tralee) on an offer from Siro for free 1,000GB fibre broadband over two years. Like Ludgate in Skibbereen (which also uses Siro fibre broadband), HQ Tralee filled up quickly with expansion mooted. Startups now come from miles to work there instead of relocating to Cork or Dublin.
There is an open invitation to many towns to replicate this model. Indeed, Siro has explicitly invited towns including Letterkenny, Wexford town, Portlaoise, Castlebar, Mullingar and Carlow town to apply to them for the same setup as exists in Tralee and Skibbereen.
3. Too many rural areas undersell their strengths
Not everyone wants to live and work in a crowded city. Some tech companies like smaller locations, especially those with natural amenities that fit their lifestyle. Nearform, a fast-growing Irish mobile technology company that employs around 100 people, chose Tramore as its headquarters.
It did so partly because both of its founders, Richard Rodger and Cian O Maidin, are from the Waterford area. But its pitch to the skilled engineers it needed to recruit was to come work in an area with amazing beaches, great surfing, modest accommodation costs and access to a small city (Waterford) within a 20-minute drive.
In a maturing industry, there are lots of skilled 30-somethings and 40-somethings who aren’t as bothered about having 50 cafes, restaurants or brasseries on their doorstep. Many want a nice place with a great quality of life to raise a family.
In tech, there are growing (rich) niche communities that seek bespoke lifestyle options with their work. They’re people like senior Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Tai, who went to Achill in 2014 to mix kitesurfing with investing at the Web Summit’s ‘Surf Summit’. Irish coastal towns, in particular, regularly undersell themselves as investment options, because they try to compete on the metrics that bigger cities use. They should be focusing on their own strengths instead.
4. What hurts: planning woes.
The Apple Athenry affair is more than just a planning fiasco – it will deter some big investors from planning a project in rural Ireland, according to senior data centre executives. There’s little doubt that Apple has cooled considerably on its plan to build an €850m data centre in Athenry because of our unusually long planning appeals process. It’s not An Bord Pleanala that’s the problem – it’s the legal system we have. Unfortunately, leaving it up to lawyers to reform this is like asking TDs to be legislators first and constituency consultants second.
5. What hurts: the lack of broadband
Not to be a broken record, but the absence of plentiful high speed broadband in an area kills it for many tech companies.
It’s the opportunity foregone, too. The most recent European Commission figures show that when given access to high speed broadband, Irish small firms outsell and outperform other small businesses across Europe.
To be fair, the situation is improving a lot around Irish towns with over 1,500 people. There are few of these left without some access to high speed broadband.
The issue is that many of these towns have a pocket of broadband in the centre with little or nothing on the fringes or in the townlands, where most of the people actually live. This is no good to a small or medium-sized tech firm. They need their staff to have high quality access online whenever necessary.
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