Piece in Wired: “Dublin Web Summit highlights the under-reported successes of Irish tech”

Following on from my previous piece in Wired UK on the optimism at the Pub Summit, this piece takes a macro snapshot of the Dublin startup scene during last week’s Web Summit. See  Web Summit story on Wired UK here, or read on below..

Last Friday was a big tech day for Dublin. Web game giant Zynga kicked things off by launching its European HQ in Dublin, and disclosed plans to build the city into its biggest operations centre. Across town the sixth Dublin Web Summit opened its doors to 1,000 young developers, serial entrepreneurs, marketers, and investors.

Paddy Cosgrave, who organises the Summit, reckons that Dublin beats London for density of entrepreneurial tech activity per capita. The Dublin Web Summit is now one of the bigger tech meetups in Europe, and global startup schemes such as Microsoft’s Bizspark see some of their highest take up in Ireland.

Jerry Kennelly is one of Ireland’s foremost web entrepreneurs, and is founder of Stockbyte and Tweak. He thinks the startup scene in Ireland is heating up, and benefitting from the valuable experience of serial startup and exits.

Yet despite this and the stream of $100 million+ exits that it has prompted, Mike Butcher of TechCrunch Europe admits that the Irish tech scene has been under reported in the UK. Indeed, he made a dramatic mea culpa to the audience from the stage — on his knees, no less.

“What Dublin suffers from,” says Tariq Krim, founder of NetVibes and Jolicloud, “is the lack of a hype generating echo chamber”. Sam Barnett, CEO of Struq, who spoke at the Summit, has been surprised at the low profile of successful Irish exits. Part of the reason may also be that the web community in Ireland focuses on business-to-business, rather than business to consumer startups. Or as Daire Hickey, one of the Summit organisers, calls it, “unsexy tech”.

Unsexy tech seems to be where the smart money is. Lyra McKee, a consultant to startups in Northern Ireland, says that the VC funding needed to market a service to users is thin on the ground. Startups find it easier to sell directly to established businesses. Plus, says John Reid of RepKnight, businesses are willing to spend in a way that hard-pressed consumers are not.

Iain Mac Donald, who sold Perlico for €70M in 2007, has seen his new venture SkillPages.com grow from 50k users to one million plus in recent months. He says that Dublin’s small size is its strength: the close web of interpersonal connections in Dublin makes it a Mecca for angel investors who want to invest in the person more than VCs, who focus on the product first.

Conditions seem to be good. Funding is available, and the average calibre of coders may be rising despite massive competition for engineering talent. Chris McClelland, CEO of Ecliptic Labs, thinks that Irish universities are finally shifting focus to producing engineers suited to industry rather than theory — a bugbear of tech firms for some years. The most enterprising, such as undergraduate developers Ciarán McCann and Carl Lange, find their own ways to make themselves relevant. McCann and Lange were at the Summit in the hope of impressing prospective employers with Flax, the open-source HTML5 game engine that they built to prove their real-world skills.

They are in luck, because the games industry is booming in Dublin. All of the major web game companies are present, and according to Liam McGarry, who runs mobile game developer house WeeMan Studios, many of the talented game developers who went to the UK in the lean years have come home to work. Paschal O’Donohue, a politician carving out his niche as a supporter of the digital industries in Ireland, reckons Ireland’s place should be as the “games hub of Europe”.

Though Ireland’s early stage funding scene is good for startups, says Paul Hayes, Ireland’s veteran guerrilla PR guru, Irish entrepreneurs naturally gravitate toward VCs in the US after a certain stage. Martin Kelly of IBM SmartCamp thinks that Ireland’s small home market and strong connection to its diaspora makes it more like Israel than other European countries in its global outlook.

However, there is a downside. Global in this case means US-focussed. Emi Gal, CEO of Brainient, a targeted video advertising service, says Irish entrepreneurs need to focus more on engaging with Europe. He was in Dublin to speak at the Summit, and told me that he almost never sees an Irish presence at European tech conferences.

Yet this focus on the US plays to Irish strengths. Eamon Leonard, founder of Orchestra, a cloud platform for web apps, setup WhiskeyMar.ch, a Silicon Valley pub crawl, to attract developer talent and investors. Since then Leonard has lead marches of up to eighty techies at a time, and has developed valuable contacts in the Valley. In much the same manner, Paddy Cosgrave walked up to Marcus Segal, COO of Zynga, at a Valley party and talked him in to giving Friday’s keynote speech. Leonard says the Valley is just like Dublin. At the top layer of activity of entrepreneurs and developers, “the community is as small as ours”.

Ireland has a “freewheeling atmosphere of experimentation”, TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher tells me at the post-Summit dinner. “What it needs now are more global plays to build new platforms”.

Johnny Ryan is a senior researcher at the Institute of International & European Affairs, and author of A History of the Internet and the Digital Future (Reaktion Books, 2010).

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