Geektime speaks with two of Ireland’s leading VCs for an insider’s scoop about the Irish startup scene
In the early 1990s, Ireland changed its tax policies to attract international investment. Suddenly Ireland became an attractive place to be and earned the nickname Celtic Tiger. Though Ireland’s boom ended abruptly in 2008, partially due to a housing bubble, the country is beginning to bounce back. Dublin is also home to a lively startup scene, whose Web Summit has become an increasingly important global tech conference.
Geektime caught up with two of Ireland’s foremost venture capitalists to learn about the exciting things happening in Ireland. Brian Caulfield is a partner at DFJ Esprit, a pan-European venture capital fund that invests in disruptive tech companies at the early and growth stages. He is a serial entrepreneur turned VC who founded software companies Exceptis Technologies, which was acquired by Trintech Group, and Similarity Systems, which was acquired by Informatica.
Conor Stanley is the founder of Tribal VC, an early-stage venture fund and co-location hub.
How can an entrepreneur or investor from abroad get involved in Ireland’s startup scene?
Beyond networking and developing personal relationships, Brian Caulfield suggests connecting to the following organizations and events. “There are a few useful resources in terms of understanding the startup community in general. Enterprise Ireland’s website has a lot of useful information. Startup Ireland is a relatively new organization trying to create an umbrella for the grassroots organizations in the startup world, so they are a very good point of contact.
“A great place to start would be by attending the Web Summit. If you do attend, and you’re interested in the Irish community, you’ll have to do a little work to make sure you actually get the Irish community and aren’t swept up in the hoopla. Everybody will be there.
“There are also dozens of startup events. You could find an event practically every night of the week. A good event that is relatively small scale is called Silicon Drinkabout Dublin. It’s one Friday a month after work. They choose a bar and send out an email. It’s very casual. The next event is April 17.
“The other great event – this is more internal for the community – is SUXmas: Startup Christmas. A lot of early stage small startup companies don’t have big Christmas parties so this is a joint Christmas party for the small Dublin startups. It’s a really cool event.”
Why do entrepreneurs from abroad come to Ireland?
Brian Caulfield explains, “The multinationals, the Googles and Facebooks, are very active in the tech community. They offer their premises to host events and sponsor events. This is one of the big pluses of the Dublin startup scene. All the major Internet companies are here now: Google, Facebook, Twitter, you name it, the list is very long. A lot of startup founders that you meet will have come from abroad, perhaps to work for Google or Facebook, stayed a few years, and then launched a startup in Dublin. So you’ll find a Russian founder who is ex-Google or a Ukrainian founder who is ex-IBM.
“We’re also starting to see people moving startup companies to Ireland. They get good support from Enterprise Ireland in terms of funding, mentoring and the availability of seed capital. I’d never say it’s easy, but it’s relatively easy to raise $250,000 to $1 million in a seed round. There’s also a very good pool of tech talent, much of it native Irish talent, but also people attracted to Ireland by the multinationals.”
What are the most exciting startups in Ireland right now?
Both Caulfield and Stanley mention Intercom, which raised $23 million in Series B funding in 2014, and Boxever, which is rapidly expanding in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Caulfield notes that he wishes he had invested in these two companies, as well as in Logentries.
Here are some of the other startups they are most excited about.
Brian Caulfield: “Nuritas, a company that discovers new bioactive peptides in food proteins through bioinformatics. It’s not widely known outside of Ireland. It has an incredible female founder, Nora Khaldi, she’s really impressive. Her father is Algerian and her mother is Irish. She spent most of her life in France and moved here to do a PhD in molecular evolution. It’s some of the most unique technology I’ve seen in a while, tackling an interesting problem with an interesting business model.
“Movidius, a fabless semiconductor company that gives vision capabilities to any kind of mobile device, is vision processing for the Internet of Things. It’s in my portfolio. I think this could be Ireland’s first unicorn.
Conor Stanley: “There are a number of successful startups that have already broken into the United States, and have offices there with their engineering team here in Dublin. There’s Teamwork.com. They’re not venture backed but they’re absolutely nailing the revenue side.
“Newswhip does social media analytics for media sources. Their customers include the BBC, Guardian, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. There’s also Swrve, which does marketing automation and analytics. They took in $20 million in funding two years ago.”
What’s the most under-reported startup story in Ireland?
Both Caulfield and Stanley have interesting trends to note here.
Caulfield: “There’s a company that’s doing fantastically well: Clavis Insight. Practically all CPG manufacturers are on their analytics platform. They’re flying, but they don’t talk to the media much.”
Stanley: “I wrote a blog post about this a week ago on Dublinglobe.com. It’s called “The Irish Startup Attribution Problem.” There was a presentation comparing venture capital activity across Europe and Israel. Ireland features nicely on that but suggests that only $30 million of venture capital was invested in Irish tech companies in the second half of 2014. That would imply a very small VC market in Ireland. But I think Pitchbook, CBInsights and Crunchbase have a data gathering problem. They look at the companies’ websites and they have U.S. addresses. According to my numbers, probably only half of VC activity into Ireland is getting attributed to being Irish.”
Where would you like to see Ireland’s startup scene in the next 5-10 years?
Caulfield: “I’d love to see a few big IPOs, a real Irish unicorn. Those would be the thing that make a difference. Also, a lot more recognition of entrepreneurship and encouragement of entrepreneurship in our tax system. That could have a transformational effect.”
Stanley: “I think Dublin could compete as a really good location in the top tier of European startup hubs: London, Paris, Stockholm. For that to happen, it needs a few more successes, a few more companies like Intercom.”
What do you know to be true that most people disagree with you about?
Caulfield: “Most founders make bad CEOs. The characteristics usually necessary to be a great founder are almost directly opposed to the characteristics of a great manager. Very occasionally you get people capable of doing both. CEOs are more structured, goal focused. A lot of founders are grumpy. They see something being done badly and hate that. They see a better way to do it, and they desperately want to fix it. They are smart, yet struggle with the tasks necessary to organize a group of people less smart than they are to achieve an objective, and scale a business. They tend not to be great organizers or synthesizers.”
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