DUBLIN — Web Summit helped put Ireland on the tech map. An annual gathering that draws the likes of Bono, Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, it celebrated ideas, big personalities and the joys of the pub crawl.
“I believe in chasing rainbows,” says Paddy Cosgrave, the indefatigable intellectual who founded the conference and acts as its host. Today, it’s considered one of the preeminent tech shows of the year, a civilized alternative to bloated gatherings such as CES and Mobile World Congress.
When Web Summit decided to leave Dublin, after five years, for the warmer climes of Lisbon in November 2016, it sent ripples through the Irish tech community. (A U.S. companion show, Collision, is departing Las Vegas for New Orleans next year.)
The move to Portugal is considered by some a symbolic and financial blow to the local economy, which hauled in $110 million during Web Summit 2014. But it’s a loss the increasingly vibrant tech economy here can handle, with start-ups blooming and an avalanche of American tech companies establishing operations.
Amid the relocation and recriminations, Ireland’s tech scene is growing — whether at Silicon Docks, the home of Google, Facebook and Twitter’s local operations, or throughout Dublin, where a herd of start-ups are gaining traction. The European island offers the lure of minimal regulation and significantly lower corporate tax rates (12.5% vs. 35% in the U.S.), a major reason why top U.S. tech companies — including Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft,Twitter and eBay — have corporate facilities in Ireland, where they employ thousands.
Yet Dublin’s thriving start-up community will greatly determine the fate and fortunes of this business narrative. They employ more workers and are greatly intertwined in the national economy.
“We’re a small, little company on an island with a loud voice,” says Barry Napier, CEO of Cubic Telecom, a 54-person outfit that plans to double in size next year and be worth $500 million to $1 billion within a year. “We’re street fighters.”
Think of Cubic Telecom as the Switzerland of Ireland’s tech start-up scene. It’s a third-party provider of technology that connects mobile devices, cars, computers and other devices across multiple countries without steep roaming charges. It’s spare office in the Sandyford suburb is crammed with several dozen employees, festooned with inspirational quotes on the wall from Steve Jobs and others. A quote above Cubic’s entrance sums up its convivial culture: “EVERYONE BRINGS JOY TO THIS OFFICE. SOME WHEN THEY ENTER OTHERS WHEN THEY LEAVE.”
There’s a certain hint of bravura surrounding Cubic, and for good reason: Tesla, Hewlett-Packard, Qualcomm and Walmart are among its partners and customers.
Cubic’s quick path to success is illustrative of a can-do spirit in the Land of Poets, where there are more than 1,500 tech companies today, according to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists though official statistics are hard to find.
“There is a growing fusion (in Ireland) of human capital and venture capital; we’re building an innovative ecosystem,” says Ben Hurley, CEO of early-stage investor NDRC. He’s seated in a conference room at Digital Exchange, an accelerator for about a dozen start-ups located in a rustic building constructed from 1879 to 1883 that used to be part of St. James’s Gate Brewery, where Guiness is made. Its residents include security firm Sensipass and Chasing Returns, a program to parse behavioral data of retail traders.
Within the co-working space, entrepreneurs work together, listen to lectures and welcome mentoring from established companies.
The after-hours scene is much the same. The previous evening, adjacent to the House of Lords, about 25 hopeful start-ups — parcel-tracking service Xpreso and Optrace, a maker of serialized holographic labels, among them — gathered to make elevator pitches, share in sausage bites and pine for fame and fortune. “These events are more common as our industry grows here,” says Tom Farrell, vice president of marketing at Swrve, one of the exhibitors.
Mobile-games developer Swrve, like many start-ups based in Dublin, has set up shop in San Francisco, a tacit admission of the importance of establishing a beachhead in Silicon Valley.
But no one expects instant riches. Ireland must contend with nearby London for engineering talent and it faces the Sisyphean task of competing with exotic venues such as Barcelona and Lisbon for lucrative tech shows.
“See these blotches on my face?” says Napier, who plans to open a Cubic office in San Francisco next year. “They come from stress. I go on vacation, they go away. Once I’m back at work, they return. That’s the nature of working at a start-up.”
Such are the vagaries of creating hardware and software in Ireland.
Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz on Twitter: @jswartz.
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