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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Entrepeneurship in Ireland

Many an armchair entrepreneur will have watched the BBC’s “Dragon’s Den” which pits individuals with a business idea against a team of so-called ‘dragon’ investors – five successful UK entrepreneurs who have the money to invest and make the idea happen…or not, as the case may be. It can make for painful viewing as you watch some poor individual’s hopes and dreams torn apart by the wealthy and opinionated. For some reason, it seems even crueller then telling people that they can’t sing!

So when I heard that, a company resident in The Digital Hub, was to go in front of the dragon panel, I had to salute their bravery – as indeed every armchair entrepreneur in Ireland did. Established by chef Niall Harbison and his business partner Sean Fee, is a website which provides free online video recipes with professional chefs and a social community for food lovers.

Niall Harbison, iFoods has over 130 free high quality, professional video cooking tutorials presented by iFoods’ chefs Niall Harbison and Pieter Plaetinck and guests, as well as a host of social networking functions and the ability for members to upload their own foodie content.

Based now in the Digital Hub in Dublin, was previously a participant – like a growing number of technology-based start-ups - on the Hothouse Enterprise Platform Programme in East Wall. DIT Hothouse ( is a year-long comprehensive support and incubation programme for entrepreneurs with technology-based business ideas and there are now a number of similar ventures all around the country, attached to universities and Institutes of Technology including Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), Cork Institute of Technology and Dun Laoghaire’s Institute of Art, Design and Technology. The programme offers participants a number of supports including incubation space, management development training, strategic business counselling and access to an enterprise and investment network.

Niall Harbison, has cooked for many of the worlds most famous people over the years including Bill Gates, U2 and Victoria Beckham, to name a few. Niall commented: “Before I got back to Europe to start I hadn’t heard of the Dragon’s Den, as I’d been on super-yachts in the Caribbean for 3 years, but everyone I spoke to said if we were ever looking to raise money we should give it a try, so we did”.

Although, ultimately unsuccessful in gaining investment on the Dragon’s Den due to the similarity of their website address to a rival site, the team exhibited all the traits that we are now beginning to see in technology start-up ventures emerging from these enterprise programmes; a solid business plan, excellent communication skills, technical proficiency, tightly controlled spend, a sense of passion and a thorough understanding of their marketplace.

Encouragingly, there are a number of well-funded start-ups emerging from all areas of Ireland – not just Dublin and The Digital Hub. Particularly, there are ones emerging from places that might have previously been considered unemployment black spots. Increasingly, it is a lifestyle choice for those involved to locate in the regions. Historically, the need for education or employment would have drawn them to the urban centres or abroad. But now, with increased connectivity, experienced IT people are returning and setting up shop in their home towns. Often, costs are lower and the upend in terms of lifestyle is a key driver.

Some of these enterprises are emerging organically out of the collaboration between universities and enterprise in the regions, benefiting from targeted investment by the government. Take for example, the innovative TripPlanr – which is a collaboration between Irish start-up Tourist Republic and the National University of Ireland’s Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) in Galway. TripPlannr is an intelligent application that will suck data in from travel sites, blogs, social networks etc. and come up with a customised trip best suited to the individual.

“TripPlanr will take content that is already out there. It will scan different websites, online tourist guides, blogging platforms, and create a big library of reviews on location, as well as scanning all the different booking elements of a trip: flights, hotels, car hire, activities,” said Jan Blanchard, founder of Tourist Republic.

TripPlanr uses Semantic Web technology – a specialist research area for DERI - which is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which the semantics of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content. Put simply, it is a more intelligent web that understands the meaning of the information on its pages rather then just linking to them blindly. So, for example, if you search for Paris Hilton, the semantic web will understand whether you are a refined traveller looking to stay in a top class hotel in the capital of France or whether you are a keen reader of Heat magazine looking for gossip about a certain celebrity! Adapting this technology to the online tourism sector is a great example of how Irish companies are embracing the next generation of web applications (or Web 2.0) and are positioning themselves as potential leaders. The fact that this sort of innovation is coming from the regions is heartening and shows that the knowledge economy is a moveable feast.

Another surprising example emerging from the regions is the self-professed Google-killer, Cuil – a search engine start-up which emerged out of County Louth, not the first place you would normally think of for a silicon valley wannabe. Cuil was founded by highly respected search experts, husband and wife team Tom Costello and Anna Patterson who have now set up their headquarters in Menlo Park, California with 10 – 15 employees.

Costelloe, originally a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, brushed up against Sergei Brin, the founder of Google, while at Stanford University before gong on to join IBM. Meanwhile, his wife Anne was working on an internet archiving system that was snapped up by Google. Soon, she was designing some of Google’s most important search programmes. Costelloe, meanwhile, became a house-husband and took to his garage to tinker away on what would later become Cuil (pronounced “Cool” as in the Gaelic word for knowledge). Reports suggest that they have received around €20 million in private investment. Cuil is just starting its journey towards hopeful dominance in the online search market.

Meanwhile, in Kilkenny, IT professional Keith Bohanna has set up DB Twang (, a niche social network site for guitar players. dbTwang provides a trusted place on the web where guitar players and collectors can keep important information about their instruments securely and in complete confidence. It also provides a unique and dynamic platform that enables its members to share information selectively in a trusted and safe environment with fellow members and to complete secure trades by mutual consent.
“Everything we do has to be focused on making it easier for our users/members/subscribers to learn from each other, share their passions and knowledge and allow them to trade with each other in a trusted environment. “ says Bohanna.

Currently, both he and his partner in the business, Fintan Blake Kelly, are still working as IT consultants, but hope to raise the necessary Angel investment to put 100% of their energies into the enterprise.

Finally, there is, of course, the success of the young Collison brothers from Limerick who in their teens have successfully built and sold their first web company, Auctomatic, for a seven figure sum. This was done with the assistance of Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley based start-up scheme that helps young entrepreneurs in the web arena. As is increasingly common with these global-orientated, web-based initiatives, it doesn’t matter what country you come from, the main requisite is simply a good idea. (This, by the way, is another paradigm shift that seems to be eluding policy-makers in the European Union; in a globalised environment where everyone is connected, the idea of nationhood rapidly becomes irrelevant.)

Perhaps this is the next stage of evolution for the Enterprise Platform Programmes. As the recent Digital Hub Enterprise Survey suggests, the big barriers for start-ups developing in this country is both having the necessary business experience as well as gaining the enough investment.

An initiative like Y-Combinator provides both and, more importantly, it is shamelessly commercial which in turn incentivises success. Also, capital is now firmly global and we should be trying to set up more mechanisms whereby venture capital and angel investment isn’t solely coming from local investors. Although the clarion call of Silicon Valley is hard to ignore, the likes of Israel have proved that you can grow a healthy, global technology hub anywhere in the world.

The founder of Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, recently posted an interesting “Call to arms” on the Y-Combinator site ( outlining the sort of ideas that they would like to see being pitched to them. For our budding armchair entrepreneurs in Ireland, it makes for exciting reading. These include:

Something your company needs that doesn’t exist, New news, A cure for the disease of which the Recording Industry Association of America is a symptom. (This is a call for new business models to sort out the music industry as the studios entrench themselves deeper in their futile battle against piracy). Simplified browsing, Enterprise software 2.0, Dating, Photo/video sharing services, Off the shelf security, Shopping guides, a buffer against bad customer service, a Craigslist competitor, fixing email overload and Start-ups for start-ups (like Y-Combinator itself, this is a call for enterprises to develop that support new enterprises.)

So now there is no excuse. No matter where you come from in Ireland or where you choose to live, as long as you have a Personal Computer, an internet connection and driving ambition, you too can go to work on the internet. Who knows maybe you’ll be the next Google or Ebay… or Cuil or TripAdvisor. But you have to get off the armchair first.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 8:13 a.m.


At 3:54 a.m., Blogger @ZaggedEdge said...

Sounds like a really cool show. Do you have The Apprentice with Donald Trump over there?

At 8:53 a.m., Blogger Neil Leyden said...

There is an Irish version of The Apprentice at the moment - with our own home-grown Donald Trump - a guy called Bill Cullen.


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