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Dublin’s Startup Commish Brings Lesson in Buzz From NYC

Dublin’s Startup Commish Brings Lesson in Buzz From NYC
National Story

If you ask people to name the top startup clusters in Europe, most will say London and Berlin. But Dublin is growing—and starting to become better known.

That may be obvious this week, as the city is hosting its annual Web Summit that draws thousands of attendees and tech celebrities, but it wasn’t always this way. And fostering Dublin’s homegrown startup community (see table below) remains very much a work in progress.

In September, the city appointed its first-ever Commissioner for Startups. She is Niamh Bushnell, an Irish native who recently spent more than a decade in the New York startup scene—at first working for the Irish government, and then starting her own companies, including tech consulting firm Bushnell Solutions (which became MarketSprint) and Kinnecions, an online networking and mentoring site (now called Idirus.com). She’s also a startup investor through the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York.

Her prescribed goal now is to work with local and federal government officials to make Dublin into a better-known hub for startups and innovation. That means across Europe, but also globally.

With a two-year term, Bushnell has her work cut out for her. Like any small startup ecosystem, Dublin has plenty of issues to deal with: the venture funding climate; talent flow and recruiting issues; the broader economic recovery and policy climate for entrepreneurs; the relationship between startups and big multinational companies; Irish startups needing to look west for markets even as they try to attract workers from other parts of the world; and so on.

So where to start?

I sat down with Bushnell (pictured above with entrepreneur Jonathan Ruane) in Dublin and followed up with some questions over e-mail. Her last answer below surprised me most, though I hear it in cities around the U.S., including Boston. Hint: It’s surprising only because she comes across as a modest, thoughtful leader, and not one to boast.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our Q&A:

Xconomy: What are your top priorities as Startup Commissioner? What’s the key metric for success?

Niamh Bushnell: The thing that struck me most upon my return to Ireland was the sheer number of startups here with the potential to go global. I’ve also been really impressed by the depth of support, expertise, and enthusiasm that exists across the Dublin startup ecosystem.

The Next Wave
Twenty early-stage Irish startups and their leaders:
Phil Riordan CEO, BragBet
Kevin Kavanagh CEO, Hiri
Olaf O’Moore CEO, Funkedup
Frédéric Herrera CEO, VBot
Hilary Kenna CEO, Vizolve
Rhona Togher CEO, Restored Hearing
Lukas Decker CEO, Coindrum
Tony Corrigan CEO, TenderScout
Patrick Leddy CEO, Pulsate
Dave O’Flanagan CEO, Boxever
Emer O’Daly CEO, Love & Robots
Ronan Perceval CEO, Phorest
Leonora O’Brien CEO, Pharmapod
Dan Barry CEO, Riffstation
Ben Harris CEO, Drop
Jennie McGinn CEO, Opsh
Andrew Burton CEO, Logentries
Ciara Clancy CEO, Beats Medical
Gerard Forde Founder, Bizimply
Alan Donnelly Founder, LayerLabz

The story of Dublin as a startup capital has pretty much never been told, so one of my first priorities is to tell the story of where we’re at today and where we’re going to next. Success in achieving my goal could be measured in many ways, but when other cities start imploring us to reveal our “secret sauce,” I guess the message will have been received.

X: Can you describe some of the projects you are working on?

NB: We’re working on a number of key initiatives. One involves connecting with our diaspora, the global Irish, who can tell our story and also accelerate our companies’ access to new markets and funding. There are millions of powerful professionals around the world with Irish roots who would love to be better connected to Ireland.

We’re also working closely with multinationals based in Ireland—Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, PayPal, the list goes on. There seems to be a perception that these companies have a very passive relationship with the local startup ecosystem when in fact, they are actively involved in promoting and supporting it, as well as leveraging the innovation coming from it to benefit their own businesses.

X: What do you see as the main challenges facing Irish entrepreneurs?

NB: Startups in Ireland face many of the same challenges faced by my fellow founders in New York—fundraising is long and hard, great talent is scarce and expensive, etc. On the policy side, the tax code in Ireland needs to become more entrepreneur- and investor-friendly, and that’s a work in progress.

Coming back from NYC, I’d say the unique challenge Irish entrepreneurs face is that they don’t talk loudly enough about the great work they are doing. They don’t publicize their achievements, naturally engage others in their vision, talk boldly about their global ambitions. The more comfortable we can become in doing this, the more ultimately successful we’ll be, I believe.

X: How does your New York experience impact your approach in Dublin?

NB: As you can hear, it informs my thinking very much. Knowing New York makes me even more ambitious for Dublin. Dublin is a unique city and has its own unique startup scene and critical dynamics. That said, it’s another dense city with a vibrant, close, and smart startup community. It’s smaller in scale, but I see the potential of New York in Dublin, which is very exciting.

X: If you could change one thing about the Dublin ecosystem, what would it be?

NB: If I could wave a magic wand and change that culture of modesty ingrained in us, make all of our entrepreneurs marketing heroes, and have us all shouting from the rooftops about how great we are, then I’d really be happy.

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  • Greg,
    I’m pretty pumped up to see Niamh in this role–she will knock it out of the park. Our family lived in Dublin from 2001-5 and Des was one of the leaders of the MIT Media Lab in the early days and he worked for a bunch of startups along the way. (I consulted to big companies myself.) Dublin is so poised to be “startup central” for Europe and I am glad to see you extending coverage of this vibrant city, talent pool, and this new initiative. Niamh is right: the biggest hurdle will be the massive, native Irish humility. On the plus side, Irish people blew me away with their ability to adjust/handle crises and the way they used humor to break down walls and road blocks. Good startup skills, no?

  • gthuang

    Jules – so true, and thanks for reminding me about your Dublin connection. The heads-down humility issue is pretty familiar to those of us in Boston, too…

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