Helping Irish firms find their way in the US market

MARINA Donohoe was just two months in Silicon Valley when she took two ex-Trinity College students with an idea to see a major software developer.

The result is Havok the name inside almost every video game and cartoon film today. The duo behind it even claim Lara Croft's assets juggle in a real-life female way thanks to them.

Irish companies have been increasing their business to the US and winning deals with Intel, Pfizer, Compuware and IBM.

There are now over 300 Irish companies with offices throughout the US where they employ over 55,000 people and last year Irish companies invested $21 billion (€17.74bn) in the US.

Enterprise Ireland acts as an important gateway to Irish industry and is actively working with US corporations to source product and services from Ireland.

Marina got a marketing degree in Dublin before Enterprise Ireland, then the Irish Trade Board, asked her to move to California to establish an office there.

One of the results was the first Enterprise Ireland incubation centre helping link up Irish entrepreneurs with potential clients. It was so successful that within two years there were 13 operating worldwide.

The idea is to give Irish business a physical presence in the country they want to do business in.

Once Irish business thought it was just a matter of flying to the States, meeting clients and flying home again with orders.

"But that is not how US companies want to do business and sometimes we have problems convincing our Irish clients of this."

For Marina it was a fascinating time to be located in Silicon Valley as it moved from a dotcom boom to a dotcom bomb.

There was the aftereffect of 9/11 too with a depressed country in turmoil, a weak dollar and a difficult market. That is now changing "I am so encouraged by what is happening in the last year or six months."

Having been promoted to head the US operation in 2002, she moved to New York where she is well placed to have the overview essential to her job.

She believes Irish business showed a good ability to weather the storm by keeping close to the market, understanding what clients want and being quick to translate it into products and services.

Her job and that of her 25 staff in five locations throughout the US is to make contacts in what is a growing market for Ireland, gather the intelligence as to who is doing what and where the openings are.

Then it's a case of putting the Irish business in touch with their potential US customer or partner at the right level. Normally, she says, there is an opportunity to present your product "because Americans do not want to miss out on the next Microsoft."

Generally Irish business people are good at developing the necessary relationships, doing business and getting business, she said.

Enterprise Ireland has set up an innovative series of roadshows around the States and reached out to relevant, mainly Irish people in each location. Initially the focus was on biotech.

Biotech, at a nascent stage in Ireland, has been identified as an area with great potential.

Currently the US drives the life sciences industry. The result was to make contact with small groups of Irish people working in the area in the US and encourage them as potential investors, mentors, and employees for new companies in Ireland.

The initiative proved very successful and the result is a resource of several hundred in the biotech area willing to help out and whose influence for Ireland has been phenomenal, says Marina.

It has attracted non-Irish too, with Pete Gingras, for example, setting up Proxy Bio medical in Galway because he was so enthused by the Irish approach.

So what keeps Marina awake at night?

"We have a series of targets from now to 2007 to meet including achieving €3bn additional exports globally. According to the Irish Exporters Association the US is the most important export market for Ireland and we are always driven by how we achieve that and educating and coaching companies to better reach their goals."

Success breeds success also such as Iona Technologies, one of the stars of the 90s out of which 19 companies came, established by those who cut their teeth in Iona. Their knowledge extends past the technicalities of the work to knowing how the market works, she said.

She and her team pass on valuable information.

"Acting like a US company is critical. They want to see what you are doing, what pain you are filling and what they are going to get from it.

"So the Irish company needs to understand what the US company is doing and what they have that is going to work with them. Communication is king."

Just having the gift of the gab is not enough. They need to be more focused and the Irish are getting better at it, she says.

Up to now companies have been driven by technologists and engineers focused mainly on the technology but Marina said she notices these are now beginning to be led by people who understand the markets.

The little things count a lot too. Enterprise Ireland has lots of tips, such as ensuring companies have the smaller US business cards; titles understandable in the US president rather than managing director; and the correct letter size.

"Having an appointment for 9 and turning up at 9.10 means the meeting is not going to happen. Saying you will get back to them tomorrow with a quote the opportunity is gone if you do not do so."

Enterprise Ireland has marketing advisors and a raft of experts who know the US market well. For instance in the Los Angeles office is Maggie Daleo, an attorney who came from the film company MGM.

Her experience helps companies like Porto Media that recently signed a deal with IBM on downloading videos in 18 seconds onto digital camera type cards offering a new way of renting videos in the future.

There is Dr Deirdre McDonnell Lee who has worked in biotech for 10 years and has the contacts and can talk the language of that industry.

The traditional consumer market for Waterford Crystal, Claddagh rings, Aran knitwear and Connemara marble rosary beads continues to thrive and is worth €120 million a year.

Marina is on a five-year contract after which she will return to Ireland with her two children and her husband Vincent.

Thinking back on the past few years she admits she gets a real kick from the successes like the two Havok guys and their idea that helped make Lara Croft a sexy bunch of pixels.

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