Harsh reality for Irish technology scene

Kehlan Kirwan looks at the loss of the Web Summit to Lisbon and while it may be a great move for the event, it exposes a harsh reality for the Irish tech and start-up scene

Last week saw one of Ireland’s biggest events end with much excitement about what’s to come in 2016.

The Ploughing Championships had its most successful year to date with more than 1,400 exhibitors and 281,000 visitors.

In the midst of this, news that the Dublin Web Summit was moving to Lisbon was announced by its charismatic driver, Paddy Cosgrave.

The news was sad to hear but hardly shocking. The rumour mill had started a long time ago.

Belfast had attempted to woo the event away before and Lisbon finally succeeded in doing so for 2016. A €1.3m offer was enough to convince one of Europe’s largest technology events to move itself to greener, and warmer, surrounds.

The offer was strong enough to fend off Amsterdam which was also purported to be trying to seduce the organisers to see the city as a viable alternative.

In the past number of years, issues such as like poor Wi-fi and overcrowding at the RDS venue had meant that eyes were wandering away from Dublin for the future of the event.

Cosgrave had also made his feelings clear and public about the need for improvements for the venue.

After problems at last year’s event, Cosgrave took the stage to say: “I’m looking forward to a time when I can stand here and ask ‘Is there a problem with the wi-fi?’ and nobody raises their hand and I believe that time will be 2015 or otherwise we won’t be in this country very much longer.”

It’s a good move for Cosgrave and the event. They can make the event bigger and now know that cities are most certainly prepared to bid in order to bring the event to their door. It’s a great business decision and it makes absolute sense.

The Web Summit wasn’t Irish, it was a brand, and the brand outgrew Dublin.

This was one of Ireland’s premier business events, however.

The ability to move in the same room and bend the ear of some of the great entrepreneurs of the moment, was one of its big draws.

Of course, you paid for the privilege. At the time of writing, ticket prices had risen from €729 to €1,245. Access to the speakers’ lounge would set you back just over €5,000.

With tickets always in demand, it was an event that people wanted in on. The Lisbon move is good business.

Lisbon is seen as Berlin-esque in its approach to domestic businesses. In a statement released by Cosgrave, he put his point across like this: “In 2015, Lisbon became the first city to receive the European Entrepreneurial Region award.

"Investors from across Europe have started looking to Lisbon to capitalise on the low rents and affordable IT talent. Dozens of Portuguese start-ups have exhibited at Web Summit and Codacy won Web Summit’s Pitch competition last year.”

Mike Butcher of technology blog TechCrunch who knows what he is talking about when it comes to startup communities said: “Lisbon is emerging as a genuinely new tech ecosystem in Europe, with Berlin-levels of cheapness but with Southern European weather.

"They have a genuine start-up scene, no veneer there.”

Finance Minister Michael Noonan described the decision in a rather abrupt manner, saying: “Dublin is chock-a-block with business at present.

The hotels are full nearly every weekend so I don’t think that people will be disappointed. There is still a lot of alternative business, I hope.”

For a government that has been parading business and the country’s positives all around, the answer smelled quite like arrogance.

The best small country in the world in which to do business no longer has its premier business event; I’ll bet Mr Noonan is hoping pretty hard.

Losses in terms of food, drink, and hotels are estimated to be somewhere in the €100m region. You don’t have to be a minister for finance to see that’s not good for business.

His nonchalant remarks show tje Government to be missing the point. It’s not the event that mattered, it was the optics of it. Image is how you perceive.

Huge increases in hotel prices during the week of the event didn’t help either. There are, of course, other facts such as the infrastructural holdings of the city unable to compete.

Traffic jams galore. Outside of city centre thoroughfares, transportation is lacking. The Luas has limitations and buses just won’t cut it.

It also brings with it a very harsh reality check.

A number of weeks ago, I spoke in this column about where Dublin and Ireland really stood in terms of tech and innovation hubs.

We’d be lucky if we’re inside the global top 40. The Web Summit was the poster boy for the grand illusion and gave credence to a shaky boast that we’re part of a global elite for fostering talent and start-ups.

We crow on and on about the Silicon Docks, yet how many Irish companies are there dominating the innovative hub? Facebook, Google, Twitter are great names to have, but none of them are homegrown. We’re a hub for powerful companies, not Irish companies.

The Web Summit was the exposer of this. We talk a good game, but there always seems to be somewhere better. More money or more market, the horizon is a better choice than where you are right now.

That is what makes Mr Noonan’s remarks all the more troubling. It’s no big deal, we can always have other events.

As if this was just a passing thing that meant nothing. Technology doesn’t bring jobs, people bring jobs.

The Web Summit brought people to Ireland to see its potential. We’re talking about ‘smart economies’ but still far away from creating them.

In two weeks, Ireland will host the Startup Gathering, a showcase of Irish firms and Ireland for business.

It has little leeway for disappointment. It will need to wow and do it quickly. The reality of the start-up scene in Ireland is that it is being driven by start-ups. That is fine up to a point but eventually it needs to move beyond that.

We have banks, government, educational institutions, and local authorities all singing from different hymn sheets. None of them with any clear idea on what to do to drive a culture or a cluster.

All of the talk is just papering over the cracks. We’re a long way from where we ought to be.

Web Summit moved to Lisbon because, simply put, it’s better than Dublin for start-ups. That’s where the real problem lies.



Breaking Stories

Eir to create 750 jobs in Sligo, Cork and Limerick

Netflix reels in $165bn with stock surge

High prices and Brexit hit UK builders

European car sales fall 23% on new emissions test

Breaking Stories

A question of taste: Sinead Dunphy

Ten to see at Cork Film Festival

Women’s Enterprise Day: Go forth and be successful

The devastating consequences of alienation for children

More From The Irish Examiner