The main talking points from Limerick’s Wild Atlantic Start-up Conference

The Wild Atlantic Start-up Conference was held at the the University of Limerick last week. Kehlan Kirwan looks at the main talking points from a conference aiming to become the place for start-up convergence in the West.

There are such things as healthy obsessions. Obsessions that come with the drive and determination to create something much bigger than the self.

At the Wild Atlantic Start-up Conference, it was clear that this was intending to be more than just a conference.

It wasn’t big and it wasn’t brash. As a journalist you end up finding yourself at a lot of conferences that are all about the lights and the television screens, rather than the content.

This was my second time at WASUP. For a second time, it didn’t disappoint. From how to form start-up eco-systems to the real stories on venture capital, it provided insights determined by real life experiences.

For several years the West of Ireland has been pushing itself as a start-up hub. Not something to rival Dublin, but one to complement it. In particular, Galway and Limerick have had an air of self- determination for some time. Determining their own fate by what they help to create on their own doorstep.

A number of months ago in this column, I wrote about how the Irish start-up scene was moving into its adolescence and beginning on the long road of creating its own unique global identity. The development of that scene is available to see in places like WASUP.

This is no longer a place in search of something, clawing wildly in the dark for an identity to hold onto. It has become more confident in its beliefs of what it wants and where it can fit on a global scale.

For a place like the West of Ireland that is extremely important. Dublin naturally has a gravitas, an all-encompassing pull. Places all along the western seaboard have had to work harder to carve out an identity that makes them different. Some have had simple goals at the heart of their progress.

Dave Cunningham was a founding director of Galway Innovation District and the Portershed working space in the city centre. While discussing what he was doing he explained why he was doing it.

“I have two kids and I asked myself what will they have when they start looking for jobs. If we start now, you can create a system that will help support what comes in the future. If they want to create a business they can. If they want to find a job with a great company, they can. There has to be something more to what this means.

“Building an ecosystem is about the people at its heart. It’s about getting people who give a damn outside of their 9-to-5 to convince Government and local officials to start getting on board and help to develop that eco-system.”

We talk a lot in the start-up scene about creating these magnificent ecosystems with which to create the companies and the jobs of the now and the future. However, no one ever really explains what the end game is. Just what exactly do you want that ecosystem to look like?

Well, that was the question I put to Shane McCarthy, a big start-up supporter and who MC’d on the day along with Conall O Móráin from Today FM’s Sunday Business Show.

“For me,” Mr McCarthy explained, “a start-up ecosystem is about building a community with the right supports. I don’t just mean financial supports, but I mean from the point of view that when you are a start-up founder you’re in a lonely place.

“As a start-up founder, it’s really really hard and you need people who can help you through those moments. The sad reality is that family and friends cannot help you through it because they will not understand. So put simply, the infrastructure that we want to build here in Limerick is one where if you are a student in a university or secondary school, or you want to come from the workforce to build your company then jump into this community that is already there in order to drive and scale that company, then you can do that. That is the ultimate goal.”

The keynote address came from Ian Lucey. Mr Lucey is always good value for his candid nature and his entertaining style of presentation. His speech was about using the system that’s already there to get cash into your company. He talked about how things like the tax system and innovation vouchers are underutilised by companies.

The system, he argued, has the money to give you, but you’re not going out to get it. Before going to banks or venture capital firms, go and find out what is there. Many start-ups go out to find big chunks of investment without checking to see what’s already there for them.

“A lot of people go out to get big chunks of cash. If you’re a software company you’re going to burn through half a million or a million building up your company. You don’t raise that all in one go, which is what a lot of you are doing,” he told the floor.

“You raise fifty thousand, which will get you a hundred thousand, which gets you one hundred and fifty thousand which gets you to three hundred thousand. That’s the way it really works,” he said.

The start-up panel held a discussion about the pitfalls of owning a start-up. One of the best commentaries of the day came from Kieran Normoyle, who was asked about his Plan B if things didn’t work out in his company Ocean Survivor.

Mr Normoyle explained: “When we won the Seedcorn competition our runway was really tight and it was coming up to Christmas with me asking whether or not I should pay myself. Then we won Seedcorn, but the money didn’t come in for another two-to-three months, so the runway was still small. So you just have to hang on in there. Everyone in my family was asking what’s your Plan B all the time. I said I could get a job doing this or that and that I’d be fine.

“Realistically speaking I don’t have a plan B. I don’t need to think about it until I need it, so why waste my time wondering about getting this job or that job. Why frustrate yourself? Concentrate on the business until it falls down around you, then you can move to plan B.”

That is how the start-up scene in the west now views itself.They are going to make it work, no sense in thinking that it won’t. They have no plan B in how to create a start-up eco-system in the west of Ireland.

Why waste time thinking about it when plan A is working.


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