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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 22 September, 2014

Column: We have the tech entrepreneurs – now we need to keep them here

Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy wants to press his own government to support Irish tech start-ups – without attaching too many strings.

Eoghan Murphy Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East

IRISH MOTHERS DON’T raise entrepreneurs.

None of my friends were pushed that way. When we were coming out of college and moving down career paths, it was towards the safety of the professions that we were shepherded. So much so that if someone said they were ‘setting something up’ or starting a business, it really meant that they hadn’t quite figured things out yet. And it certainly didn’t get you girls. (And that was important too.)

Those that had that particular spirit, and ambition, as my brother did, left for London or elsewhere. The ones that didn’t leave got in to property, and got wiped out.

Irish mothers don’t raise entrepreneurs. But then try telling that to the thousand or so people who descended on the Royal Dublin Society this past autumn for the Dublin Web Summit and F.ounders.

There they met people like the founders of LinkedIn and YouTube. Heard inspirational stories of success and failure from many gifted speakers. And most importantly, met each other, shared their own stories over a pint or two and talked about the various obstacles and opportunities to starting a tech business here in their native country. The average age was under 30, the future of this country.

There’s something happening here. All these people. All this ambition. Is it driven by necessity, the lack of jobs say, or is it driven by possibility, unrestricted and abundant in the digital age? Or is it cultural, a “cool” factor perhaps, brought on by a Hollywood makeover and some high-profile tech nerds? (Don’t underestimate the influence that the film Wall Street had on creating the banker generation).

Whatever it is, we have to help it.

Ok. But how?

The Chilean government has a programme to attract tech entrepreneurs to its shores called Start Up Chile. They want to convert Chile into the innovation hub of Latin America and to do this they’re offering foreigners €40,000, equity free, a one-year visa and access to the best social and capital networks in the country. They figure that if all these high potential people (1,000 in all by 2014) relocate to Chile, even for year, it can only have a positive effect on the indigenous scene.

Chile is going to flood its own nascent market of entrepreneurs in the hope of making it bigger and better

Many will probably leave. But some will stay. Yet it’s the wider cultural benefit over the five-year period that the Government is banking on. They’re going to flood their own nascent market of entrepreneurs in the hope of making it bigger and better. Changing their culture with help from abroad. It’s high risk, with no guaranteed returns and with outcomes that may be difficult to measure in any meaningful way. But it’s bold. And if it does work Chile has just secured its relevance and future in the new economy.

There may not be much point in debating the merits of this policy here because we simply don’t have that kind of money. But the idea, and the fact that the politicians and the bureaucrats actually got it to happen is pretty inspiring. We need to get this investment of foreign people (and their ideas and energy and ambition) in to the mix with our own talent.

Minister Bruton announced a new €10 million fund this year to attract overseas start-ups. This is going to be a welcome support for the sector no doubt. He’s talking mostly about targeting Irish people abroad, perhaps 20 to 30 start-ups, with Enterprise Ireland administering the scheme. Good idea, and it’s happening. What I’m talking about is a little different though.

Really what I want to know is, can we be as bold and as creative as the Chileans but without the money?

It’s the Taoiseach’s ambition that Ireland will be the best small country in the world in which to do business by 2016. My ambition, and it’s a little less grand, is that we’ll be the best country in Europe in which to start a tech business by 2016. Here’s some ideas, together with Minister Bruton’s, that could help make it happen:

We have to make it easier for founders to bring people from abroad to work with them

First you have to get rid of the barriers. So that any entrepreneur from anywhere can come here to get going. That means the right visa scheme. We have ‘business permission’ criteria in place but they’re behind the times. The government is preparing a new enterprise and investment scheme. Good. But we also have to make it easier for founders to bring people from abroad over to work with them. So we’ll need to do more here on the standard visa front too.

Another barrier is a lack of qualified software developers. This problem isn’t particular to Dublin, and while we should try and attract foreign developers here, we really need a good pool of domestic talent from which everyone can draw. So we need to get people thinking web development. And I don’t mean in school or in university. That’s really important too but we need these guys now. People are already discussing (and in a few cases implementing) programmes that convert unemployed engineers and architects in to digital developers. It’s a really exciting idea with lots of possibilities and the government needs to give it more attention.

With the barriers down we can try and make it easier for everyone to do what they do, and at the same time make it very attractive to do it here in Ireland. That means making it more acceptable. I’m talking here about bankruptcy laws and the acceptance of failure so that people can succeed. The Government is saying three years as the “discharge” period for bankruptcy. It needs to be less, like in the States or the UK.

It also means making it cheaper. Start-up companies don’t care about corporation tax rates, but they do care about the costs of doing business. And given the mobility of a lot of these enterprises they can and will go where costs are less. Here’s where we get to be really creative.

We could start with the entrepreneurial tax credit as recommended by the previous government’s Innovation Task Force, which would give a rebate of tax paid on salaries for the first three years, for every five jobs created (and capped at 100k). We could take this a little further and start to target specific people, like abolishing employer’s PRSI for software developers. Or, more radically, do away with income tax altogether for the first year. We wouldn’t be losing money because it would never have been here in the first place. But the people will spend their salaries in the country, will pay VAT, will rent apartments, eat in restaurants etc. And the real benefit in the longer term could be far more significant than the “lost” tax take.

You don’t have to incentivise a “go-getter” to go out and get: you just have to allow them to

Ultimately though the Government will have to put its money where its mouth it if it’s to get serious. What money? Well there is some money, we are taking in tens of billions each year. So this would be a question of priorities. Do we connect the two LUAS lines in Dublin City, or do we give the entire country the best broadband of anywhere in the world, ever? This isn’t to knock the necessity of the LUAS interconnector, but I think it’s easy to understand which investment is more important for the future of this country. (I think we should do both and cut somewhere else, but the question remains: where?)

And then we need to sell. Like Start Up Chile or Start Up America. Decide the brand, decide the package, and get it out there. Again, the Innovation Task Force was quite good on this. I believe we’re a special place already, but bringing in some of the measures above, as well as others, could really kick things off quite quickly. Just look what one man and a dedicated team have done with the Websummit/F.ounders series.

We want to support our young tech entrepreneurs. We want it to be easier for them to do what they do, and we want them to do it better. We want to help but without getting in the way or attaching too many strings. And always keeping in mind that you don’t have to incentivise a “go-getter” to go out and get, you just have to allow them to – they’ll figure the rest out for themselves. Including selling it to their mothers.

Column: What is the secret of Silicon Valley? And can we bring it to Ireland?

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About the author:

Eoghan Murphy  / Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East

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