Hubs hold the key to regional growth

Podcast Ep 198: CEAI chief executive Siobhán Finn talks about the future of hubs and enterprise centres across Ireland and the crucial role they play.

It’s fair to say that the world of work will never go back to the way it was since before the pandemic as hybrid and remote working are being fiercely maintained by determined workers.

Propelled by remote and hybrid working, a drive for a better quality of life and of course affordability of housing, the past few years have also seen something of a exodus of workers to the commuter belts and beyond.

“There’s no one size fits all, but there’s a place for everybody. Every hub around the country has a role to play”

Not only that, but Ireland’s regions are becoming hot zones for entrepreneurship as a growing cluster of scaling businesses such as Scurri in Wexford, Payslip in Mayo and Nearform in Waterford grow globally. It is natural to assume that each of these businesses will in turn spawn more emerging start-ups that will scale and bring prosperity to their locality. According to lobby group Scale Ireland, there are currently more than 2,200 indigenous tech start-up and scale-up companies, employing more than 52,000 people, in Ireland. There are 943 start-up and scaling companies based outside of Dublin.

While hubs and enterprise centres existed before the pandemic, their role has never been more critical as location takes on a different meaning for ambitious founders and their employees. Not only do they offer employees of existing businesses an alternative to long and unproductive commutes, they are also becoming a vibrant magnet for emerging entrepreneurs and start-up talent.

The Community Enterprise Association Ireland (CEAI) emerged from a national association of community enterprise centres in 2019 and today provides representation, supports, training and mentoring to practitioners in this space.

In all, there are more than 270 enterprise centres and remote working hubs across Ireland. These range from Meath Enterprise, Creative Spark in Louth and RDI Hub and Dingle Creativity Hub in Kerry, to name a few.

Joining the dots on regional development


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Speaking with the ThinkBusiness Podcast, the CEO of CEAI Siobhán Finn said that all of these hubs and enterprise centres have a strong focus on the economic development of their region.

Finn is a noted trailblazer in social enterprise and economic development. A highly accomplished professional with over 30 years of experience from co-founding a successful SME to her current role as CEO of CEAI, Siobhán has made significant contributions to economic development in Ireland.

She admits the pandemic no doubt impacted many hubs at first, but it also brought greater clarity to their purpose and the value they add to their respective regions.

“What Covid did was it shone a light on a footprint of infrastructure right around the country that supported employees and sole traders, and remote workers to function in a very different way on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

“So if you look very particularly at the remote workers, for example, rather than having to travel in and out and maybe do, in some cases, an hour, an hour and a half commute each way, every day, they were now in a position where they could locate themselves in facilities right on their doorstep.

“So that brought all kinds of implications from far greater work life balance, but also very importantly, and this is where the economic impact comes in, the attraction of talent and the retention of skills into the region. And we all know that both those factors are very significant when it comes to enterprise development and sustained economic growth rate across the regions.

Finn explained individually hubs have their own characteristics and qualities. She said that some hubs will have a broad remit for their region, while others could have a very niche industry focus.

“If you look at the enterprise centres in Portarlington or Portlaoise, for example, they’ve got a very broad remit. Whereas if you look at Merits in Naas, that’s got a very specific remit around innovation enterprise and a strong link to the equine industry.”

To maintain momentum, efforts are being made to codify the professionalism of the services and offerings of respective enterprise centres and hubs. In recent months the CEAI launched the Guidance Handbook for Good Governance as well as the first national quality standard for Ireland’s national hub network called the QHubs programme.

In recent weeks a CEAI Competency and Career Framework was unveiled. This original Framework will be used to inform and guide professional development for key personnel in centres and hub locations nationally and is a commitment to excellence, innovation, and holistic development for workers in these operations.

Finn said that this is a critical evolution as local enterprise centres and hubs become lynchpins for job creation and staff retention. “There’s no one size fits all, but there’s a place for everybody. Every hub around the country has a role to play,” she said, pointing out how the hubs also play a role in attracting tourism among overseas executives who may still need to log in.

Not only that, but the role enterprise centres play in being a springboard for start-ups to become scale-ups and global success stories needs to be recognised.

“It’s about the individuals who relocated in the hubs. It’s about the entrepreneurial sprit but also the culture that is built by the manager and CEO of the hub. For example, Kells Tech Hub in Meath led by Gary O’Meara. There’s a really strong focus on igniting the entrepreneurial spirit and bringing people together, whether it’s through co-founding a new business, supporting the supply chain or the kind of informal mentor-mentee type relationship that happen as well.

“And of course the really interesting part is the part they play from an investment point of view. You’ve got a density of start-ups or scale-ups in a particular location. RDI Hub, for example, works very closely with networks of angel investors to make the connections.

“To sum it up, a huge part of it is around the connectivity and bringing key players together and making sure conversations are happening,” Finn said.

“The key piece in it all is that we have a public sector funding and political landscape that supports that kind of entrepreneurial growth across the regions.”

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John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.