Regions and diversity to power Ireland’s digital future

Scale Ireland’s regional Summit in Limerick this week demonstrated how up to 50,000 more jobs can be generated outside of Dublin in the years ahead. To do so Ireland must be open to ideas and people.

Politicians rarely get credit for much these days, especially in Ireland where the subject of migration has become a polarising topic. But if there was one standout moment from the third regional Scale Ireland Summit, it came from the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney, TD, who summed up the feeling in the room among tech business owners that Ireland should always be a place of welcome for others.

“We must not allow Ireland to move into the space of too many other countries that actually see inward migration as a negative. That would be a disaster for the Irish economy,” the Minister said to a rousing round of applause.

“We are in a generational change moment. Time is of the essence and we can’t get left behind. Indigenous entrepreneurs and big scale-ups are foundational to the future”

On display were some of the finest young businesses that Ireland’s Limerick and Mid-West region could muster – from Kneat to AMCS, Hooke Bio and Yellow Schedule – many of whom are in stealth job creation and funding mode and who readily agreed that their growth velocity would not be possible if it wasn’t for the inward migration of talent from countries like India, Brazil and China, to name a few.

If anything, the event proved that regions are the future of Ireland and diversity of talent is the future of the regions.

The event was supported by Google, Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, Enterprise Ireland, Atlantic Bridge, University of Limerick and RDI Hub, Killorglin.

To scale up, the vision must add up

There are currently more than 2,200 indigenous tech start-up and scale-up companies, employing more than 52,000 people, in Ireland. For each additional job created by a start-up, five additional jobs are created in the wider economy. There are 943 start-up and scaling companies based outside of Dublin.

Not-for-profit organisation Scale Ireland, whose membership has grown to 680 start-ups and scaling businesses and which is joining the European Start-up Nation Alliance, has become the biggest organisation representing the entrepreneurial landscape in Ireland.

Its CEO Martina Fitzgerald addressed a lecture hall at the University of Limerick’s Analog Building and expressed the stated aim of encouraging more innovation, more exports and more revenues. “That cannot happen if you do not have a regional approach. We cannot have Ireland as a global leader for innovation and entrepreneurship without a regional approach.”

“And that’s why we support the Government’s ambitions to double the number of large exporting Irish companies and also create 50,000 new jobs outside of Dublin.”

One of the Limerick region’s standout success stories waste management software business ACMS has more than 4,000 customers worldwide and has offices in North America, Europe and Australia employing more than 1,000 people.

ACMS CEO Jimmy Martin, in a recorded video message, told the regional summit that the region has been integral to its growth story and enabling it to grow at a scale that will see it achieve revenues of more than €40m next year. “Limerick has been a good home to us, allowing us to grow internationally with good access to airports, access to employees and investors.” The secret to its success, however, has been access to innovative people.

“We have good opportunities to grow good software companies out of this region.”

A rising tide

Describing ACMS as “Limerick’s own unicorn,” Scale Ireland chair and tech industry veteran Brian Caulfield pointed out that similar scaling enterprises are emerging from all corners of Ireland, including Payslip in Mayo, Transformate in Kilkenny, Nearform in Waterford and Teamwork in Cork, to name a few.

Caulfield pointed to Scale Ireland’s recent State of Irish Start-ups survey of 340 businesses that showed half of the CEOs and founders surveyed (50.3%) consider funding to be their biggest challenge which is a similar level to last year (51.6%), reflecting the challenging funding landscape. The second-biggest challenge identified is the cost of doing business (16.2%) which has risen from 2023 (12%), while the recruitment and retention of staff was also identified as an issue (13.2% in 2024, compared to 16.9% in 2023). Other issues included lack of expert advice and support.

Almost 80% of respondents feel it is difficult or very difficult to attract capital, which remains unchanged from last year, reflecting the funding situation.

Minister Coveney told summit that members of his department were in the audience to take notes to find ways of supporting regional entrepreneurship in a sustainable and impactful way, from founders of firms to student entrepreneurs and business and college spinouts.

“It’s important that we acknowledge that we have lived through the last number of years, a pretty challenging and disruptive period. Brexit, Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequences of that, the tightening of credit lines due to increased interest rates, or most recently, instability in the Middle East and other global geopolitical tensions. And, of course, the erratic nature of inflation numbers in recent years. I think it’s important to and recognise the tenacity and resilience of our entrepreneurial base, who in light of all these challenges, have continued to start up companies and contribute to economic success. In fact, there are many companies now that are building businesses on the back of providing solutions to some of the challenges we face not least the climate and environmental challenge, which is so central to competitiveness now, as well as of course, an environmental and moral obligation. But you’re the risk takers. You’re the trailblazers. And I think you deserve the credit for that, in many ways. You’re the heartbeat of enterprise and job creation in Ireland.”

Coveney said that Budget 2024 contained a number of measures to support SMEs, including increasing the value of the R&D tax credit, increase in reliefs under the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme (EIIS). He also pointed to the Cost of Business Scheme which will provide more than €250m in payments to 243,000 businesses across Ireland.

He said he was well aware of challenges from the funding point of view, especially in the area of seed funding. “The Government recognises that new companies are not being support ed at the seed stage. This creates an issue where there won’t be enough scaleable companies available later in the development cycle to meet the targets we’ve set ourselves, which are ambitious.

“That’s why there is a suite of supports available to innovate and to focus on high potential companies in Ireland, with the aim to help them to succeed and grow, to access finance and to get the supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem that they need to expand beyond the potential of this whole market.”

Minister Coveney said that his officials were there on the day to listen to entrepreneurs. If anything, the fact that two Government ministers attended including Minister for State Dara Calleary, TD, spoke volumes as to the seriousness with which the State is finally taking scaling businesses from Ireland’s cities and regions.

Key to these, Minister Coveney said, were the 70 or more innovation centres and hubs across Ireland, such as the Porterhouse in Galway city and the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, Co Cork.

He said his officials were studying what worked in other OECD countries and that he was impressed by the model of Station F in Paris, which has become a vibrant hub for French and European start-ups and scaling businesses.

The key, he said, is ensuring that technology innovation isn’t just confined to tech businesses but embraced by businesses of all sizes and industry in the Irish economy.

“Basically, any businesses that are ignoring the opportunities that new digital platforms, and new technology developments, whether it’s AI or robotics, or even efficiency based digital delivery, in my view, is unlikely to be competitive in the next few years.”

Lifting all boats

Entrepreneurs including Kneat’s CTO Keith Holmes and HookeBio’s Dr Finola Cliffe emphasised how the challenges facing their respective business’s growth journey boils down to talent and the biggest challenge that talent faces is housing.

Holmes emphasised the need for diversity and for Ireland to be open to inward talent migration. He said that Kneat has grown to more than 500 people. “I hired more than 100 people in one year. We’ve imported a lot of people, from Brazil and elsewhere to this region.”

Nick Ashmore, director of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund emphasised that despite the funding challenges, companies that need to be funded are landing investments.

He said that ISIF in the past year has committed over €270m across 11 investments, specifically in the scaling business area. “We have an ambition to deploy more than €500m in regional investments across the key cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny.”

In Limerick, he said, it includes one of the largest urban regeneration projects seen in the region in decades.

“We’re encouraged by the ecosystem,” Ashmore said. “We do recognise the key challenges, but also the opportunities that ecosystem faces. Funding is a real challenge. It’s not an Irish problem, this time it’s a global problem. Financial markets have changed fundamentally in the last few years after 14 years of falling interest rates. We now have a higher interest rate environment. And that’s changed the equation for many investors around the world. The good news is we’re not where we were in the 2000s. We have a very strong, robust ecosystem. The money is out there. It’s just not necessarily available at the price that would have been two, three years ago.”

Google Ireland’s Paddy Flynn said that the global nature of business means that businesses are “distributed” and that means regional firms can be in the driving seat of progress. In challenges like housing and infrastructure, he said there are opportunities.

“We are in a generational change moment. Time is of the essence and we can’t get left behind.

“Indigenous entrepreneurs, and big scale-ups are foundational to the future.”

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