Giv­ing early-stage com­pa­nies help they need to get started

Gal­way Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre be­gan with room for eight start-ups – now it is home to 40 firms

The Irish Times - - Business Innovation - Olive Keogh

Back in 1992 in­no­va­tion cen­tres were not re­ally part of the start-up land­scape they are to­day. There were only a hand­ful of units thinly spread across the coun­try and Gal­way Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre (GTC) was ahead of its time when it opened its doors to bud­ding en­trepreneurs in 1994. Since then, more than 150 com­pa­nies have passed through its doors and gen­er­ated in ex­cess of 3,000 jobs be­tween them.

GTC was launched with room for just eight start-ups. To­day, it’s home to 40 firms and the orig­i­nal 6,000sq ft build­ing has grown in stages to 50,000sq ft. It has re­cently un­der­gone a ¤400,000 up­grade to its phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and tech­no­log­i­cal in­fras­truc­ture in or­der to of­fer ten­ants fa­cil­i­ties such as 1GB of free high-speed broad­band with ad­di­tional ded­i­cated band­width avail­able on re­quest.

The cen­tre’s fo­cus is the ac­cel­er­a­tion of early stage knowl­edge-based com­pa­nies and it pro­vides fa­cil­i­ties for both indige­nous and for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment (FDI) com­pa­nies alike. Some of its fast-grow­ing FDI “grad­u­ates” in­clude US-based, EA Games, which started out with four peo­ple and now em­ploys 300 and on­line re­tailer, Way­fair, which has 350 local staff. MathWorks and IPSSwitch, both formed in 2016, em­ploy 35 and 40 peo­ple re­spec­tively.

Indige­nous com­pa­nies that have cut their teeth at the GTC in­clude Storm Tech­nolo­gies, founded there in 1995, BlueTree Sys­tems re­cently ac­quired by Nas­daq-traded Or­bComm, ExOrdo, and PlanNet21 which em­ploys 100 peo­ple be­tween its of­fices in Dublin and Gal­way.

Speed bumps

The GTC is cur­rently at ca­pac­ity, but there have been bumps along the way. To be­gin with, it grew out of ad­ver­sity and was some­thing of a leap of faith by the com­bined forces of Gal­way Chamber of Com­merce, WestBIC, and Gal­way city coun­cil/cor­po­ra­tion when it was set up 23 years ago.

A year ear­lier, in 1993, Gal­way had been dealt a dev­as­tat­ing blow when the Dig­i­tal Equip­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, once the poster boy for FDI suc­cess in the re­gion, closed with the loss of nearly 800 jobs. More than 3,000 fam­i­lies were af­fected and the im­pact on the local econ­omy was huge.

For many, there was no way back. Their jobs were gone. But in an ef­fort to hold on to at least some of the skills and knowl­edge built up over 20 years by the Dig­i­tal work­force, the Gal­way Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre was set up to pro­vide a phys­i­cal space and sup­port sys­tem for those with bright ideas who were in­ter­ested in start­ing their own busi­ness.

The IDA was ap­proached to pro­vide a premise in its Mervue Busi­ness Park and it was very much a case of “beg, steal and bor­row” to fit out the build­ing. Local com­pa­nies such as AIB and Thermo King gave cash while Dig­i­tal do­nated par­ti­tions, phones and desks. When the cen­tre opened for busi­ness in 1994, seven of the eight units were oc­cu­pied by for­mer Dig­i­tal em­ploy­ees. Of the orig­i­nal eight, five are still in busi­ness in some shape or form.

“The de­ci­sion to de­velop the Gal­way Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre was very for­ward think­ing at the time,” says Ni­amh Costello, who has been the cen­tre’s gen­eral man­ager for the past four years. “They re­alised that there was a wealth of en­tre­pre­neur­ial tal­ent in Dig­i­tal and they had a strong de­sire to re­place the jobs and to re­tain this tal­ent in Gal­way. The stake­hold­ers came to­gether, ran an en­trepreneur­ship pro­gramme with 34 soon-to-be ex-Dig­i­tal em­ploy­ees and a mo­men­tum be­gan to build. In its first five years, the cen­tre sup­ported 30 com­pa­nies, em­ploy­ing 300 peo­ple be­tween them.”

GTC is a self-fund­ing, not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion with a vol­un­tary board, which is owned 70 per cent by the Gal­way Chamber of Com­merce and 30 per cent by WestBIC. Its ten­ants pay rent to be there and indige­nous com­pa­nies typ­i­cally spend three to four years at the cen­tre while FDI start-ups usu­ally move on within three to six months.

Brexit ten­ant

The cen­tre runs a pro­gramme of work­shops, pitch­ing com­pe­ti­tions and net­work­ing events to fa­cil­i­tate peer-to-peer in­ter­ac­tion and share in­for­ma­tion about what its com­pa­nies are up to. In Septem­ber, the cen­tre bagged its first Brexit ten­ant when Lon­don-based patent at­tor­neys, Keltie, set up an of­fice there with four peo­ple.

Spot­ting an op­por­tu­nity to pitch it­self to a much wider au­di­ence, GTC has since run an event in Lon­don in con­junc­tion with Keltie and the Ir­ish Em­bassy called Why

Gal­way? “We were hop­ing to gen­er­ate in­ter­est in Gal­way as a po­ten­tial base for UK com­pa­nies post-Brexit,” Costello says. “GTC is very much about the big­ger pic­ture and try­ing to cre­ate good job op­por­tu­ni­ties here so we can of­fer our grad­u­ates an al­ter­na­tive to leav­ing the area.”

Costello says that GTC is com­ple­men­tary to the re­cently opened PorterShed in­no­va­tion hub in Gal­way city. “The PorterShed ful­fils the need for a down town start-up space for very young com­pa­nies and its open-plan en­vi­ron­ment suits busi­nesses at that for­ma­tive stage, “she says.

“We’re fo­cused on more es­tab­lished com­pa­nies that have their prod­uct fig­ured out and are at the grow­ing and scal­ing stage. We are try­ing to de-risk this process for them by of­fer­ing low rents and flex­i­bil­ity in terms of pro­vid­ing what they need. Our build­ing is di­vided into units be­cause we have com­pa­nies in the fin­tech and cy­ber se­cu­rity sec­tors that need their pri­vacy and we aim to of­fer that own-door op­tion while still en­abling our com­pa­nies to be part of a vi­brant start-up ecosys­tem.”

While the GTC is now buzzing with the ac­tiv­ity of 40 ten­ants that em­ploy 250 peo­ple be­tween them, it went through a lean patch dur­ing the re­ces­sion when many of its com­pa­nies ei­ther scaled back or went out of busi­ness. In 2013, a de­ci­sion was made to ap­point a ded­i­cated man­ager whose job was to re­ju­ve­nate the cen­tre and grow the oc­cu­pancy lev­els.

This task fell to Costello who worked in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try for a num­ber of years be­fore mov­ing into the tech­nol­ogy sec­tor. Over the past four years she has over­seen a major cap­i­tal in­vest­ment at the cen­tre while rais­ing its public pro­file and build­ing stronger con­nec­tions with its many po­ten­tial stake­hold­ers from third-level col­leges to the en­tre­pre­neur­ial and in­vest­ment com­mu­ni­ties at large.

“GTC has come a long way since 1993 and is very much the home of se­ri­ous tech en­trepreneurs in the greater Gal­way area,” she says. “We have a very dis­tin­guished past and have sup­ported a long list of what have be­come very suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies. Our mis­sion is to con­tinue to build on that legacy and to fa­cil­i­tate en­trepreneurs on the jour­ney from young com­pany to SME by pro­vid­ing a highly con­nected in­fras­truc­ture and a full range of sup­ports, ser­vices and spa­ces.”

“The de­ci­sion to de­velop the Gal­way Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre was very for­ward think­ing at the time,” says Ni­amh Costello, who has been the cen­tre’s gen­eral man­ager for the past four years

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