Tech chief say she planned to be a mis­sion­ary be­fore a move to canada changed ev­ery­thing

Mark Dowds, co-founder of tech­nol­ogy hub, Ormeau Baths, tells Emma Deighan about his jour­ney from Sil­i­con Val­ley to Belfast and his love of help­ing peo­ple

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - BY EMMA DEIGHAN

ONE of the men be­hind Belfast’s Ormeau Baths en­tre­pre­neur­ial tech hub has re­vealed that he orig­i­nally wanted to be­come a mis­sion­ary be­fore mak­ing his mark on Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Mark Dowds, who is also co-founder of tech in­sur­ance firm Trov Inc in Cal­i­for­nia, said his par­ents’ gen­eros­ity in­spired him to help oth­ers and un­der­take a de­gree in the­ol­ogy and di­vin­ity at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast.

“My par­ents were very gen­er­ous, not just to me, but ev­ery­one around them. My dad was very ac­tive in the com­mu­nity and gave most of his money away,” said Mr Dowds.

Af­ter spend­ing many years in Canada and Cal­i­for­nia, he re­turned home in 2015 to dis­cover a changed busi­ness world.

“Over the last decade, there has been an emer­gence of new com­pa­nies that are tak­ing our econ­omy into a new age.

“I saw so many of these peo­ple meet­ing in dif­fer­ent places, but what that com­mu­nity lacked was a tech hub in the cen­tre of Belfast, which is why a few of us got to­gether and de­cided to in­vest into set­ting up the Ormeau Baths.”

ON pa­per, Mark Dowds is ev­ery inch the Sil­i­con Val­ley suc­cess story, but get­ting to where he is to­day makes for a hum­bling read.

Mark, co-founder and chief strat­egy of­fi­cer of Trov Inc, one of the world’s fastest grow­ing In­surtech com­pa­nies, and co-founder of tech hub, Ormeau Baths, is a phi­lan­thropist at heart.

His suc­cess, it would seem, is a by-prod­uct of his “round­about” de­sire to help oth­ers re­alise their own dreams.

A for­mer the­ol­ogy and di­vin­ity stu­dent at Queen’s Univer­sity, Belfast, Mark’s ini­tial calling was as a mis­sion­ary, he says.

It was a vo­ca­tion that was in­spired by his fa­ther, a very suc­cess­ful, but al­tru­is­tic, busi­ness­man, who op­er­ated a host of en­ter­prises in Belfast, in­clud­ing a pet store, aquar­ium, an­i­mal feed dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre and a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant.

“My par­ents were very gen­er­ous, not just to me, but ev­ery­one around them. My dad was very ac­tive in the com­mu­nity and gave most of his money away,” says Mark, who grew up in Bal­ly­gowan.

He went to school at Royal Belfast Aca­dem­i­cal In­sti­tu­tion. “I left and went straight to busi­ness, not univer­sity ini­tially. I went to work with my dad and in 1992, I de­cided to leave, but my path wasn’t ini­tially to go into tech. I went to Queen’s to be­come a mis­sion­ary. I had made some money from the fam­ily busi­ness and didn’t want to do that any­more. I had a de­sire to serve oth­ers, so in­stead I be­came a youth worker, work­ing at the Chris­tian Fel­low­ship Church un­til 1998 and I ab­so­lutely loved it,” he says.

Mark mar­ried his wife, Claire, in 1997 and af­ter a trip to a youth work­ers’ con­ven­tion in Van­cou­ver, she told him she wanted to make a per­ma­nent move to Canada.

“We went there and I set up a cen­tre to help young peo­ple de­velop their ca­reer paths,” he adds. “One of the things I recog­nised was that young peo­ple didn’t re­ally know what to do with their lives, so I in­ad­ver­tently es­tab­lished Canada’s first busi­ness ac­cel­er­a­tor with my part­ner, Ian Lovette. Ba­si­cally, peo­ple came to us for ad­vice and to work on their ideas, most of which were tech­nol­ogy re­lated. I learned as I went along,” he says.

Mark may have ac­quired a lot of his tech skills ‘on the job’, but he al­ways had an in­ter­est in IT, de­scrib­ing it as a hobby.

His busi­ness tri­umphs to­day are the com­bi­na­tion of his hobby and “tak­ing the en­tre­pre­neur­ial life learned from my dad and ap­ply­ing it to busi­ness” he says.

Trov, which Mark jokes takes up 110% of his time, is the world’s first on-de­mand in­sur­ance plat­form en­abling cus­tomers to in­sure as and when needed.

Mark says: “There are no lock- ins, no an­nual poli­cies, you pay for what­ever you use, so when you get into a car, the in­sur­ance turns on when you’re mov­ing.”

It’s a unique ser­vice that has yet to spawn any com­peti­tors and it has a pres­ence all over the world, but it’s not Mark’s first busi­ness vic­tory.

He has been in­volved in sev­eral suc­cess­ful start-ups, in­clud­ing Band of Coders, Ser­vice­cloud and Creation­step. In ad­di­tion, he ran one of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful in­cu­ba­tors in Toronto for sev­eral years, help­ing to lay the foun­da­tions for the now-boom­ing Toronto tech scene. Also an early stage in­vestor, Mark has in­vested in com­pa­nies such as Uber and Twilio.

It was the move to Sil­i­con Val­ley with his fam­ily that al­lowed him to cre­ate and re­alise the con­cept be­hind Trov with friend, Scott Walchek, also co-founder of the busi­ness.

He stayed there un­til Jan­uary 2015, when Mark, his wife and two chil­dren, son Shaughan, now 18, and daugh­ter, Ei­rann (16), trav­elled back to NI to look af­ter both grand­fa­thers who had been di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia.

It was a self­less move for the

❝ My par­ents were very gen­er­ous, not just to me, but ev­ery­one, and my dad gave his money away

fam­ily, but one which was a no-brainer for Mark. “My wife’s par­ents were ill, her dad has de­men­tia, and I dis­cov­ered my dad had de­men­tia around the same time. Both our par­ents were very good to us and we wanted to make sure that they were looked af­ter,” he says.

The move didn’t strike a chord in­stantly with his chil­dren, he ad­mits, but an­nual trips to Canada, where they work at sum­mer camps, has soft­ened the blow. Mark’s daugh­ter stud­ies at Bloom­field Col­lege and “is a won­der­ful singer, but she doesn’t take that af­ter me”, while his son is head boy at Strang­ford Col­lege, where he stud­ies an­cient his­tory and phi­los­o­phy.

“My son took to the move like a duck to wa­ter and set­tled well. He plans to go to the Univer­sity of Toronto, I think he af­fil­i­ates him­self with Canada, but for my daugh­ter, the move was tougher. She misses a lot of her friends and pines for Cal­i­for­nia, but she has set­tled well. Both work the sum­mer in Canada at sports re­sorts, where they learn lead­er­ship skills and get paid,” Mark says.

Not one to rest on his lau­rels, Mark, while still run­ning Trov and trav­el­ling the world from a Belfast base, wanted to give back to North­ern Ire­land and so Ormeau Baths was founded — a co-work­ing space and tech com­mu­nity dubbed “an en­tre­pre­neur­ial cam­pus”. Just last week, it opened a new wing, cov­er­ing 9,000 sq ft, which hosts gam­ing de­vel­op­ment and also plays home to Pixel Mill, part of NI Screen.

“When I came home, I recog­nised that it was a very dif­fer­ent place. When I left, you wouldn’t have heard of peo­ple start­ing tech busi­nesses, but when I re­turned home, thanks to or­gan­i­sa­tions like Cat­a­lyst Inc, Young En­ter­prise and In­vest NI, they have seeded into the com­mu­nity that it is pos­si­ble to do good things and be­come a global cor­po­ra­tion op­er­at­ing from NI. Over the last decade, there has been an emer­gence of new com­pa­nies that are tak­ing our econ­omy into a new age.

“I saw so many of these folk meet­ing in dif­fer­ent places, but what that com­mu­nity lacked was a tech hub in the cen­tre of Belfast, which is why a few of us got to­gether to in­vest into set­ting up the Ormeau Baths.

“It was cre­ated for the ben­e­fit of the com­mu­nity and it’s not some­thing we want to cost us money for years and years, but equally, we haven’t es­tab­lished it for our own per­sonal wealth.”

Mark works along­side other lead­ers in busi­ness to en­sure the fund­ing of the cen­tre. Among those peers are Kani­nos’ Tom Gray and late co­me­dian Frank Car­son’s son, Tony.

Mark de­fines Ormeau Baths as his “pas­sion project”. And it’s not the only phil­an­thropic role he plays in NI. He is also chair­man for two other pro­grammes here; Tech­startni, an early stage ven- ture cap­i­tal com­pany and another set-up, Gen­er­a­tion In­no­va­tion, that “rein­vents work ex­pe­ri­ence” .

It’s a hefty work­load for a man who di­vides his time be­tween Sin­ga­pore, Shang­hai, Tokyo and Cal­i­for­nia — and that’s just this week’s itin­er­ary.

Mark also has to find time for his hob­bies, which are en­durance moun­tain bik­ing and run­ning.

He’s been known to have bikes de­liv­ered to ho­tels around the world to en­sure he gets his fit­ness fix and he’s also known to have com­pleted 24-hour en­durance races, as well has hav­ing crossed the fin­ish line of 14 ul­tra marathons in one year alone.

“I’m very en­er­getic and dis­ci­plined,” he says when asked how he man­ages such a jam-packed sched­ule. “I’m very or­gan­ised and very calm and this en­ables me to do things lo­cally and work full-time. I do travel most weeks, but I make sure to take a pe­riod of a month or six weeks not to travel, so I can have a re­set on all the dis­ci­plines and check in on my friends, so they know who I am.

“I’ve a big pas­sion and love for Belfast and it’s ex­cit­ing to be home and know that I can con­trib­ute and do some­thing and no mat­ter how much I travel, I make the most of it.”

I’m very en­er­getic and dis­ci­plined... I’m or­gan­ised and calm and this en­ables me to do things lo­cally In next week’ s big in­ter­view, we speak to Schr ad er man­ag­ing di­rec­tor graeme thomp­son

PETER MOR­RI­SON

KEVIN SCOTT

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