Dublin’s start-up chief: ‘Boycotts not on our radar’

Ireland can learn a lot from Israel, says Niamh Bushnell, commissioner for Start-Ups in the capital

Niamh Bushnell (Courtesy)
Niamh Bushnell (Courtesy)

Among many Israelis, Ireland has the reputation – whether deserved or not – of being one of the most active countries in the movement to boycott the Jewish state over its treatment of the Palesinians. But among the members of Dublin’s start-up community, according to the city’s Commissioner for Start-Ups, Niamh Bushnell, the issue isn’t even on the radar.

In fact, she said, she had never heard the term BDS – the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. “Maybe it’s because I have been working in the US for the past year, but I haven’t heard much about it. But if that term means boycotting Israeli technology and ideas about building a Start-Up Nation, it’s not something we are interested in.”

Israel indeed holds many lessons for Ireland, a country that believes it has the means to be a tech giant but lacks the tools – tools that Israel has perfected and successfully and effectively wielded to turn Tel Aviv into the number two tech center in the world, behind Silicon Valley.

“For example, you have a strong angel community, which is very important for early stage investments,” said Bushnell. “We have a lot of venture capital funds in Dublin,” though VCs by nature are looking for tech that is closer to being market-ready and without early-stage investments, many great ideas fall by the wayside.

“We’re working on implementing policy that would reward angel investments, and Israel is a model for us in this,” she said.

Tel Aviv and its environs are reputed to have between 4,000 and 5,000 start-ups, and Dublin has 2,100 – a nice start for an aspiring Start-Up Nation, said Bushnell.

“Ireland is popular as a gateway to Europe for multinationals like Intel and Microsoft, because of our proximity to the Continent and because we speak English, and many of the start-ups work in areas that the multinationals are investing in, like software as a service.”

Dublin is also a world leader in travel technology – for example, it’s the home of Cartrawler, which uses a single search engine to connect air travelers with ground transportation options, including rental cars, limousines and taxis, trains and shuttles, etc.

“A lot of that has been the influence of RyanAir, an Irish firm that has become one of the most popular airlines in Europe,” said Bushnell.

With barely 5 million people, those 2,100 Dublin start-ups are developing technology designed to be used in other places – just like Israel.

“Neither the Irish nor Israeli markets are big enough to make deploying the cutting-edge technology being developed in both places worthwhile,” said Bushnell. “Israel has successfully turned itself into a test pad for scalable technologies that, once they have been proven to be valid, are sold and implemented in the US, Europe, and Asia. That’s the model Ireland strives to follow, but you were there first, and you have been very successful in doing it.”

One thing Ireland doesn’t have that Israel does is a slew of enemies surrounding it – whether in the form of hostile countries or terrorist groups. The terror attacks suffered by Northern Ireland – as groups seek to force Britain into giving up control of the territory – have not affected the Republic of Ireland, and the last terror attack in Dublin took place in 1974. Given that idyllic scenario that Israelis can only dream of – and adding to that Ireland’s familiarity with the universal business language of English – Israelis are amazed that their country has eclipsed Ireland in technology development, market share, and start-up development.

But it’s no mystery to Bushnell. “As it happens, many of the communication and security technologies the world needs today have their roots in defense, and that of course is something Israel has been engaged in for decades. So many of the entrepreneurs I meet were part of elite IDF units like 8200 and the others, and when they get out they go on to develop the amazing technologies that made Israel what it is.”

Add to that the mass migration of tech-talented Russian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Israel’s success makes a lot of sense to her, said Bushnell.

Not that she would trade Ireland’s peace and quiet for the Israeli experience in order to face the same challenges that this country does. “We have a lot in common, but Ireland has its own story. Nevertheless, there is a lot for us to learn,” said Bushnell. “This is my first time here and I have been blown away by the people and the tech.”

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