Ireland, and in particular its capital Dublin, has positioned itself as a popular European base for global digital giants such as Google and Facebook, while also acting as a breeding ground for homegrown technology companies.
Matt Cutler spoke to stakeholders in the Irish technology sector to understand what impact this has had on the sports industry both in Ireland and further afield, and the key sectors to look out for in Ireland.
The headlines tell you that favourable tax is the reason behind Ireland’s growth as a technology hub. Is that fair?
Simon Cocking, Senior editor of Irish Tech News: No – I’d put it down to domain knowledge, and 30-plus years of financial payments solutions that are now allied with Irish representation for all 10 of the world’s biggest technology companies. A lot of the data from these major companies’ EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) operations is hosted in Ireland, so it only follows that they’d do more where their European data is held.
Tax, of course, may well have played a factor in the early days, but look at it this way: Apple, Google and Facebook are spending billions of euros on data-hosting facilities in Ireland despite knowing the tax loophole is being closed [in 2014 the Irish government said it would close the much-criticised ‘Double Irish’ that lets major international corporations pay low rates of corporation tax]. Draw your own conclusions about whether they will still be here in 10 years – they will be.
Eamonn Sayers, Founder and CEO of World Sports Team: For me it’s the quality of people – the environment developed due to the knowledge and expertise of people working in technology in Ireland, and that in itself has attracted quality people to move here. Culturally, Irish people are also very friendly, open and co-operative, and have a good track record of welcoming and helping companies that land in Ireland – both early-stage tech startups and the big boys such as Google. That mix is important.
I’d also not underestimate the support Irish companies get from Enterprise Ireland. Every year they bring leading rights-holders and vendors in sport to Dublin to meet Irish start-ups, and they have also selected a few and brought them to New York for meetings with the likes of the NFL (National Football League) and the NBA (National Basketball Association). These start-ups, some of which are small, have Enterprise Ireland opening doors on their behalf.
Christine Esson, UK Manager for Enterprise Ireland: I think a lot of it comes down to Ireland being a great place to do business, the young population, and the strong infrastructure that includes, significantly, strong third-level [higher-level education] institutions. They help a great deal, and we at Enterprise Ireland try and help bring about commercial spin-off opportunities for the institutes and technology centres.
Rob Hartnett, founder of Dublin-based Sport for Business: I wouldn’t discount the tax element completely, but the cluster effect I’d say is the most important reason for Ireland’s strength in the technology sector.
In the corporate world you establish a reputation; people see where their peers are going, and think they should go there too. When you have two, the third becomes easier to attract, and then you have a growing pool of international people who are skilled in that sector. In the same way London has traditionally been a centre for the financial markets, the new technology platforms – the Facebooks, Twitters, Googles and Dropboxes – have found themselves over here.
Sport, meanwhile, is in the DNA of Ireland, and we tend to be more universal in our love of sport than other countries. That means sport is inter-woven across our society and that must have an effect on anyone who moves to Ireland to work in any industry. Creating a technology hub and layering it into a country obsessed with sport means a sports technology sector has developed as a by-product.
Stephen Smith, founder and CEO of Kitman Labs: I don’t believe that it’s all about tax – perhaps the first couple of tech companies moved there because of the [favourable] corporation tax, but then it started to attract tech companies because of the smart people working here, and the potential for partnerships.
Companies are still coming now – it’s a virtuous circle; companies want to come to Ireland because of the smart and intelligent people, and people become skilled, innovative and have new ideas because they are working for the world’s most important and ground-breaking tech companies.
In what areas of the sports industry are Irish-based tech companies particularly strong?
ES: Sports performance and injury prevention and experiential marketing are where I’d say there are numerous Irish companies doing good things.
RH: There’s a few – it really is across the board. Injury prevention is one, and there’s a lot of companies doing some really imaginative stuff there, using common sense around the science of sporting performance to create products that help athletes and teams achieve marginal gains. But health and well-being is another: companies like Nutritics and Gourmet Fuel, for example, are growing internationally out of an Irish base quickly.
The sports marketing sector is also healthy here, and a number of sports tech companies are operating within that and using data to measure the effectiveness of marketing on platforms such as social media.
SS: Sports science is probably the hottest sector right now. That’s probably because Irish sports teams haven’t had the finances those in other countries have had, and also due to the size of our population. That means we have had to be really active when it comes to utilising our athletes to their maximum capacity. When I moved to the United States I noticed that elite sports teams look to Europe and Australia for innovation in that area.
Who would you single out as the standout Irish-based tech companies operating in sport at the moment?
SC: Kitman Labs is one among many.
ES: Huggity is one, and one that was working at this year’s Rugby World Cup. It is a small Irish company with a huge reach; the holy grail for both rights-holders and sponsor brands at the moment is engaging fans online, and bringing the experience of being at a sports event into their home.
RH: Kitman Labs is effectively a US company now, but it was created with funding from Enterprise Ireland. Kitman’s business is relatively simple and common sense: technology that measures and monitors body movement and can judge how susceptible an athlete is to injury.
Others that spring to mind in that space are ORRECO – it’s a company based in Sligo in the north-west and has created a ‘medical marker’ system that helps optimise athlete performance – and STATSports, which is working with numerous Premier League clubs.
— Kitman Labs (@KitmanLabs) November 9, 2015
What’s the future for Irish technology companies operating in sport?
SC: There is an inertia – in a positive way – for the major technology companies with operations in Ireland to continue the forward momentum due to the existing infrastructure, innovation labs, accelerators and other supports for new tech initiatives.
ES: I think it will grow as sport in Ireland professionalises – in particular rugby union and horse racing. If you look at the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), for example, the level of training has vastly improved in recent years. As more people see there is money in the industry, it will inspire and attract people with a natural interest in sport to find ways to make money and professionalise it further.
I personally believe we’re not even on the crest of the wave yet, and the wave is going to be huge. At the moment most companies in the Irish tech space are targeting teams, but they’ll soon move on to individuals. Cycling, triathlon… a lot more people are being attracted to these sports and there are huge opportunities there. The big explosion will be when companies do what they’ve done for teams and adapt it for the individual. LumaFit is a good example of a company that has gone that way already, and Redback Biotek is one to look out for too.
RH: I don’t see any area of the sports industry slowing down.
The Irish market is quite small, so in all areas we end up looking outwards to Europe or the United States to make something that is scalable. However, one of the benefits of being a small market is that our government is much more accepting and supportive of companies working here.
We’ve come out of a tough recession, and in October, as part of its 2016 budget, the Irish government pledged to increase funding into sport by 40 per cent with a combination of capital and public expenditure. The government here gets the importance of sport and its position within the knowledge economy, similar to Australia in many ways.
We’ve never been defined by our size, and have always seen ourselves more capable of world domination than most other countries. The more success Irish companies have scaling internationally, like Kitman Labs, the more Irish sports tech companies will look to follow in their path.
SS: It will continue to grow as long as people in the sector remain passionate about what they do – and if you look at the companies working out of the Silicon Docks, which is the slang phrase for the area around the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, you will see that.
That [instant messaging service] Slack and [business communication platform] Intercom – two of the biggest companies being talked about in the Silicon Valley at the moment – are based there says a lot about how healthy the Irish tech sector is