Ireland: The Ingredients of Entrepreneurial Spirit

Spirit, ability, imagination, and passion are the traits that characterize the
Irish entrepreneurs who thrived in the 1990s. A new book by Harvard
Business School MBA student John Travers provides insights for everyone.
Plus: Q&A with the author.

HBSWK Pub. Date: May 20, 2002

by John J. Travers

For his book, Driving the Tiger,
Irish Enterprise Spirit, John
Travers interviewed Chris Horn,
co-founder of IONA Technologies.
In this excerpt, Horn talks about
the development of the company,
which makes computer
integration products, and its
appeal to future entrepreneurs.

Encouragement of
university enterprise
Commercialization of research and development is important
to ensure a beneficial return from investment. Trinity College
Dublin (TCD) started the campus company scheme in 1984 to
help bring research applications to the market. The university
was keen to exploit results. At one time, some academics
would approach the university seeking support and equity to
launch a business. When they did not get it, they left and
launched a business anyway. TCD realized it was losing both
valuable expertise and the opportunity to become involved in
successful businesses. Now a promoting officer vets each
business proposal and gives seminars to explain the scheme
and the opportunities of bringing research to full fruition through

Initially, the majority of worthwhile business opportunities
came from work on drugs and pharmaceuticals in the
biochemistry department. Several companies were set up and
spun off. Soon other departments saw the virtues of the
scheme. One interesting venture, called Maptec, manipulated
satellite images and provided geographical mapping services.
Launching campus companies is a great way to motivate and
incentivize researchers, while also providing revenue for
continued research.

Other Irish universities are implementing similar
commercialization schemes, all of which have been inspired
by similar activities in Stanford and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT has a tremendous facility for
innovation. Its campus in Boston is a Mecca for top
engineering and scientific talent, and the collective brainpower
has resulted in breakthrough technological advances. In
particular, I am impressed with the Boston-based MIT Media
Lab, which recently opened a European research laboratory in
Dublin. MediaLabEurope is the laboratory for the digital future.
The combined student body and faculty will number 250 and
form a highly creative environment. Research projects will
address such things as the interconnection between bits,
people, and objects in an online world and the prospect of
giving objects the intelligence to "think." For instance, by
sensing the movements of their owners, devices such as
refrigerators, toasters, and doorknobs will be able to
communicate with each other and solve local problems. It is
exciting to think about. The theory is that setting up this
facility in Ireland will encourage large multinationals to fund
MediaLabEurope, which will in turn encourage additional
domestic research. Furthermore, the technology advances
made by MediaLabEurope will provide opportunities for new
Irish technology enterprises to start up in order to exploit the
technology breakthroughs that are achieved. The investment
price is a steep one—the government is committed to
investing some £130 million over ten years. Time will tell if it is
a wise investment or one that might have been channeled
directly, and more profitably, into purely Irish research
initiatives in universities and domestic companies.

IONA benefited from the TCD campus company scheme, and
in March 1991 we received enough funding to start the
company in a small 15- by 8-foot office on the campus. In
these early Trinity days, we undertook various projects
unrelated to the mission at hand. For example, we delivered courses on Fortran to the Irish
Meteorological Office, ran C++ courses for ICL and the U.K. Customs Authority and worked on
consulting projects for the EU.

IONA people
In the early years, we hired a lot of graduates straight from university. I found that this was to the
detriment of maturity. As our organization has grown and acquired bigger customers, the demands on
the quality of our worldwide operations and business process have become very high. Now we tend to
hire people who have ten or fifteen years of experience and who bring greater maturity and expertise.
Our Irish and U.S. staff share a similar outlook. The same forces in the industry drive them. They are
very creative in providing new technology solutions. There is a lot of movement and interaction
between Dublin and Boston, so we are well integrated and speak the same language.

Quite a few people join us with a view to
understanding how a company such as ours works,
with the intention of doing something similar one day
themselves. IONA has provided a launching pad for at
least fifteen new companies. That reflects a
tremendous enthusiasm and sense of enterprise in
the people who work for us. I am delighted to see these new companies launch themselves
independently into the fray of Ireland’s rich new enterprise culture. It is good to know that we hired
young people with the spirit and desire to create something new, turning innovative ideas into
commercial successes and showing the grit and determination to set out in enterprises of their own.
IONA benefited from that same spirit while they worked here, and I wish them every bit of luck on their
own. Many of those who have started their own companies felt that a company of 800 people was too
big. They preferred to work with 5, 10, or 15 people. Now that IONA is established, we cannot afford to
take the type of risks we took in the early days. We have built safety nets and find that some people
are not prepared to stay in a safe environment where we will not place an "all or nothing" bet on their

One company for which I have great hopes for the future is Cape Clear. The three founders, Chief
Executive Officer David Clarke, Chief Operating Officer John McGuire and Chief Technical Officer Hugh
Grant, are all former executives of IONA. Annraí O’Toole, co-founder of IONA, and Colin Newman,
former vice-president of marketing at IONA, also left the company in late 2000 to join Cape Clear as
executives, with Annraí taking a leading role as executive chairman. Cape Clear [is] entering a new
area of Internet development by providing infrastructure technology that will enable Internet
applications to interact more freely, creating in essence an "invisible Internet." In April 2000, Cape
Clear generated first round funding from institutional investors of $2 million, and IONA subsequently
made a minority investment. Cape Clear is just one example of countless new Irish high-tech
enterprises that are exciting to watch.

Other people join us because it is an opportunity to work with a leader in the software technology
industry. They have the chance to develop interesting software in what is still a relatively small
company by global standards. All the people who join us will have one thing in common—strong
customer focus. They will work on products that will see the light of day in a large market. We are not
yet rich enough and do not have enough surplus resources to be able to just play with something that
will not be presented to the customers.

Six Questions for John J.

Andrea Schulman: How did you get the idea for
the book?

John J. Travers: I had been living in The
Netherlands for some years and had enjoyed an
objective perspective on Ireland’s recent
economic boom. Every week the newspapers ran
stories of the latest Irish enterprise success
story and of young people throwing away their
inhibitions and starting new companies with a
newfound enthusiasm and energy. I realized that
a very special enterprise spirit was emerging
throughout Ireland on a rising crest of national
confidence. Much had been written about the
political and macro-economic factors contributing
to Ireland’s economic success but little had been
written about the individual people who were
shaping and progressing the country with their
enterprise spirit. What better way to capture that
spirit than to interview the people who personified
it and compile their stories in a book?

Q: What do you think accounts for the
resurgence of Irish enterprise from the 1990s?

A: Irish people have always shown a flair for
enterprise in countries to which they emigrated,
such as the U.S. However, in Ireland that
enterprise spirit lay dormant until the right
environment and conditions had evolved. The
crafting of sensible economic policy since the
1960s that has enabled Ireland to become
Europe’s fastest growing economy throughout
the 1990s laid the foundation for an enterprise
spirit to take root and the confluence of several
factors such as foreign investment of capital
and knowledge, greater venture capital activity,
and a highly educated and flexible work force,
enabled the enterprise spirit to flourish.

Q: How did you choose your interview subjects?

A: I wanted to choose a great diversity of
enterprise leaders. Their enterprises are as varied
as imaginable, from telecoms to fashion design;
from sandwich bars to bodyart; from managing
international music stars to developing a regional
airline, with cutting edge technology and Internet
development side by side with Riverdance and
motor racing. All of their stories are extraordinary
and yet, of course, they are ordinary people who
are down to earth and easy to relate to.

Q: To the provincial American reader, these
aren’t household names. Do you think we’ll be
learning more about them soon? Are there any in
particular who you think will have a global impact
on business?

A: I am sure that the activities of many of these
people are well known in the U.S. For instance,
the creator of Riverdance, Moya Doherty, is
featured, and sports fans will know Eddie Jordan,
the founder of the Jordan Formula 1 racing team.
Technology companies founded by some of the
featured people employ tens of thousands of
people in their subsidiaries in the U.S. Even if
some of the people are not known, their stories
are universal in the humanity of their struggle to
overcome personal and professional challenges
and to define their own lives through their

Q: What do you think American entrepreneurs
could learn from the Irish?

A: In truth, it is to the U.S. that Irish
entrepreneurs have so often looked for an
example. If there is something unique about the
Irish entrepreneurs I have met, it is a particularly
Irish blend of three characteristics that have
enabled them to succeed: ability, imagination,
and passion. Moreover, each has a wish to give
back to the community and environment that has
shaped them, whether through educational
programs, cultural initiatives, or direct charity
work. I think that this social awareness—that one
is a member of a community rather than a sole
individual—is a healthy approach.

Q: What are your own plans after Harvard
Business School? Will you be joining the ranks of
the entrepreneurs?

A: I look forward to starting work with McKinsey
in September. I will always be on the lookout for
the right time and opportunity to engage in
entrepreneurial adventures and plan to keep up
the writing too.

— Andrea Schulman, HBS Working Knowledge

· · · ·

Excerpted with permission from Driving the Tiger: Irish Enterprise Spirit, Gill & Macmillan Ltd of Dublin, 2002.

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