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Dublin needs to compete harder in global tech talent war, entrepreneurs say

  • Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and more have created thousands of high-skilled jobs in Ireland and illustrate the strength of an economy devastated by recession just a decade ago
  • Yet data from Ireland's Central Statistics Office shows that a greater number of educated Irish nationals are still leaving the island than returning from overseas
  • Still, the tech sector — whether for AI, agritech, fintech, software or any number of other sub-sectors — is a powerful force and should continue gaining speed as Ireland's economy grows
Dublin, Ireland.
2c Image | Getty Images
Dublin, Ireland.

Dublin's Grand Canal Dock, often referred to as "Silicon Dock," has certainly pushed up the area's property value.

A 10-minute walk along the River Liffey will take you past the swanky headquarters of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and more — nearly every major multinational name in tech you can think of.

These companies have created thousands of high-skilled jobs in Ireland and illustrate the strength of an economy devastated by recession just a decade ago. Yet data from Ireland's Central Statistics Office shows that a greater number of educated Irish nationals are still leaving the island than returning from overseas.

The tech sector has an important role to play in keeping some of these talented young people in the home market, according to Ben English, co-founder of Dublin Tech Summit.

"The only way we can stop people from leaving for (Silicon) Valley is to bring the Valley to them," the 26-year-old told CNBC on Thursday during an interview at Dublin's Digital Depot.

"Naturally, in terms of the growth of the millennials and Generation Z, there are a lot of people going away to get skills," he said. "That's inevitable. But coming back and getting them back is something that we have control over."

Fintech future

Many have speculated that Dublin's tech and financial service sectors could benefit from Brexit, as companies seek an anglophone base from which to access the EU market.

"Fintech is one of the more interesting ones, particularly with the advent of Brexit," English said. "Ireland represents a portal to a variety of markets."

"One thing about London, and the fintech space in particular, is that it can be quite clustered with a lot of noise. Ireland is the chance to move away from the noise," he said, adding that London's tech scene, while considered the most robust in Europe, can be oversaturated. In Ireland, he said, it's easier to source talent since competition is not as severe.

Meanwhile, Regina Breheny, head of the Irish Association of Investment Managers and director general of the Irish Venture Capital Association, is less convinced. Asked whether she saw Dublin as a realistic contender for the role of Europe's fintech hub post-Brexit, she replied, "Well, no."

"The U.K. has better supports for new companies and entrepreneurs than we do," Breheny said. "Even in the budget recently, they have made it more attractive to be an entrepreneur in the U.K. That has made it very difficult for us from a competitive point of view."

An illuminated raised walkway connects buildings of the Google Inc. European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg via Getty
An illuminated raised walkway connects buildings of the Google Inc. European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016.

Still, the tech sector — whether for artificial intelligence (AI), agritech, fintech, software or any number of other sub-sectors — is a powerful force and should continue gaining speed as Ireland's economy grows.

"Since the onset of the credit crunch in 2008, more than 1,450 Irish SMEs raised venture capital of €3.6 billion ($4.3 billion)," Breheny told the Irish Independent in November. "These funds were raised almost exclusively by Irish VC fund managers who, during this period, supported the creation of up to 20,000 jobs, attracted over €1.6 billion of capital into Ireland."

Retaining talent

Marika MacCarvill, senior press executive at Enterprise Ireland, said that in terms of access to talent, Brexit presents two opposing forces at play.

"If the U.K. becomes more closed to labor movement, this provides an opportunity for Irish fintechs to access talented staff from around Europe," she said. "On the other hand, if we see U.K. companies relocating to Dublin or opening Irish subsidiaries, this would provide competition to indigenous Irish fintechs in the labor market."

Organizations like the government's Enterprise Ireland, which offers 'High Potential Start-up' funding, help indigenous companies in their growth stages. The country has a number of startup accelerators to help budding entrepreneurs get off the ground and scale, but what's really needed runs deeper than physical infrastructure, English said.

"We have a lot more to do in selling this ethos of entrepreneurship and innovation at a younger level and we are notorious on this side of the water for fearing failure," he said.

"If we are to compare ourselves with our U.S. counterparts, we need to foster an ethos where it is OK to fail, and the only thing to do afterwards is to fail better and harder and to try harder."

Coming home

Emma Walker returned to Dublin last year from New York to be Ireland managing director for Wachsman PR, a blockchain-focused communications agency.

"With Brexit very much looming and hopefully a large influx of companies coming here, I think that comes with responsibility to make sure that we are developing what we need to develop to be ready," Walker told CNBC at the Digital Depot.

"Educationally, we need to be more conscious of the courses people need to learn. Ireland could definitely think about establishing research centers for blockchain, artificial intelligence technologies, etc."

Facebook employees work on their laptops in European headquarters at Hanover Quay in Dublin, Ireland
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Facebook employees work on their laptops in European headquarters at Hanover Quay in Dublin, Ireland

Walker also stressed the concept of "merit versus tenure," something she feels is very needed in her home country.

"I'm 26, and I'm managing director of the Irish office," she said. "If I hadn't gone abroad, would I be in this position? Probably not.

"In America, I had the opportunity to take on this responsibility. We need to change our vision on development of the younger generation and see that your age doesn't define your ability to do a wonderful job."

Looking to the future, Walker saw a continued openness to the world as one of Ireland's core strengths.

"We are open arms, we are a nation that is extremely welcoming to different nationalities coming here and working and thriving," she said. "We're very proud people, but at the same time we're open to learning how we can do things better."