The Greening of Silicon Valley

Pictured at the opening of Palm’s R&D Engineering center in Swords, County Dublin are John Hartnett and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Micheál Martin, who will be honored by ITLG and Irish America at a dinner at Stanford University on March 27.

By Chris Ryan, Contributor
April / May 2008

Scan the upper ranks of some of Silicon Valley’s top technology powerhouses and you’ll find them strewn with Irish names like gorse on a Kerry hillside.  These executives have helped pick their companies up from the dot-com bust and already are developing the next phase of the Internet era, the socially connective technologies known as Web 2.0.  But even as they help to build this new wave of Silicon Valley prosperity, a circle of Irish-American leaders are busy planning another wave of innovation and prosperity – in Ireland.

As the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), the 17 members come together to ensure that the Celtic Tiger continues to grow and bring prosperity to the people of Ireland.  It’s the brainchild of John Hartnett, native of Limerick and Senior Vice President for Global Markets at Palm, Inc., a Silicon Valley tech company that designs mobile smartphones and handhelds.

From age 17, Hartnett worked for American technology companies based in Ireland (attending the University of Limerick at night), and he has continued to work for companies with Irish operations since moving to California in 1998.  Having seen both the rise of the Celtic Tiger and the technology boom and bust in Silicon Valley, it’s safe to say Hartnett has developed a long-term perspective on business.
And he knows that success can cause complacency.  “The biggest challenge for us as a country right now is dealing with success and understanding the pitfalls it can cause.”

A Warmer (Business) Climate
»The continued strength of the Celtic Tiger cannot be assumed. In last November’s U.S.-Ireland Forum in New York, Richard Medley, chairman of an investment management firm, warned the audience that continued high investment in Ireland is by no means assured.  The country still has a sunny investment climate, but it now has to compete with other economies that are also courting international firms.

These days, companies that want a new manufacturing plant see low wages in Central and Eastern Europe, and those that sell services know of India’s large, English-speaking workforce.

John Hartnett explains, “Ireland can’t compete head-on to win manufacturing” from some of these countries.  Instead, he suggests, it should move “up the food chain” – pursue knowledge-based, value-added activities like research and development (R&D), engineering, science, and technology. The ITLG wants agencies like the IDA (Industrial Development Agency) to attract the new tech companies expanding outside the U.S. – “winning that inward investment.”  Hartnett feels his group can do this by helping the agencies to understand the key criteria for attracting companies, to market Ireland more effectively, and to exhibit Ireland’s advantages.

“Ireland’s greatest asset is its people,” he says, “and winning success is selling that.”

In addition to technology leaders, the group includes two members who can bridge the worlds of business and government.  Dermot Tuohy directs the IDA’s West Coast operations and is responsible for implementing a knowledge-based strategy for the Irish economy, focusing on information technology, biotechnology, and the Internet; and Émer Deane promotes Ireland’s interests in the 13 Western states as a Consul General of Ireland.

According to Hartnett, Ireland is already showing encouraging signs of transitioning to a new, more advanced economy.  In recent years the IDA has attracted high-tech companies like Google, Palm, Intel, and Bell Labs.  “There’s engineering design and development going on there . . . It’s really a signal that Ireland can compete in the technology/knowledge race.”

But transitioning to that post-manufacturing “knowledge economy,” Hartnett feels, will require fostering more than just a favorable business climate.  It will take a conceptual shift.

The Technological Mind
»“Irish people have always been careful,” John Hartnett explains.  “It’s ‘Protect what you have’ . . . whereas here in Silicon Valley people go for it – they go for the big bet, and it doesn’t always win, but when it does win it makes a big difference.”  He has seen the confidence of businesspeople in Ireland rise over the last 10 years, but he feels it can rise even higher.

Here in California’s Silicon Valley, stories of young entrepreneurs are legendary.  Nearly unbelievable tales of youth, opportunity, and jaw-dropping success fuel the efforts of those looking to hatch the next runaway start-up.  And the stories are doubly inspiring because they’re true.

When I attended primary school in Cupertino in the early 1980s, everyone knew about two guys who started a company out of their garage and called it Apple Computer.  These days the ambitious admire the young man behind Facebook, who developed the popular social networking site while still a student at Harvard, and the founders of Google, who created the Internet search engine while at Stanford; that start-up is now worth $170 billion.

Hartnett wants to know, “Why can’t two guys walk out of Trinity College in Dublin and create the next Google or Facebook?”To create the right environment, Hartnett feels, technology needs to be a top priority in the educational system, in attracting investment, “and also within our fabric as a country.”

An All-Island Economy
»One of the ITLG’s members is Johnny Gilmore, COO of Sling Media, a Silicon Valley company that develops consumer digital media products.  Gilmore is a native of Northern Ireland and has worked in Dublin, England, Australia, and California.  Now, as he looks to Ireland, he sees a lot of good schools and a lot of strong talent – not in the North or the South, but in Ireland as a whole.

So the ITLG is also looking to the six northern counties, working with Invest Northern Ireland to drive high-tech growth and investment there. But it’s all part of the same effort.  Both governments know that the world sees Ireland as one, says Gilmore.  They are starting to work well together, he observes, “and it behooves them to.”

There will be challenges, he says, but “it’s all part of the process.”

I asked Gilmore whether increased trade and investment in the North and between North and South indirectly benefits peace and reconciliation.

“Absolutely – anything which keeps the economy of the island thriving is good for continued stability.” But Gilmore notes that the concepts of “North” and “South” just don’t exist among businesspeople here in the U.S.  “They only see Ireland as a whole.”  Indeed, Gilmore often refers to them together as “the island of Ireland.”

For Gilmore and the ITLG, it’s not about politics. “We know from our own personal experiences and contacts that there are exciting and attractive companies and investment opportunities all over the island.”

Of course, many in government are still discussing the peace process and working to ensure its completion – and rightly so. At the same time, others like the ITLG are proceeding as though it is, in fact, complete.

And perhaps that’s the best way to ensure that it’s so.

The Greening of NASDAQ
»The group plans to do more than foster the right climate within Ireland. They also want to help Irish companies doing business elsewhere.
John Hartnett points out that while Israel has 75 companies on America’s tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange, Ireland has only six or seven.
But what can a handful of Irish Americans in California do to help businesses 5,000 miles away?

“We can’t help 3,000 different companies,” Hartnett says, “but what we can do is help technology-based companies in Ireland . . . to be successful in the U.S.”  Particularly small companies, adds Gilmore, which don’t have access to or may not realize the opportunities here.
The group’s aid may include coaching, helping to develop business strategies, and even interesting the members’ own companies in symbiotic relationships like buying, licensing, or investing in the technologies of Irish start-ups.

“So,” Hartnett predicts, “if we can help those seven [Irish NASDAQ companies] become 15 and become 20, that can have a major impact.”

Together, Then Forward
»When Hartnett started the ITLG late last year, he wasn’t fully aware of all the other “success stories” around – Irish-Americans who have worked their way to the top of American companies, often with IDA assistance. But since then, Hartnett has been approached by many tech executives, whether first, second, or third-generation diaspora, “who reached out once they heard this is going on. And it’s not just Silicon Valley; also San Diego, Chicago, New York, Boston, Texas – just everywhere.”

“It’s been great to be able to join the dots,” Hartnett smiles.

The group wants to create a network where Irish technology leaders in the U.S. can connect.  Their first event is coming up in late March.  Together with Irish America, the ITLG will host the first annual awards dinner, and honor Craig Barrett, Chairman, Intel Corporation and Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Micheál Martin. It’s a chance to recognize top leaders of Irish heritage in the technology sector.

For Hartnett, it’s also a major opportunity to show off the West Coast.

“The West Coast is the center, not just of the U.S., but the center of the world when you talk about technology,” he beams.  “We plan to give the East Coast a run for their money.”

The group is also busy planning an event, slated for this summer, which would bring Irish companies over and put them together with local business technology veterans and venture capital “angels.”  They would get help with their business plans, their sales pitches, and potentially even funding.

Aside from Palm, Inc. and Sling Media, the group includes leaders from numerous other Silicon Valley companies with bases in Ireland, from Apple to Intel to Google.  The ITLG wants to ensure these companies are as competitive as possible in Ireland, to the benefit not only of themselves but the Emerald Isle, too.  Intel, for example, is one of the island’s largest employers, and Google, which already employs 1,500 people in Dublin, is looking to recruit 200 more.

Indeed, much of Ireland’s growth may still be ahead of it.  But forward-looking strategists like the ITLG know the Celtic Tiger is not invincible.  Hartnett and his group hope that their expertise, networking, planning, and hard work might help take Ireland – the whole island – into a new phase of investment and prosperity.

Call it the Celtic Tiger, 2.0.

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