SFI Prize Winners Gain Experience in Silicon Valley


Patricia McGowan and Jerry Reen at the Irish Innovation Center, San Jose

Patricia McGowan, from Roscommon, and Jerry Reen, from Kerry were joint winners of a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) competition specifically designed to encourage and enable post-doc researchers to commercialize their work.

The SFI, in conjunction with DCU Ryan Academy, recruited researchers to undertake an intensive course in business and marketing basics that lasted over two months. The course culminated in a demo day in which the participants pitched their projects to an especially convened panel.

The prize was a trip to Silicon Valley hosted by the Irish Technology Leadership Group based in the Irish Innovation Center in San Jose where this interview took place.

Patricia McGowan’s research is in the area of breast cancer therapeutics – looking for new targeted therapies for specific sub-types of breast cancer where there are currently no targeted therapies available for those patients suffering from the disease.


Patricia explains, “The SFI advertised for a course to bring SFI funded post docs on a course and open them up to entrepreneurship, technology startups; with lawyers, venture capitalists, people who had started their own companies and market researchers.

“Basically they showed us what what was out there. If you want to take and exploit your basic research – this is where you have got to go.”

Jerry Reen whose work focuses on cystic fibrosis pathogen – pseudomonas aeruginosa – the primary bacterium that kills those who have the disease.

“We are looking for strategies to stop that happening. We are also doing a lot of work with metagenomics which is a new area and is based on the idea that maybe we can see or work with only about 10% of bacteria that exists. The ocean has another 90% of bacteria that we cannot get our hands on.”

The metagenomic technique, “Allows us to get their genetic blueprint. We can’t grow them, we can’t see them but we can get their genetic information. That gives us access to new antibiotics, new signals, new chemicals that can control the bacteria that we want to target.

“Instead of going in there and trying to kill something like MRSA or E. coli you look for these new chemical messages, new antibiotics that would target those bacteria.”

Both Jerry and Patricia saw from their trip that there was a very real difference in the way a researcher regards their work to that of a person attempting to commercialize that research.

Jerry adds, “Yesterday we met with four startup companies at various levels of their progression. We met with the CEOs, the people who are heading up these companies. It was fantastic.

“A lot of this is about a mind change, having a different mind set. Basic research and commercializing basic research are two completely different mindsets.”

There is also the issue of pivoting. “A lot of the guys out here just want to know what our thing does. There are all these other applications that you may never even have thought of. So where you [go with it] is not where you thought. It’s worth its weight in gold to have access to that type of information.”

Another benefit from winning the prize was being able to plug into a whole new network of contacts; entrepreneurs, mentors and their associated networks.

According to Patricia, “If we want to take the next step we now have the connections ask questions, “Do I need to do this? Do I need to speak to a lawyer? Market research for the US – how do I do that?

“The idea is to think about our work and how we are going to commercialize it in the future and to have all our armoury in place early on.

“We are scientists by qualification. We don’t have a business background at all. We’ve been told all along not to go into this on our own so we would definitely get the right partners.”

While both Patricia and Jerry’s projects are still in their initial stages they have been given vital pointers in the right direction.

“At this point in time what we have is things that are not yet products.” Jerry says, “They are not yet ready to launch. What this is has done is that it has given us a roadmap. We’ve now got an insight into how do go from an idea to something that you can approach a company with.”

Apple: Record Profits Amidst Uncertainty in Silicon Valley [VIDEO]

Mac OSX Lion was launched a day after Apple reported record profits in the last quarter. There are predictions that Apple will go on to turnover $120 billion in this fiscal year.

However, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers MoneyTree Report, also just released, points out that although VC investment has been at its greatest in the first quarter of this year since 2008, there are indications that the VCs themselves are having trouble finding funding.

While there is much debate about whether Silicon Valley is in the midst of a bubble or not it does seem that growth in the tech market sector is very mixed.

The Silicon Valley 50

The 4th Annual ITLG Technology Awards will take place at Stanford University on April 5th and is being sponsored by the Irish Times and the Silicon Valley Bank.

The event will be hosted by Emily Chang, Bloomberg West Anchor and the keynote speaker will be Craig Barrett, ITLG Chairman and Retired CEO/Chairman of the Board, Intel Corporation.

Of especial interest this year will be the compilation of the Silicon Valley 50 – a list that gives recognition to the top 50 Irish American technology executives doing business in Silicon Valley.

A random sample of names from this list gives an idea of the extent of influence and depth of involvement that Irish Americans have had in shaping Silicon Valley into what it is to today – the gathering of the most creative minds in technology, marketing and management.

Many will have been aware of the massive changes that the economy of Ireland has undergone in recent years, from the heights of the Celtic Tiger to the depths of recession. These have been serious changes that have had and will continue to have an effect on economic growth for a little while more.

But all the gloomy news has hidden from sight one of the great success stories of the modern era – the incredible and remarkable story of the Irish tech sector.

According to ICT Ireland, (the voice of the Information and Communications Technology sector in Ireland), over 75,000 people are employed in the ICT area which is responsible for approximately 25% of Ireland’s total turnover and represents one third of Ireland’s exports by value.

Employment alone has grown by 6% in this area in 2010 and there is still the promise of more to come.

Any economy, anywhere in the world would crave for these sort of figures.

And the future looks better.

Three of the world’s leading research institutes are based in Ireland:

In a recent interview Barry O’Sullivan, Vice-President of Cisco’s global voice technology group, stated,

“Technology, by definition, is about the future – to the extent that you are in high tech then you are always in the next big thing.”

If one looks at what Ireland has been able to achieve in the harshest of economic climates then one can only begin to wonder at what can be achieved when the wind is set fair in the sails.

A major next step for many Irish companies is to take advantage of the world-renowned technological, marketing and management experience that resides in Silicon Valley.

The Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) was founded in 2007 by John Hartnett. He is a recent recipient of the prestigious Spirit of Ireland Award from the San Jose-Dublin Sister City program.

He says there are three overwhelming reasons why Irish companies should establish a presence in Silicon Valley:

“One, you have access to the greatest collection of technology companies in the world. These companies are all over the world doing things with sales and operations. But you want to come to the heart of where they’re at, and that’s their headquarters.

“Number two, if you’re going to get investment, a smart investment from someone who is going to change your organization and make you a true winner, these VCs, these angel groups are sitting here, not in Ireland.

“The third piece is access to talent. You have the world’s talent sitting here – guys that invented Google, guys that are running companies like Facebook or Twitter – if you want to build your organization and build some key leadership where you might be weak.”

The ITLG have set up an innovation center right in the heart of Silicon Valley as a launch pad for Irish companies to set themselves up, and to make it easy for them to do the necessary networking and have the essential face-to-face meetings.

The ITLG is determined to create the most powerful Irish network in the world. The Irish Diaspora is estimated to consist of over 40 million people. If this huge and powerful potential resource could be harnessed, organized and focused, then the door opens for all sorts of great and marvelous possibilities to occur.

To help facilitate this the ITLG can draw upon its network of 1,500 Silicon Valley executives and industry leaders who are either Irish or of Irish descent. Many of these people have had great success in their professional lives and view their contributions to the ITLG as a means of payback for their own good fortune.

These contributions vary in nature but can consist of:

  • Mentoring new Irish businesses coming to Silicon Valley.
  • Providing vital contacts for business development through their personal networks that would be very difficult to obtain by any other means.
  • Providing facilities such as the Irish Innovation Center to provide Irish businesses with a solid base from which to work from.

The rapidly growing Irish tech sector can only continue to succeed if it can take its place in the global marketplace as quickly as possible. The center of the global market place for high tech is Silicon Valley and the ITLG is ideally placed to facilitate and further the growth of Irish technology businesses.

The Silicon Valley 50 will be recognized at the 4th Annual ITLG Technology Leaders Awards at Stanford University on April 5th. You can register here for tickets.

President Obama visits Silicon Valley

President Obama recently made a two-day visit to Silicon Valley. The aim of the trip was to promote technological development with a view to supporting and improving the US economy. At a private dinner, President Obama met with the heads of some of the leading technology companies based in Silicon Valley.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the conversation centred on ways to work to invest in innovaton and promote private sector job growth.

“The president specifically discussed his proposals to invest in research and development and expand incentives for companies to grow and hire, along with his goal of doubling exports over five years to support millions of American jobs.”

In addition, “The group also discussed the importance of new investments in education.”

President Obama has already promised to fund tax credits for research and development, and has plans to allocate $18 billion dollars for wireless broadband infrastructure across the country.

The Irish Innovation Center (IIC) has over 20 start-ups operating from its premises in San Jose, California. They support plans to give immigrants preferential visas if they bring in capital and start up a company that creates jobs for Americans.

They are referring to initiatives like the Startup Visa Act which was introduced by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar in February 2010 and is awaiting approval. In essence, it allows for a foreign national to obtain a visa that would allow them to reside and work in America if they can raise a certain amount of money from a venture capital firm owned by a US citizen.

John Hartnett, President and Founder of the Irish Technology Group (ITLG) says, “Our competition is every other city in the world, and leading in education and leading in supporting that young innovator that is coming to Silicon Valley to set up their company and be successful and become the next Google or the next Facebook is what we want to make happen.”

To increase the chances of making that happen, for Irish businesses in particular, the ITLG wants to get the US Government to create “start up incentives” for seed funding and the creation of employment grants to be made available for Irish startups in America. They would also like to see more support for the IIC.

In a previous interview with the Technology Voice, John explained why it was so important for entrepreneurs, especially Irish entrepreneurs, to have a presence in Silicon Valley, “Three reasons to come to Silicon Valley are access to customers, access to capital, access to talent. If you want to understand what is going to shape your company in the future, it is your people, your ability to get customers, and your ability to get funded, and that’s all sitting here.”

With the President of the United States taking a personal interest in technological innovation and growth, combined with upcoming changes in legislation like those proposed by Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Luger, the future does seem to look more promising for those who are willing to make a go of it in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley: Moving to California

Silicon Valley, located in Northern California in the United States, is the epicentre of the global high-tech industry. It is synonymous with the world’s largest technology corporations including Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco and HP.

This 30 by 15 mile stretch of land houses a wealth of resources waiting to be exploited by Irish companies willing to take a calculated risk. There are major opportunities for new Irish technology companies to make a global impact through contacts and funding available in the Valley.

Silicon Valley contains a huge concentration of venture capital (VC) firms who are seeking the next eBay or Intel. Many of these firms are centred on or around Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park – considered to be the Wall Street of Silicon Valley.

One Irish company that is currently seeking to take advantage of the opportunities available  is TapMap, founded in 2009 by Philip McNamara. The company uses mobile platforms to publish retailers’ price and inventory to make their products accessible to local consumers.

Philip moved to Silicon Valley three months ago. He said, “it’s an amazing place because there are so many people here who can help. You have these world class companies, these Fortune 50 companies, which are… just 15 minutes drive away.”

Compared with Ireland he says Silicon Valley has a, “Whole ecosystem that is full of really smart people, really good people who want to help out and want to see you succeed. I was in Ireland and it was really hard to get access to those kinds of people and companies.”

Along with the many benefits of moving your company to Silicon Valley, there are many challenges. There are a number of considerations when deciding whether or not to make the move:

  • An obvious disincentive is the physical distance from Ireland. California is just over 5,000 miles away and 8 hours behind in time. There is currently no direct flight between Ireland and the Valley, forcing commuters through other international airports to travel between the two.
  • Even though there is a lot of funding available, there is intense competition for it from all parts of the globe, including other parts of America. Philip McNamara says that although this is difficult, “There’s a lot more competition at the same time because everyone is attracted here so you have all the companies from all over the US coming here to get funding so there’s huge amount of competition but at the same time the talent is here, the experience is here and the connections are here.”
  • American VCs will expect you to set up a locally incorporated company which involves obtaining American legal counsel.
  • The overheads associated with locating your business in California are significant. Aside from lawyers and the other costs of forming a company, it is vital to be able to get around and that means renting or buying a car. Borrowing one if you are lucky. Accommodation is also expensive. Philip says: “You have to have friends. A joke we’ve made is “find a family” to stay with – that’s really important because otherwise you’re going to be spending money on a hotel and that’s just incredibly expensive…because you’re going to have to spend 2 or 3 months over here looking for funding and setting up your team.”
  • The business etiquette can be a culture shock. Philip said, “Everyone works all the time. I got an email this morning from an essential client at 7.15 am. You’re on twitter and you’re on email and you’re on LinkedIn and on Skype until all hours. It’s just the way it is. Business is business 24/7 even with your social life.”
  • Visas that allow you to work in the States can be hard to obtain and sometimes slow to arrive.
  • Give some thought to your American mobile phone operator. Verizon’s current 3G phones do not work in Ireland. AT&T or T-Mobile use the same technology as Ireland (i.e GSM or UMTS) so this may be a better option if your phone needs to travel home with you.

Some of these obstacles can be overcome by aligning your company with a business start-up centre who can help with VC meetings, office space, recruitment and advice. One such centre is the Irish Innovation Centre which opened last year.

Another facility is the Plug and Play Tech Center which TapMap is associated with. Philip notes, “They’ve been absolutely phenomenally useful. What they’ve done is put me in front of about 25 VCs to date. I had 4 VC meetings yesterday all set up by the Plug and Play Tech Center because they believe in TapMap and they want it to succeed.”

What if you decide that Silicon Valley is not for you? One company who has decided to stay in Ireland is Cork-based Ferfics, a  developer of intellectual property and microchips for radio frequency applications.

Eugene Heaney Founder and CEO of Ferfics, believes it is possible to attract global attention for a technology company without moving away from Ireland. The target market of his company are giants like Nokia, Apple and Samsung. Eugene says, “I don’t think we have ever had difficulties reaching customers or getting access to customers because of our location. That’s never been an issue.”

Ferfics secured €1.7 million equity funding last November to begin production of an energy efficient microchip. Eugene believes VC funding is available at home for other companies, “Ireland is a pretty good place to try to raise capital in my view. I know I may be saying that because we did raise capital.”

There is no denying that Silicon Valley is attractive for new tech companies looking to launch themselves into the world. It’s positive, energetic and a hub of funding and ideas. On the flip-side it’s expensive which can act as a barrier to many new companies but as Philip McNamara believes, “You have to be where your customers are and you’ve got to be where you can start the business.”