Building a voice for Ireland’s startups & scaleups. My Scale Ireland journey.
I’ve worked in the start-up sector all my life. In fact I grew up immersed in the world of (a then startup) Fexco — a family company that grew from humble beginnings in Killorglin, County Kerry into one of Ireland’s few homegrown Irish multinationals.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, I have always been passionate about helping people make their visions come true.
Throughout my career I’ve seen all sides of the entrepreneurial journey, both the successes and the failures. I have been there when great ideas were first discussed, often over a casual coffee. And from those modest beginnings, many world-leading companies have emerged.
I know only too well the hard work, long hours, relentless fundraising and meetings that go into making these ideas become a reality.
And as we all know, many great start-ups are not successful. But the ones that do succeed, have huge potential to generate significant employment, benefiting their community and the economy.
It is vital that we have a policy environment that gives these companies every chance of success.
And that’s how the Scale Ireland story began…
Starting a representative and advocacy body from scratch
Back in 2018, I was working at Dogpatch Labs — a leading startup hub in Dublin’s Silicon Docks — where I was heading up strategic projects: diversity and inclusion, developing a regional hub network and government engagement (see some highlights here).
We had great ambitions for Ireland’s startup sector. But, back then, every conversation seemed to start the same way:
Start-ups needed a voice. They needed to be heard in the policy and decision-making processes which have such an impact on them.
And from those conversations, that’s how Scale Ireland first came about. We identified the problem — there was no targeted professional representative and advocacy body for this sector. Various initiatives over the years had come and gone, but when it came to sustained policy development, there was a significant vacuum.
So began my “Startup Policy Project”. Setting up any organisation is a challenge and I drew heavily on my policy background (NUIG), training in economic development (LSE), hands on startup experience (Emex, Annadale Technologies & Aviso, Dogpatch Labs), and passion for community development.
As every startup founder knows, you need some important ingredients to succeed: the right team, funding, a strategic plan, and product-market fit.
The most important thing is to pull together a dream team: our chair Brian Caulfield — a serial entrepreneur, investor and a respected advocate for Irish start-ups; public affairs specialist Conor Gouldsbury; along withDogpatch Labs founder Patrick Walsh.
We also needed financial support to get the idea off the ground. We were very lucky that Google came on board from the start, so too many leading Irish founders who wanted to give back and help the next generation of Irish entrepreneurs.
Together, we all brainstormed, and a phased development plan was put in place (my study of Social Movements as part of my policy degree finally came in handy!).
Gradually, Scale Ireland emerged to represent, promote and advocate on behalf of start-ups across the country.
Critically, key stakeholders in the sector came on board — founders, hubs, investors and more established tech companies right across the country got behind us. We also set up an interim Steering Group comprising some of Ireland’s most successful startup founders along with legal, business, financial, tax and academic experts who provided critical guidance and support — and still do.
Over the next year we built strong and important relationships with government and key agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.
Two years on, a lot has been achieved in a very short space of time.
Scale Ireland is now a credible voice for startups at a national and European level, taking a deliberative and policy/data focused approach, supported by the sector and our long-term strategic partners.
Through our national campaigns, we have focused attention on key issues and challenges facing start-ups:
- Supported the start-up sector during Covid-19, with one to one sessions with entrepreneurs around the country while also advocating at national level for specific supports and policy changes to help companies survive.
- Formed the Alliance for an Innovation Driven Recovery with key partners and organisations to ensure a sectoral approach is taken to support high-growth tech start-ups and ensure they play an important role in Ireland’s national economic recovery, post Covid.
- Commissioned and published research with our partners on the key issues and challenges facing the sector which provided data-driven insights and a greater understanding of how to address them (see analysis conducted in collaboration with TechIreland on state investment incentive schemes).
- Ensured key policies and issues for the sector featured in the Programme for Government (key commitments to the sector; General Election 2020) with our Open Letter supported by over 350 startup leaders.
- Secured commitment from government to review key tax issues (EIIS) for the sector in Budget 2021. While secured significant changes to policy and tax issues in Budget 2020.
- Hosted breakfast briefing with the chair of Endeavor Ireland The Edge (aka guitarist with U2!) and Stripe’s global policy team.
Scale Ireland has also become a credible and leading voice at European level:
- Membership of global organisation of representative start-up bodies, Allied for Startups. I was also elected to its Continental Council.
- Played a significant role during the Covid response in successfully advocating for changes to EU State Aid rules including the revision of the definition of “Undertaking in Difficulty”, along with our partners at Allied for Startups.
- Supported the Not Optional campaign spearheaded by Index Ventures
- Contributed to the development of the EU Startup Nations Standard led by the European Commission
- Participated in a Roundtable discussion at the European Parliament with John Collison, co-founder of Stripe, about the importance of share options schemes for scaling startups
Next steps…handing the baton on
From the outset, we were clear that this is a long-term initiative to improve the policy environment for start-ups, setting out our four key policy pillars.
As the founder of Scale Ireland, I will always be passionate and committed to our vision of ensuring entrepreneurs can thrive.
It is now on a secure footing, with many of its initial objectives achieved. Having reached this milestone, I have decided that it is now time to hand the baton on to a new CEO to lead the next phase of the organisation. I’m taking this opportunity to have a three month professional sabbatical, after which I will be exploring new and exciting opportunities from my new base in Cork City.
I am delighted to be handing over the reins to Martina Fitzgerald, whom I have worked with closely over the last few weeks. I wish her every success and I look forward to continue to serve on the Steering Group to ensure Scale Ireland achieves its key mission to make Ireland a world leading environment for start-ups.
In the months ahead, if you’d like to chat with me about having impact through economic & community development, startup ecosystem and more then drop me a line @LizMacKerry or firstname.lastname@example.org.