Ever heard the phrase, “[place] is the new Silicon Valley!”, then look around the room to look for the dismayed facial reactions as people inwardly say to themselves, “not again”. I’ve been there numerous times. I then fold up my little soapbox for the next time someone suggests such a notion.

San Francisco’s Few Hundred

Prior to the gold rush the population of San Francisco was just a few hundred people. The gold rush brought, because of one big event, population, job demand and vastly improved infrastructure.

It also brought shovels…. lots of them.John_Sutter_and_the_California_Gold_Rush

The catalyst for change was the lure of gold. Though that didn’t happen for many the resulting cascade of projects, land development and other things meant that the gold rush did indeed create wealth. Quality of life improves and everyone is happy. And while I’ve wheeled out the old “selling shovels” quote when it comes to startups it wasn’t entirely accurate in it’s origination.

So Where’s NI’s Catalyst for Startup Glory?

I’ve been racking my brains for a little while about when the last big exit happened, one that would have a wide reach. The acquisition of Wombat certainly is up there, the right product at the right time, acquired by NYSE. This possibly opened the door for what could happen to software in Northern Ireland. Possibly Cybersource, possibly First Derivatives…. there are others who’d fit the bill I’m sure.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) attracts the companies and creates job creation, and I’m all for that, what I’m looking for is a full on startup catalyst that shines a light on the province. One that the world cannot ignore. Thing is FDI costs us money and it generates that wonderful phrase “will contribute £x to the local economy”, usually in the form of tea and sandwiches I’m assuming. Shame there isn’t an app where I could order that on the phone.

It’s unlikely the FDI will ever run out but we have to ask the question about when the tax breaks dry up what the long term effects will be. Let’s not forget, NYSE sold technology on and will move out if they haven’t done already.

While we all gush over how Game of Thrones is doing wonders for the North Coast and beyond, our second thought should be the “what next?”, series don’t last forever so it makes solid sense to be slightly cynical and ask that very question. It shouldn’t be about legacy but the continual potential wins. Our over reliance for someone else to come in replaces the real need that NI needs a big gold rush idea that will act as a catalyst for infrastructure change.

Perhaps that answer lies in the lack lustre enthusiasm of NI and Ireland investors to put serious money in the series B, C, D etc rounds. Where are the $5m, $10m and $25m deals? The NI broad economy is gear to our closest neighbours down south or over to the mainland. And don’t tell it would never happen over here, because it could, you just need someone with amazing ambition and the confidence to just flick her or his hair at a brick wall and it just move out of the way.

Since Analytics Engines and Brewbot has any startup raised $1m+ investment recently? Great if someone did, I just don’t remember reading it.

Enlarged Infrastructure = Enlarged Income Stream

Right now infrastructure is kind of lacking. Kelvin promised untold riches (well everyone apart from Hibernia Atlantic promised jobs, huge broadband speeds and caviar) but the reality was far from what was promised.  How can NI be the BigData beacon it wants to be when you can’t realistically shift data in a timely manner. If I wanted to send 2 petabytes of storage to AWS Dublin I’d be better off jumping on a bus from Derry.

It’s not just an internet connection. Easier planning, better transport links (faster trains would be nice) would all make NI a better bet for incoming companies. What we still need is the next big catalyst that makes the business hot spots of the world wake up (including London) with a lure so good they’ll be tripping over themselves to get there.

Yeah it sounds unlikely but let’s not forget, it happened in San Francisco who had a fraction of the population but a really good set of entrepreneurial minds. It can be done.