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How one small group of people is building Ireland's most high-tech town

Skibbereen in west Cork is about to be put firmly on the business map.

Skibbereen, Cork
Skibbereen, Cork

NEXT MONTH, AS the Web Summit circus rolls through the nation’s capital, thousands of the country’s leading technology minds will also descend on one town in west Cork.

The population of Skibbereen will swell to more than double as up to 4,000 people arrive for the National Digital Week, an event that will be capped with the unveiling of the first stage in an ambitious rejuvenation project only 10 months in the making.

“If you look at a place like Skibbereen, it’s much like other places in rural or maritime Ireland – through the credit crisis these places have had an amplification of the impact felt in other parts of the country,” Leonard Donnelly, a member of the nine-strong steering group behind the Ludgate@Skibbereen plan, told TheJournal.ie.

One of the best ways of measuring that is that in Skibbereen, which is as a merchant town, about 50% of the property – without building anything new – is under-utilised.”

The finishing touches are still being put on that first stage, the soon-to-be opened Ludgate Hub. Named after a long-dead computing pioneer, the building will eventually house 75 workers in a 10,000 sq ft converted bakery donated by local businessman John Field, who owns the town’s supermarket.

Ludgate The building in August Source: Emma Jervis Photography

It will be the first in three refurbished buildings, all of which will be hooked in to high-speed fibre broadband lines, scheduled to be ready for occupation within three years.

Ultimately, Donnelly and fellow members of the steering group, which includes heavy-hitters like Glen Dimplex head Sean O’Driscoll and Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary, have the goal of bringing 500 high-quality jobs by 2020 to what will be the country’s first rural digital hub.

Ludgate hub launch__3 Anne O'Leary and Sean O'Driscoll, right, at the Ludgate Hub's announcement in August Source: Emma Jervis

Personal reasons

The motivation for many of those involved in the Ludgate group, all of whom have a strong connection to the area, is personal: a desire to create a close-to-home network of opportunity for current and future generations.

As Field told RTÉ after the hub announcement in August: “I have watched, over the last 50 years, young people leaving west Cork year after year. This is our way of getting these young people back and keeping them in Skibbereen, where they want to stay.”

Since the nine first met in January, all their work has been done for free. Many have reached into their own pockets to fund the not-for-profit company, which has been run without any state financial aid.

Field Source: Ludgate Skibbereen

With three sons aged from 17 to 23, Donnelly also has an excellent reason to ensure there are opportunities for ambitious locals in the town for the future.

Places like Skibbereen have had this permanent disadvantage, which is part of the reason why we decided to do Ludgate … even if the economy is recovering there still is a really enormous number of young people who have gone abroad,” he said.

The impact of what he described as the “very ambitious” but achievable goal of all those tech-focussed jobs would be enormous in both the town and surrounding district.

Credible interest

Wicklow native Donnelly moved to west Cork with his family in the early 2000s and has a 25-year history as a tech investor and executive.

Donnelly1 Leonard Donnelly

He also spent four years as chair of Dublin’s Digital Hub Development Agency, which houses both Irish startups and the local arms of growing international outfits under the same roof.

Since the sod turning in August, there had been 50 “credible” inquiries about locating in the initial hub, he said.

Interest had come via everyone from a Singapore-based expat with a thriving company who wanted to raise a family in the town to a large firm from southern Europe considering relocating one of its teams.

image1 A concept drawing of the finished plan

 “What we’re hoping is that each Ludgate building that we fill will be very diverse – it’s not going to be snobby, it’s not going to be exclusively for one type of tech company,” Donnelly said.

Just because you’re in agriculture and someone else is working on a digital payments system, those things don’t have to be anathema to each other.”

The first signed tenants are due to be announced at next month’s conference, which features speakers like Google Ireland head Ronan Harris.

And there appears little danger the project will fall flat and become a digital white-elephant, like Shannon Development’s unloved concept for four “e-towns” across the west, if its backers’ confidence is anything to go by.

Instag1 Source: cloud_thirteen

“Risk does exist in what we’re doing, but if you look at the steering group – if you look at the skill across the board – our ambition is quite measured,” Donnelly said.

The realm of risk, compared to some of the other things we do in our lives, is relatively modest, we think.”

While by Donnelly’s own admission only perhaps one in five tech businesses wouldn’t see developing in a place like Skibbereen as an obstacle when they had the option of setting up in a major city, that was easily enough to build a great technology ecosystem in the town.

geograph-3547587-by-Jonathan-Billinger Source: Jonathan Billinger

The advantage for those willing to take the rural path were the low costs and attractive lifestyle that went with the remote location. In Spearline Labs, a Skibbereen-based telecoms company co-founded by steering group member Kevin Buckley, the town already had one example of what was possible in the town.

But one of the most powerful arguments, Donnelly believed, to setting up outside the traditional job centres was the benefit it provided for holding onto talented workers. That factor has already led to an increasing number of companies in the cut-throat US tech scene setting up in unconventional spots.

If I was looking at this, I would find that the internet connectivity levels the playing field and there is the low cost of buildings … but my biggest win would be having a stable workforce,” he said.

Instag2 Source: beccariezebos

History repeating

Should the project prove a success as hoped, the question remained if others Irish towns could repeat the formula on the back of a rural broadband rollout that was finally gathering pace after years of glacial progress.

Skibbereen is being supplied with 1Gb fibre-to-the-building internet as part of the ESB-Vodafone SIRO joint venture being rolled out to 50 rural towns.

“Everybody can do this, I’m absolutely convinced of that,” Donnelly said.

He said the group was “inundated” with enquiries from people in other towns when news of the project started to spread in August and the November conference would include a session sharing what they had learned so far.

One thing he took away from his Digital Hub experience was that governments could only go so far: at a certain point, it was a community that had to take the initiative.

The best thing that places like Skibbereen which have been through the credit crisis in the worst possible way can do is to accept empowerment. Every place just needs to put together the best possible team that they can… and take a long-term view, don’t set ridiculous goals from the outset.”

This month, as part of TheJournal.ie’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at innovation in rural Ireland.

To view previous stories from our collection click here.

READ: Revealed: The emails that show why the Web Summit left Dublin >

READ: This 5-year-old company started in a Dublin college has been sold for $68 million >

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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