Some of the world’s largest technology companies have been coming to Ireland for decades, investing tens of billions of euros and in the process creating perhaps the most dynamic and successful tech sector in Europe.
Ireland is now home to 16 of the 20 largest global tech companies, along with three of the largest enterprise software providers in the world in IBM, SAP and Oracle. The sector today encompasses the full range of tech activities, from hardware and software research and development to advanced manufacturing, cloud services and more besides.
Tech is built on rapid change. But when a tech company comes to Ireland, they tend to hang around. Global chip-making giant Intel, for example, has been in Ireland since 1989, while in July 2022 German-headquartered SAP celebrated the 25th anniversary of the start of its Irish operations. In all, around half of the tech companies in Ireland have been in the country for at least ten years and a third have been here for two decades or more.
These companies invariably grow and expand their local operations over time. When software company Zendesk established an office in the Irish capital in 2012 it did so with just two engineers. It then invested a further $10 million in an EMEA headquarters operation in 2018 and its Dublin office is now one of the company’s major software development hubs, employing around 500 people including some 150 engineers.
On an even bigger scale, Apple – which first established a local operation in Cork in 1980 – now employs around 6,000 people in Ireland. Intel is in the process of investing €17 billion in a new development to double the manufacturing capacity at its Leixlip campus near Dublin.
The Irish Incubator
How has a small country on the edge of Europe proven to be so adept at attracting and retaining the world’s most dynamic and successful tech companies? It has not happened by accident, but by design: a combination of strong government support, a deep pool of local talent and the ability to adapt all play an important part in the story.
One of the critical factors behind Ireland’s long-term success is the strength of its education system. The country has eight universities, five technological universities and two institutes of technology and between them they have given Ireland one of the strongest pipelines for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent in Europe. Since 2014, the number of STEM graduates in the country has increased by 30%, with an even split between male and female graduates.
“Talent remains a key differentiator for Ireland in winning foreign direct investment. The quality of our education system and the skills of our people are among the top-rated operational factors in Ireland,” says Mary Buckley, executive director of IDA Ireland, the country’s inward investment agency.
It is not just smart students which emerge from these institutions, though. Every year, dozens of technology spin-outs are formed from Irish universities, institutes of technology and other publicly-funded research bodies.
There are currently more than 140 active spin-outs that have been running for at least three years, which between them employ more than 1,200 people. Others have been picked up by multinationals, such as SilverCloud Health, which emerged from Trinity College Dublin, and which was bought by US telehealth company Amwell in July 2021 as part of a wider $320 million deal.
Such start-ups can lean on significant state support in their formative years. Government agency Enterprise Ireland has commercialisation specialists which help to nurture and develop the nascent companies, providing incubation facilities and other help.
Major technology companies often collaborate closely with universities and other institutions in a more direct way too. Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, works with several Irish colleges and universities, including the Technological University Dublin, Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, as part of its AWS Academy and AWS Educate programmes. The latter provides member institutes with no-cost access to learning content and AWS services designed to build knowledge and skills in cloud computing.
“We are seeing businesses engaging with the third-level and other state-funded research organisations,” said Imelda Lambkin, disruptive technology, innovation and knowledge transfer manager at Enterprise Ireland. “It’s heartening to see the level of investment these institutions are putting into cutting-edge research which are shaping the ideas of tomorrow.”
Strong Government Support
The technology sector also benefits from high levels of government support for skills programmes around the country. Talent is supported through a network of state-funded research and training centres, which help to develop cutting-edge skills in everything from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to blockchain, data analytics and semiconductor processing.
Ireland’s research organisations spent a record €672 million on projects in 2021, according to figures from Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI), the body that connects businesses to publicly funded research opportunities.
These publicly funded Irish research centres support and complement the R&D activities of companies. There are financial incentives for investors carrying out R&D in Ireland and industry clusters that support collaboration between corporations and researchers.
The country has also developed 65 apprenticeship programmes, including ones covering technology, life sciences and engineering – together they helped to support 24,000 apprentices in 2022 alone.
Clearly, the continued strong health of Ireland’s tech sector is underpinned by the way the country looks to constantly hone its approach to developing skills and talent in new and emerging areas. On a per capita basis, Ireland has more AI specialists than any other country in Europe and Irish industry is rapidly adopting AI in all areas of business.
The government has also been supportive, with initiatives such as the Digital Ireland Framework and the National AI Strategy which aim to boost the number of graduates with higher-level digital skills, connect all businesses to a gigabit network by 2028 and ensure that more businesses are using cloud, AI and big data technologies. In May, the government appointed Dr Patricia Scanlon as Ireland’s first AI ambassador, tasked with leading a national conversation on the role of AI in modern lives and how companies can use it in an ethical way.
The Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) has also recently been selected by the European Union to host a next-generation supercomputer, which will be 25 times more powerful than the current national supercomputer. Based at National University of Ireland Galway, the CASPIr supercomputer is one of five next-generation models being deployed across the EU, with others in Greece, Hungary, Poland and Germany. These supercomputers will be available to serve a wide range of users in science, industrial and public sectors.
Collaboration and Cooperation
The network effect that comes from having so many tech companies and research institutes close to each other is also important – drawing in other fast-developing sectors of the Irish economy, such as the life sciences and medical technology.
“One of the big trends that we are seeing in industry is there is a lot of focus around taking advantage of new disruptive digital technologies in the manufacturing space,” says Rachel Shelly, MedTech division manager of IDA Ireland. “And we’re also starting to see a lot more opportunities for convergence between technology and life science companies. 3M, for example, has a technology business in Ireland to support its health business across cloud and networking and AI.”
Such collaboration is something the authorities in Ireland are keen to see more of. In September 2022, a new scheme was launched by IDA Ireland’s Disruptive Technologies Partnering Portal (DTTP) and the Innovation Exchange run by Skillnet Ireland, the national business support agency. Their aim is to support multinationals and local companies to work more closely together using disruptive technology to drive competitiveness and growth.
There is now a critical mass of talent and expertise in sites across the island, such as the Silicon Docks area of Dublin, the Cyber Ireland cluster in Cork and the Fintech Corridor which straddles the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such hubs of activity enable companies to share best practice and innovate. Industry executives also point to Ireland’s ease of access for doing business – not least with the rest of Europe – along with flexible labour laws and a business-friendly, cost-effective environment.
That landscape is helping to attract more companies to Ireland all the time. Among the recent arrivals has been software company FileCloud, which in July said it was setting up its EMEA headquarters and R&D centre in Limerick and e-commerce fulfilment specialist Shippo which said in March that it was opening a European R&D Centre in Dublin. In May, Finnish data integration company Supermetrics announced the creation of up to 100 jobs over two years and an investment in a dedicated Dublin office. While no-one can know where the next tech giant will emerge from, it is likely to have had a base in Ireland long before becoming a household name.
Ireland's Research Centers
There are dozens of state-funded research centers at sites around Ireland, from Waterford to Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Donegal, all points of the compass are covered. They are often linked to universities and other higher education institutions, focusing on a range of sectors: from digital technology to life sciences, energy, manufacturing and materials.