Future perspectives: Sean O’Sullivan

seanosullivanIreland must be open to technically skilled foreign nationals in order to be at the forefront of the global technology race, venture capitalist Sean O’Sullivan tells Meadhbh Monahan.

Ireland has a great reputation for technology leadership but its population is too small to fill all of the jobs available, according to Sean O’Sullivan, Managing Director of Avego.

“Ireland has a reputation for making it easy to start companies,” O’Sullivan notes. However, he points out that “we only have 4.5 million people in the Republic and yet we are trying to export technology that will be used by seven billion people in the world.”

Remarking on his experience of investing and doing business across the globe, the entrepreneur, whose company NetCentric trademarked the term ‘cloud computing’ in 1997, tells eolas: “Irish technology companies have a global perspective from day one because of the fact that there is no significant internal market: everyone’s focused on being open to the rest of the world and exporting our products.”

Like other island economies or technology hubs such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, Ireland has developed a reputation of technology leadership, which has “driven the economy for a very long time.” It is imperative that it does all that it can to retain that status, O’Sullivan believes.

Ireland’s information and communication sector employed 74,900 people in June 2011, an increase of 3,600 employees since 2007. Computer services accounted for 40.5 per cent (€32 billion) of the State’s balance of payments for all business services (€79 billion) in 2011. Ireland’s ICT sector, therefore, is increasingly seen as important to the recovering the country’s economy and its reputation as a destination for foreign investors.

Open Ireland

More high-tech workers are needed for programming and design engineering, he explains. O’Sullivan believes that “by using work visas, we could attract people from all over the world to fill these positions.” It could take up to eight years and cost too much to train unemployed Irish people in these fields, whereas foreign workers could fill the positions and create spill-off jobs in the community be going to restaurants, renting homes etc.

The Open Ireland movement was formed following a speech he gave to a Digital Ireland forum in March 2012. O’Sullivan and other Open Ireland supporters are calling for Ireland to become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Europe. O’Sullivan believes that Ireland should double its population in the next 20 years by taking in 75,000 skilled immigrants a year and it should become China’s gateway to Europe.

Ireland could become a ‘gateway’ by giving automatic work visas to graduates of any of the world’s top 250 technological universities, or those selected and sponsored by Irish technology companies. The Government could allow 90-day visit visas (so that potential investors could establish a start-up company), or allow any graduate of an Irish university technology programme to stay in Ireland after graduation if they are able to find work in the technology sector.

The movement is gaining momentum, with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny indicating that he would like to meet with Open Ireland representatives to discuss their ideas.

“Ireland can build on the strengths that it has developed to lead our country out of the desperate economic straits induced by the banking crisis,” the Irish-American tells eolas.

He predicts that approximately 100,000 jobs could be generated through this plan. PwC conducted a study for Open Ireland which stated that for every 5,000 jobs created, €375 million could be generated for the exchequer.

“It’s really a question of getting the Civil Service fully engaged and thinking outside the box and being pro-active in terms of recognising how critical this would be in rescuing our economy in a very short period of time.”

Future trends

Cloud computing and the use of social media and collaborative consumption are set to have the biggest impact on organisations going forward, O’Sullivan predicts.

Particularly relevant in the midst of an economic downturn, collaborative consumption is a business or an app which uses a social media community to encourage the sharing, renting or swapping of services. Avego (with headquarters in Cork and offices in the United States and China) used this model and created a real-time ride-sharing app aimed at alleviating the global shortage of oil and increased traffic congestion. It also provides software, hardware and professional services aimed at improving the efficiency of passenger transportation.

When asked if it is possible to predict how cloud computing will evolve, O’Sullivan responds: “Yes. Basically cloud computing is eating all the other industries, from the traditional advertising, media, TV. All the industries are being roiled by this disruptive innovation.”
This is “a good thing,” he adds. Cloud computing is not a “threat” as long as organisations innovate to become leaders in the technology sector.

The world is changing and it’s important that organisations keep up. “There’s a tremendous amount of new computing technology that’s now in the hands of every mobile phone user. That increases the capability that hadn’t been seen heretofore in the history of mankind.”
From Boston, but living with his wife and two children in Kinsale, O’Sullivan is also the General Manager of SOS Ventures, a company responsible for many start-ups such as MapInfo, which pioneered mapping for the internet. Last November, he replaced Sean Gallagher as a ‘dragon’ on RTÉ’s ‘Dragons’ Den’.

He is particularly impressed with emerging technologies such as Leap Motion, a small iPod-sized USB peripheral that allows users to interact with and control software on laptops, desktop computers and TVs through hand gestures. The Leap senses your individual hand and finger movements independently, as well as items like a pen. “It’s an extraordinarily cool device,” O’Sullivan comments.

A mind device called Axio will be available soon. Using EEG and binaural feedback, it is attached to the head and optimises the speed of thinking and an individual’s focus. “It gives you a subtle difference in tones that helps you adapt your mental energy so you know always to bring it back into focus” e.g. ensuring truck drivers staying alert on the road.

“It’s pretty wild stuff. There’s lots of exciting things going on.”

While these technologies have been present in laboratories and have traditionally been very expensive, O’Sullivan notes: “This is how it hits the road, in these devices that are inexpensive and improve the efficiency in our everyday lives.”

He urges other technology companies to follow his lead by “leveraging the power of social networks, collaborative consumption and these incredibly cheap internet connected devices to re-invent the world.”

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