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TECH MONTH Martina Fitzgerald

03 Feb 2021

Gareth Fleming, Director of Brightwater’s IT division is in conversation with Martina Fitzgerald, CEO of Scale Ireland.


GF: As part of our Brightwater Tech Month, I am delighted and honoured to be joined here by Martina Fitzgerald today. Martina was recently appointed the CEO of Scale Ireland, the representative body for tech start ups and scale ups here in Ireland. Previously to this, Martina was a very successful journalist and political correspondent with RTE news and current affairs. Martina was a mainstay on our screens covering everything from general elections to referendums on marriage equality and the 8th Amendment. Martina has been a huge contributor to the discussion of workplace equality, the debate around gender pay and indeed is an author of the best selling and critically acclaimed book “Madam Politician”. Martina, I’m sure there are lots of other accolades I could list but I know you’re busy so let me start today by thanking you for your time.

MF: Thank you very much. It’s going to be very hard to follow up on that introduction.

GF: If we could start at the beginning and tell us about your role at Scale Ireland and what Scale Ireland does.  

MF: First of all, Scale Ireland was only established officially in 2019 by Liz McCarthy who was the previous founder and also by Brian Caulfield who is an investor and former founder and also Patrick Walsh who many people know from Dogpatch Labs. They came together to set up Scale Ireland and its main role is to represent, to support, to promote and also to advocate on behalf of indigenous start-ups and scale-ups around the country. It’s a really positive story because there are around 2,000 plus start-ups around Ireland employing 45,000 people. There’s a great regional enterprise spread in relation to those; Cork has 190 start ups located there. Our mission and my role leading Scale Ireland with the board is to promote those start-ups, to support those start-ups and also to advocate in terms of what’s needed to help them thrive and also make Ireland that leading location for innovation.

GF: What is a typical “innovation driven enterprise”? Having been a visitor down to Dogpatch Labs as a great example, there’s such a great energy down there and some amazing companies have come out of there. One term I love that Scale Ireland uses for the start-ups that you represent is “innovation driven enterprises” or IDE’s, what does that typically look like? 

MF: I suppose, in terms of start-ups and innovation driven enterprises, they’re quite different than your traditional SMEs. Some face mutual challenges and issues but they are also very specific in the kinds of challenges they face. This is a term that has evolved from MIT to distinguish them from normal traditional SMEs. It basically means that whether you’re in fintech, ICT, biotech or medical devices, what you have in common is that you’re innovation driven, that you’re trying to produce something that is innovative. Secondly, because of that, because you’re trying to be innovative at such early stages in your products or services, whatever they may be, that you’re investing more in the early stages. Traditionally, SMEs in terms of their growth have a linear approach in growth pattern whereas Innovation Driven Enterprises have dips, it’s J shaped because they’re investing so much in the early stages of their development. That’s why they have negative cash flow in the beginning so they have very specific problems because of the level of innovation and the investment they will need at an early stage.

 

GF: What effect has the pandemic had on funding tech start-ups?  If we look at this year, at the pandemic, has that had a massive effect on the funding that these companies can raise? I’m sure there have been success stories as well.

MF: Yes, there have been some phenomenal success stories which we are always highlighting on our social media and on our website. In terms of the key challenges and issues, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It has been liquidity, it has been cashflow and while there have been some very positive headlines in relation to the Irish Venture Capital Association and also Tech Ireland Research on the level of investment this year in 2020 overall, when you drill down into those figures, you see that investment below a million or below half a million, is down. So those early stage start-ups are suffering in terms of liquidity and investment. That’s because I suppose that there is some caution among investors in terms of those more riskier enterprises but have huge potential. That’s the other thing about Innovation Driven Enterprises, they have huge potential in terms of what they are offering and what they could offer. That has been the key issue and trend we’ve found. Overall investment is up but in terms of those early stages, investment is down because of caution with Covid and other factors of what’s happening now.

GF: I suppose a lot of the time you really only do hear about the success stories that come out of it but you do have all those other enterprises behind the scenes that are trying to raise cash and hopefully with the vaccine and everything else that’s happening, there’s a lot more confidence out there. I think that Ireland has always punched above its weight in terms of the investment that we can attract into the country. So hopefully with you at the helm, Martina, and with that really impressive (I’d urge everyone to visit the website), that impressive list of associates that Scale Ireland has, it really is a Who’s Who of the Irish tech landscape.

 

GF: In your role at Scale Ireland, you work closely with the government to help ensure that the high growth SMEs can achieve success. Based on your brief tenure so far, is enough being done by the government?

MF:  That’s right, I’m only in the door since early November (2020), past the on-boarding stage but still bedding in. In terms of government, they have been supportive but you can always point to areas where more needs to be done. During the budget, Pascal Donohoe announced a review of the Employment Investment & Incentive scheme and that’s key in terms of stimulating investment. That review will be taking place shortly. We are also part of the Alliance for an Innovation Driven Recovery and that’s really important because when we go to the government or key stakeholders like Enterprise Ireland or anyone else, that we go as a sector, that we all come together and say that this is important for us as a sector. Start-ups are dependent on investors. In that Alliance, we have HBAN (Halo Business Angel Network), we have the Irish Venture Capital Association, we have Tech Ireland, EuroNext, The Stock Exchange and we have all of us coming together and saying this is what needs to be done to improve the environment, to help the conditions, to help start-ups thrive in Ireland. So that’s a key point, the Employment Investment & Incentive Scheme, and also the Minister announced a new fund that will be set up in collaboration with the European Investment Bank. So it’s a start, and we have to see what happens and what the outcome of that review is but so far so good. Again we’re holding back until we see what happens. There is a huge momentum that we can get some breakthrough here given the difficulties that start-ups are facing.

GF: You know, it’s great to hear you say that because I think it’s the first time in a long time that there actually has been some joined up thinking around how we can get these IDEs to growth, how we can encourage this growth in the Irish market. I think it’s been tried before, it hasn’t worked effectively enough but it sounds like everyone is on the right path and on the right page.

GF: What do you think 2021 holds for Scale Ireland? Are there any initiatives that you want to push this year?

MF: There are but firstly I want to say on a personal level that I hope I get to meet all my team in person. Perhaps we could have done this interview in person. However, the pandemic has brought forward how all this impressive technology has enabled us to continue in our work, whether it’s 3G, 4G Zoom, and Google Meets, all of that technology that has been brought forward that has enabled workplaces to continue operating and innovative enterprise. I have met some of my team only 2 weeks ago. I am still waiting to meet most of my team but we’ve been spending lots of hours together virtually as I’m sure as you have with your office. So I hope that we’ll have some in-person meetings and work partnerships and that’s for sure in 2021. I’m sure a lot of people will feel the same in their workplaces no matter what sector they’re in.

In terms of Scale Ireland, I would like to see some progress on those key issues such as EWIS and also on the fund and whatever else can be done in terms of staff, education, supports and funding for those start-ups so that Ireland becomes a leading centre and a leader for innovative start-ups. You can see in other countries, that they’re investing quite a lot and they see the importance of indigenous start-ups coalescing with the big tech companies. I think that this is important, that the two eco systems coalesce together and they support each other. That has happened through our various partnerships but we will be developing a year- long policy agenda with events and supports for our start-ups, hopefully some in person, not just webinars. We will be expanding and we have ambitious plans to do that, even through our social media offerings and everything else. All is still to be revealed but we will be expanding and promoting the cause of start-ups and hoping that key policy areas will be tackled. There does seem to be a good reception at the moment and we welcome that. A lot of people would when you look at what the outcome could be in terms of good high-quality jobs here in Ireland, created by indigenous start-up and scale-up communities and that we have the next Collisons remain here in Ireland or great companies all around the country whether it’s TeamWork in Cork or elsewhere. I won’t mention everyone as if I start, I’ll never stop! We’ve a great hub network and they’ve been a great help in accelerating all these start-ups. Hopefully it will be a very positive year and we will get through Covid. Even if we don’t, that we put a structure in place to help these companies and we see their importance in the overall landscape of entrepreneurship.

GF: This is very exciting and you’re right. Out of the last financial crisis, some amazing companies were born out of that crisis. Ireland is a very innovative country to work in and I think the same of this year. Some companies have been born out of this pandemic but as you said, once the policies are right, once the infrastructure is there, we should see a huge growth in indigenous companies and indigenous talent working for those companies as well.

GF: What is Scale Ireland doing on Diversity & Inclusion? One of the things that you’re also well known for and very outspoken on (which is great) is the question of gender equality and the gender pay-gap in the workplace particularly across a modern Ireland. In a lot of sectors, none more so than ICT, we have a real lack of women in the workplace and again a big gender pay-gap in some areas. What does Scale Ireland do or are there any initiatives around D&I (Diversity & Inclusion)?

MF: I think it’s a very important area particularly in this sector and we have great female founders around the country, one of them just to name but a few: Clare McHugh is on our steering group from Axonista. We really want to develop that and it’s something I’m personally very interested in. I was looking back at reports and the latest figures on diversity in this sector and out of, (according to one of our associates that we’re closely aligned with, Tech Ireland which does a lot of research in this sector which many of your members and companies may be interested in looking up) one of the areas that it focused on was gender equality and also female founders. The number of companies led by female founders was 427 out of a total of 2, 617. Also, the report looked back at 2019 and it looked at it terms of funding, how much of it was attracting those led by female founders and it was €63 million out of €707 million. Those are the latest figures from Tech Ireland. We are working with Tech Ireland and have already had a really positive discussion with John O’Dea who has been a huge force in Tech Ireland in terms of commissioning more research on female founders for next year and International Women’s Day so we can put this in perspective. There is more work to be done but we certainly want to lead that and to promote it and to see where the gaps are and what we can do to help those female founders around the country. I really want to stress “around the country” as that’s important too.

GF:  Yes, it’s a big regional issue and there are some brilliant organisations. We have “Women in Data Science”, “Women in Technology” that do a huge amount and of course Tech Ireland as well. So it’s great again to have that female network and beginning to push that agenda. I know it’s an agenda that’s been ongoing for a while and there’s definitely some forward movement there.

GF: You’re also a member of a coupled of different initiatives outside of Scale Ireland that do a lot of work in Diversity & Inclusion.  How are those various initiatives contributing to attracting young girls into STEM? 

MF: Well, one of those start-ups that I became involved with through the advisory committee was Inclusio which is based in DCU, founded by Sandra Healy and it’s a great idea. It’s software and you would ask employees of any given company that signed up to this, that to input every day some of their data and an algorithm would turn that into metrics in terms of sense of belonging, cultural background, gender and all of those key issues. That can be demonstrated to shareholders, to customers, to staff because staff retention as you know is very important and also attracting staff. They want to be part of a positive culture within an organisation and you can relate that to gender or other areas. I was very keen to become involved in that and she’s such a positive person in relation to really leading and leadership in general. That’s one of the areas I’ve been involved in.

I’ve also been involved in the Running Start program in Washington which is run by another brilliant woman Susannah Wellford and that is to attract and promote women into political life so I haven’t left it completely behind. Every year, they run a high school programme and I’m delighted to say that in 2019, I was there in person in Georgetown University Washington when they got 60 young women from high schools across America to come and to help them, to teach them, train them and encourage them to enter or to consider a life in politics or a career in public life. It was really empowering. This year, through Zoom and through Google, we continued that conversation and they had even more women from more areas around America taking part. We simulated a political campaign on fund-raising, on direction, on videos and campaigns and all of the necessary tools that you need to start up a political campaign and I have to say that I always get more out of it than they do. It’s always great to see young women whom I’m still in contact with on social media and all different emails. Many of them congratulated me when I got this role. It’s so great to see them thinking that this could be me, I could be the next Nancy Pelosi or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or whoever it may be.

GF: That sounds like an amazing initiative and very empowering. Is anything like that happening in Ireland?

MF: Well of course we have “Women for Election” which is an excellent organisation set up to promote women running for office or taking part in politics. I’ve taken part in many of their talks, chairing some of them and that’s run by a great team who are very focused because the numbers here are also very low in terms of Dail representation and in cabinet. That’s what my book “Madam Politician” was about so that’s very close to my heart. And also the National Women’s Council of Ireland is very strong in this area and they’ve commissioned a number of reports on participation in local government and also in other areas in relation to this and the challenges women face on social media. That was one of the pieces of research I did when I was in Colombia University as part of a visiting fellowship this year. Many people are deterred by the kind of discourse and attacks they come under on social media. So there are lots of areas and that’s why I’m eager to look at female founders in the start-up eco system here in Ireland.

 

GF: If I could end with a question on Brexit, something that you covered many times throughout your RTE and journalistic career. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet. (This interview took place in December 2020) Do you think that this will have a huge effect on Scale Ireland and on your members?

MF: We’re cautious at the moment and holding back until we see what the final details are, as are many businesses because we simply don’t know. I think it will take time to delve into the details of the agreement and whatever is agreed. Like all businesses, there is caution because everyone wants certainty. We will, as we’ve seen with every agreement, we’ll have to look into the finer details and see how it affects this sector.

MF:  I am going to be bold now as you’ve invited me on. I’m in a new sector and as someone who’s in recruitment, I’ve transitioned, I’ve moved over into a new sector and I do want to say one thing to journalists who are looking at different careers, that many of the skillsets are transferable, whether it’s communications, stakeholder engagement, I would have dealt with different politicians, within different parties, different groupings within different parties, Ministers, Taoisigh over the course of my career. You’re just swapping those at a senior level with investors, founders and CEOs of various companies. All the skillsets that you get through journalism, they travel well in terms of social media, presentations, in terms of basic communication and then at a more sophisticated level. What I would say because I think many people looking at this would say, “there’s a journalist talking about enterprise”, some of our most successful former journalists are now in very successful careers. When you look at Mairead McGuiness now the Commissioner, she started off as a journalist, Emily O’Reilly who came from my old haunt, Leinster House and is now European Ombudsman, both of whom are doing superb jobs. I just wanted to say one thing because in terms of journalism, skills are transferable. Some people go the traditional route into communications after that but there are many different avenues and long careers afterwards and not to be afraid to take the jump. Because I have this time with you as a recruiter, I have to say it, that I hope people look kindly upon journalists because the skillsets on a senior level are brilliant.

GF: I could not agree more and it’s something that I think about often. Journalism is going through a tough time at the moment as well, particularly the newspapers and print media. You guys have to navigate so many different stakeholders and different people and really be a chameleon when it comes to communication with different types of people that of course, it’s transferable. I’d echo everything you said there, a lot of my colleagues in recruitment have come from different careers  where their people skills have helped them become really successful in this industry and I’ve no doubt that you’re going to be a very very successful CEO for Scale Ireland and for all of your member network, I think they’re very lucky to have you. Thank you for those words and I’m sure a lot of journalists now will be sending their CVs into Brightwater looking for a move.

MF: Well there is life after journalism. I think you hit upon a theme there which is the demands of journalism, what you don’t see behind the camera or behind all articles are the very long and demanding hours. Social media has added more demands onto your day which is very long. I’m very busy in the role I have, there’s lots to be doing and it’s very intensive. But in journalism, it’s a different kind of busy-ness and the hours can be long. If you’re preparing for an interview on Morning Ireland or any major interview with any major stakeholders, you would prep. You could be up at 5.30am if you’re going into studio and you could be finished at 11pm because you’re filing for the next day. They are long hours and I appreciate the work. It’s a different kind of busy-ness now and it’s an exciting role which I’m getting my teeth into with a great team but yes, I’ve left behind journalism but I’ve kept the skills.

GF: And you can see that! Martina, thank you so much for your time today. I really do appreciate it as does Brightwater. Hopefully we can check back in with you in a few months to see how you’ve settled in and to see how things have picked up in 2021 for Scale Ireland. We’ll hopefully talk to you soon.

MF : And the very best of continued success to you in Brightwater.