Can you engineer a technology cluster? The Irish experience

So I recently wrote about the idea of having a purpose-built/created technology cluster or building(s) in London which I whimsically called “TechHub”. (As London is a big city the tech scene has always been incredibly spread out, with no definable cluster). The post was inspired by my visit to the Digital Hub in Dublin, a series of old Guinness warehouses turned over to the task of stimulating Ireland’s startup/technology ecology. The post attracted possibly the most comments we have ever had on this blog (63 at the last count), some supportive of the idea, some sceptical that there is any point in trying to “engineer” a cluster. It also inspired this detailed and thoughtful post about actually running a centre like this from Channel 4’s Matt Locke. Literally at the same time – unknown to me – the Silicon Roundabout meme about the startups near London’s Old Street was breaking on the FT and The Evening Standard. Talk about timing.

But what’s it like to be part of a so-called technology “Hub”? I decided to ask one of the occupant’s of Dublin’s Digital Hub what their experience has been of the initiative and whether they thought it worked.

Joe Drumgoole (pictured) is CEO of PutPlace which we’ve covered before. Here’s what he told me:

The Digital Hub has been a fantastic resource for the Irish tech sector and since its inception several years ago it has seen several “graduates” include Havok and Zamano. Its a good mix of FDI (foreign direct investment companies) such as Amazon and Moli and indigenous companies such as PayByMobile, PutPlace, Sentry Wireless and school space (among a host of others).

When we joined a year and a half ago I thought the cluster effect was oversold. But these days I find it hard to go to coffee without crossing paths with somebody relevant. The key value propositions that make the hub work in Dublin are:

• Enterprise Ireland sets a reasonably high bar on entrants to the space

• The fees are flat rate per desk, with options for single desk shared spaces at a reduced rate. Rates go up each year (55, 65 and 75 euros per desk for year 1 to 3) and after year 3 you’re supposed to move out, but they don’t run a hard clock on that. The flat rate includes, reception services, heat, light, electricity, furniture, telephone handsets, onsite facilities management and a shared broadband connection (which we used quite happily for the first 12 months).

• Extra services include, a machine room for hosting and higher bandwidth connections. Smaller rooms can be booked for meetings for free, larger rooms are billed at 16 euros an hour. Large rooms have projection facilities. There are also small open door break out areas at the end of each bay.

So that’s what’s good. What could be better?

Well they demand you get your own indemnity insurance which is something that it would make more sense to bake into the per desk price. They’d get a better price than each individual company having to negotiate that themselves.

They ask for safety statement but don’t provide a template. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve sent my statement to and I in turn got mine from somebody else. They should just write a template and get the companies to sign it, job done.

There are two excellent cafes in each of the main Hub buildings but more “hang out spaces” that don’t oblige you to buy coffee would be good to encourage more networking.

If some more thought went into creating the hub as a “social object” I think it would encourage earlier and more effective cluster effects. Currently the hub is split into many different buildings spread over the liberties area of Dublin. It’s very hard to create links between companies in different buildings.