Cork, a monastic settlement founded in the sixth century and now Ireland’s third largest city, is nothing like Austin, Texas, home to South by Southwest Interactive, a hip annual conference focused on emerging technology.
But at the end of October this southwest Irish city will be drawing the same kind of crowd. CEOs of U.S. and European technology companies, foreign venture capitalists, including Greycroft Partners and Mangrove Capital Partners, lawyers with tech sector expertise, executives from large tech firms and a team of experienced mentors from technology accelerator TechStars, are all heading to Cork to board The Start-Up Express, a train hired to mix this group with local tech entrepreneurs while traveling together to Web Summit, a Dublin event which this year is expected to attract some 10,000 participants from around the globe.
The goal is for Cork’s entrepreneurs to use their time on the train to get the next stage of their businesses mapped out before heading off for two days of networking and rubbing shoulders with potential investors at Web Summit. “We have three hours to educate the start-ups and help them with a roadmap for VC funding, a road map for all the legal documents, and a road map for their business plans,” says Pat Phelan, one of three veteran Cork tech entrepreneurs financing the train.
The privately-chartered train, operated by Irish Rail, will have three cars: a speakers’ carriage will feature presentations from top entrepreneurs and business thinkers; a hardware carriage will feature gadgets for passengers to try out; and the third car will be used for speed mentoring sessions. To ensure maximum productivity, the organizers are limiting the number of start-ups in the workshop to 12 teams of three people to allow space at each table for mentors from accelerator TechStars to rotate. Microsoft is planning to film what happens on the train ride and hand out free hoodies to everyone aboard.
The non-stop train will leave from Kent Station, Cork, traveling directly to the RDS Dublin, the Web Summit venue. The train tracks are being specially switched to run on the DART subway line once it reaches the capital city for this one occasion — an unprecedented move by Irish Rail — so the entire crowd can be delivered directly to the door of Web Summit, says Phelan.
Phelan, a scheduled speaker at Web Summit, recently launched his fourth start-up, Trustev, which specializes in real-time online identity verification using unique social fingerprinting technology. The other backers are Liam Casey, CEO of PCH International, which designs, manufactures and distributes components in China for Apple and other well-known producers of smartphones, tablets, eReaders and other devices, and Dan Kiely, co-owner of Cork-based Voxpro, a multilingual business process outsourcing company that delivers technical support to 300 companies, including Google.
“I want VCs to look at Cork’s companies,” says Phelan. “And I want the local start-ups to learn how to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made.” Phelan is paying for the legal teams used by the companies he has launched to come along on the train as well.
While Cork may not be on most venture capitalists’ radars it is in fact home to some successful start-ups, like PCH, and a growing number of tech entrepreneurs. Phelan has launched all four of his companies from Cork. His current venture was named Microsoft Ireland’s Start-Up Partner of the Year. And, in June Trustev won the top Tech All Stars Award, an EU-wide search to find Europe’s best young start-up company. Phelan was personally congratulated by European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes. The Tech All Stars contest is organized by the European Commission in partnership with Liberty Global Ventures and Amazon Web Services as part of Startup Europe, an EU program to encourage tech start-ups to start and stay in Europe.
The success of entrepreneurs like Phelan is encouraging other locals to try their hand at building tech companies. When Phelan, in collaboration with Web Summit, organized a Pub Summit to announce the Start-Up Express on September 4th, more than 300 entrepreneurs showed up.
It’s essential for the successful growth of the Cork tech industry that as many start-ups as possible have the opportunity to be part of Web Summit, says Don Cahalane, Trustev’s chief marketing officer, who is credited with coming up with the idea of the Start-Up Express. Entrepreneurs will benefit from the pollination that happens when 10,000 of the world’s tech elite gather in one building for two days, Cahalane says. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll build a brilliant business plan and secure some funding en route.