That was the proclamation of Frank Ryan, the former CEO of Enterprise Ireland, in 2011. While there are some who may question the State taking such a large role in startup investments, it is hard to argue with the results. Enterprise Ireland-backed companies exported over €17bn of goods and services in 2013 and the organisation announced record employment figures during the week, revealing that it supported the creation of almost 8,500 jobs in 2014 alone, more than double the 3,804 created in 2012.
The organisation is now being headed up by Julie Sinnamon, who plans to take it in a new direction by helping Enterprise Ireland-backed companies to significantly increase in scale, aiming to get more firms over the €100m line for revenue with a view to eventually taking them to an initial public offering.
“The sort of figure that I think we need to get more companies to is €100m in terms of revenue,” she said. “To me, the challenge is to get some companies of scale and some IPOs,” she said. It [an IPO] isn’t for everyone [but] you’ll very often hear of people talking about the Irish Google or Facebook, and I think it would be fantastic to have some household names in the tech sector stay in Ireland and go public.”
Business is ingrained in Ms Sinnamon. “I always wanted to work in business,” she says. “When we were literally 12 years old, we were all involved in the family business. My father had a petrol station . . . so me and my siblings all took our turn and worked in that. That was before the days of self-serve petrol and I was down on the rota to serve petrol with everyone else.”
Ms Sinnamon was brought up in a crowded house in Co Down, reared in a large family with 13 siblings. With all six of her older sisters qualifying as teachers, many may have expected Ms Sinnamon to head down the same route, but instead she decided to strike out on her own and study business in Ulster University.
After graduating, she spent a 10-year stint at the IDA before working her way up through Enterprise Ireland to become executive director for global business development before being appointed as the new CEO on 4 November, 2013, making her the first woman to lead the organisation.
Running the agency is a massive responsibility. Enterprise Ireland is one of the biggest quangos in the country, receiving state funding of €279m in 2013 with over 700 employees and revenues of just under €300m for the year.
Although Ms Sinnamon is undaunted by the challenge of the job itself, she does admit that it can be tough to get the work-life balance right. Up at 6am almost every day, she typically puts in a 12-hour shift before clocking out and then often finds herself at dinners or networking events in the evenings.
Despite the demanding routine, she still has to try and make time for her family – she has a husband and two children.
Her 28-year-old daughter has long since left the nest, aiming to make it as a jazz musician, with her mother saying: “That’s her passion, she does some teaching as well but singing is her real passion in life, she certainly doesn’t get it from her mother though!”
Her 18-year-old son, on the other hand, is in his final year of secondary school and is currently knuckling down to study for the dreaded Leaving Cert.
“He’s getting on fine, but you need to do the homework and the normal family activities as well, because that doesn’t go away,” she said.
Now just over a year into her new role as CEO, despite record jobs and exports figures figures and her demanding workload and family life, Ms Sinnamon is still keen for the organisation to improve.
“Jobs are still a key issue despite the good results and unemployment levels are still unacceptably high,” she said.
One of the major barriers standing in the way of her plans to scale up companies is the temptation of cashing in. Many firms spend years pouring blood, sweat and tears into startups only to sell out the first time that a cheque is waved in front of their face.
Ms Sinnamon admits that this is still a significant problem, saying: “Very often a lot of companies sell out early and don’t really get the value and the company is transferred to where the buyer is,” she said, adding “Ireland has taken the risk in seeding these companies. I would be encouraging people to try and hang in there.”
She cites the Government’s planned €125m development capital fund, to which Enterprise Ireland has made a €25m commitment, as an example of how the agency will help companies develop. “It’s about providing funding for the growth phase of companies,” she said. “The scaling agenda is something that we’re looking to do a lot more of.”
Another €125m sum that is less rosy for Enterprise Ireland is the €125m that the organisation wrote off on failed investments between 1999 and 2012. Add another €10.7m on top of that for 2013, and that’s a large chunk of change that has disappeared into a corporate black hole.
Ms Sinnamon also defended Enterprise Ireland’s record for write offs, saying that there often is not enough focus put on the agency’s successes and argued that: “There will always be write offs [and] we will always have failures. We would prefer that there were less write offs, but overall Enterprise Ireland equity investment is making a positive return on investment”.
The most recent figures available show that a €61m profit was made on all of the agency’s equity investments between 2003 and 2013.
In a sign of a departure from the thinking of her predecessor, Ms Sinnamon says that the state agency is looking to create an environment that will make it attractive for VC funds to invest in Irish business rather than doing all of the investing itself. “EI has put funding in to attract venture capital funds into Ireland, we don’t need to necessarily invest directly, but what we can do is make sure that the ecosystem is there to support those companies,” she said.
Enterprise Ireland provided grant supports worth €72m and made equity investments of €32m in 2013 and invested in over 1,000 “high potential” startups last year. This requires matched funding, meaning entrepreneurs need to seek funding from the private sector after getting approval from the state agency. Although this has been the subject of criticism in the past, as candidates have to go through the process of looking for funds from more than one source, Ms Sinnamon says that often approval from EI allows individuals to leverage funds from potential investors.
“I feel that it’s important that the State doesn’t take all the risk, we don’t want to end up with a lot of state-owned companies,” she said.
Clearly, while Ms Sinnamon has big plans to grow both jobs and exports supported by the agency, consolidating a reputation as a major player in the venture capital field is somewhat lower down the pecking order on her list of priorities.