All grown up at 20

Ireland’s premier tech awards, the Deloitte Fast 50, are 20 years old — and the end of adolescence marks the sector’s real importance to the economy, writes Jason Walsh

3rd November, 2019
Richard Howard, partner at Deloitte

From a dot on the horizon to the dot-com boom, and from boom to bust and back again, the Deloitte Fast 50 has tracked the waxing and waning fortunes of the Irish technology sector since 1999.

Richard Howard, partner at Deloitte, can date the explosion in Irish tech. “If you go back 20 years, we had telecoms deregulation in Ireland, so you had companies like Esat Digifone,” he said.

Esat didn’t just represent the appearance of competition in the Irish telecoms sector, it meant there was a non-incumbent player out there who didn’t do everything in-house. It also acted as an incubator in more direct ways.

“You had companies coming out of it, often founded by people who had worked for it, providing software in the mobile area,” Howard said.

Charting a course in choppy waters

Deloitte brought the Fast 50 awards to Ireland just a few years after the company was launched onto the global stage, thus recognising the importance of the technology sector in the Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1990s — the early days of a better nation.

It wasn’t all to be plain sailing, of course, for Ireland or for the information and communications technology sector.

“There was already a significant tech sector back then, and it was just before the dot-com boom — which was followed by a bust, of course,” said Howard, lead partner for the firm’s technology, media and telecommunications, as well as energy groups.

The awards, based on a purely quantitative measurement, do more than just promote Irish tech firms. In a sense, they track the importance of the sector to the Irish economy and the growth of the players in it as they move from start-up to, hopefully, global player.

“There are some that span the full-time frame. First Derivatives, for example, has been there for 18 of the 20 years,” said Howard.

Typically, though, the nature of the companies has changed as technology and society have evolved. There is little sign today, for instance, of web development companies.

“We did have indigenous companies providing web development services, but they tended to drop away as the market changed,” said Howard.

Trends come and go, but innovation marches ever forward, seemingly.

“What was web development in 2001 is now maybe data analytics companies, and the question now is: is that going to be in-house [like web development] or baked into the process?”

So, will the data companies appearing, and succeeding, today be around two decades hence? Or will they be bought out and absorbed in-house? It’s an open question, but in the meantime the Deloitte Fast 50 will continue to crunch the numbers and see where the Irish tech sector is really growing.

Howard said Ireland today is represented by tech businesses focusing on the business-to-business market, business-to-consumer and also infrastructure. In short, it runs the gamut.

“We do have a successful business-to-consumer sector but perhaps people don’t always see it because it’s not like Amazon; typically, it’s commissionaire type things. Hostelword, for example” he said.

Over the two decades, though, the trend has typically been for software and services —and they come in a continuous stream, said Howard.

“What you find every year is new companies appearing: ones who were operating under the radar. The one area where we [as a nation] probably haven’t had a lot of success is hardware because that needs a lot of cap-ex and other things to start up,” he said.

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