It’s been just over three months since Enterprise Ireland announced it was aiming to diversify its clients’ market portfolio to 50 per cent outside Britain, and a year and a half since our neighbours voted to leave the EU. There is a year to go until Britain’s divorce from the EU is finalised. Needless to say, it’s crunch time for Brexit planning.
Last week, the state agency released its 2017 end-of-year results. The numbers were positive: some 10,309 net jobs created by the state agency’s supported companies, two-thirds of client employment outside of Dublin, and 232 client investments securing investments up to €500,000.
Fifty-six Irish companies are exporting outside of Britain for the first time and, last year, 1,391 new overseas contracts were secured.
Despite this, Julie Sinnamon, chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, told The Sunday Business Post that now was not the time to become complacent.
Leanna Byrne (LB): What led to the boost in employment and start-ups outside Dublin last year?
Julie Sinnamon (JS): Something we have been putting an increased focus on over the last number of years is the regional agenda. We have the regional action plans and we have the regional enterprise development fund, and we have been identifying the companies in the west – particularly Brexit-exposed companies – to proactively work with them to give them as much support as they need.
With Dublin, we are seeing a higher level of interest from companies looking at some of those regional locations in terms of expansion into them.
We’ve also been supporting the accelerators. Traditionally, we’ve had accelerators working with start-ups in Dublin and we went out last year looking to get applications in from accelerators to support start-ups in the region. Dublin was well served in this regard, so it was putting regional accelerators into play. That’s something we expect to have an impact going forward in terms of working with the companies.
On the start-up side, 55 per cent of the start-ups we supported last year were outside Dublin. We’ve been doing a lot of work with New Frontiers programmes and working with the institutes of technology, with a specific focus on trying to target start-ups from third-level.
LB: Are there any regions in Ireland that Enterprise Ireland wants to target next year to grow?
JS: Next year, we’re working with phase one of the regional enterprise development fund. We supported 21 projects and those are spread throughout every region in Ireland, with the second phase of that which we will launch in March. We have specifically set out [with that aim] again, [exhibiting] a bias towards the regions.
We’ve said that we want a minimum of €2 million of that fund to go into every region. As long as projects are above the minimum level: we’ve set the bar of 60 per cent as the score you need to get.
As long as you get that, projects of up to €2 million will be supported in every region first. In other words, a project in a region could get funding with a lower score than a project in Dublin. [By] putting a bias into that regional development fund, we make sure we’re putting sufficient investment funding into the regions.
LB: What countries will Enterprise Ireland be targeting next year as part of its Brexit diversification strategy?
JS: We will finalise our trade mission schedule by the beginning of February, but we project to continue that trend of a 33 per cent increase in our trade missions. The eurozone is a specific focus, and we will be stepping up the focus there.
The US and Canada would be the highest growth markets for us in the last two years. We had a trade mission last year to Australia with the president and a lot of young companies went on that.
Of course, Britain will not disappear. Some 35 per cent of our exports go into it. We are going to consolidate our position in Britain, so we see a bigger focus going up into other parts of northern England and Scottish markets. We think we have more potential for Irish companies to export into that area.
LB: What targets have you set for encouraging female-led start-ups?
JS: An area close to my heart is female entrepreneurship. I’m delighted that 28 per cent of our high potential start-ups came from women last year. In 2011, when we started on this journey in a serious way, it was 7 per cent. I don’t think anyone expected it to be at 28 per cent at this stage. What that does is create more role models for further female budding entrepreneurs [looking] for a real career option down the same road.
We had a target last year of 15 per cent of our high-potential start-ups, and we’ve well exceeded that. We’ll finalise those targets in February. We haven’t set [them] as yet.
We have our eye on a 50 per cent target, but I don’t know how long that will take. It’s all about keeping the momentum going and making sure it continues.
LB: What needs to get done before Brexit in 2019?
JS: As Brexit negotiations get under way this year, the volatility in exchange rates and the uncertainty will continue. Companies need to look at the risks for their business, and they need to plan accordingly.
We will be stepping up the focus on all of the regions in Ireland in terms of working with companies and sustaining existing jobs.
Also, not enough Irish companies are investing in innovation. We have seen the results for the companies that do it. A big disappointment for me is that companies are not investing sufficient money. There’s a 67 per cent higher level of exports from the companies that have been supported by Enterprise Ireland with innovation than for the rest of the companies. We just believe we need to get more companies investing.
19,332: Number of jobs created by Enterprise Ireland client companies in 2017
10,309: Net new jobs created
209,338: Total number of people currently employed by EI client companies
90: High potential start-up (HPSU) funding approvals
91: Competitive start fund approvals
63: Female-led start-ups