30 Years of Building, Scaling and Investing – an Interview with CorkBIC CEO Michael O’Connor

A lot has changed for entrepreneurs and angel investors since 1988 and EBAN Member CorkBIC, a Business Incubation Centre set up to identify and build knowledge intensive companies, has seen it all. Having recently celebrated their 30thanniversary, CorkBIC has played a significant role in developing Ireland’s early stage ecosystem.

EBAN’s Keti Chikhladze caught up with Michael O’Connor, CEO of CorkBIC, to find out how the organisation is changing with the times and what future challenges it plans to tackle.

– How did a small city like Cork put itself on the map as a hub for innovation?

One of the most important steps in getting Cork to where it is now was the establishment of it@cork – an organisation representing the interests of the IT industry in South West Ireland. Launched in 1997 by CorkBIC, it@cork gave the private sector a voice and allowed it to collaborate with the public sector, and today, it has resulted in a large network of around 300 companies, connecting corporates like Apple and Dell, emerging companies, government agencies, and more.

Another milestone in developing the early stage scene in Ireland was setting up a regional angel network – now known as the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN). As of today, HBAN operates across the island of Ireland and has gone from 2-3 deals in its first year to investing €12.8m into 45 companies in 2017.

– What advantage does Cork have over the big city hubs like London, Paris, etc.?

One of the main needs for entrepreneurs is getting advice at the right time from someone with the right expertise. While there is a lot of hype around the startup scenes in big cities, places like Cork make it easier to get into direct contact with the right experts, both for entrepreneurs and investors. But the real advantage of starting out in a smaller city is that the local market is either very small or non-existent, forcing entrepreneurs to build their businesses with an international mindset from the beginning. For startups based in a large hub like London, it is harder to diversify and spread to new locations.

– CorkBIC has some great results to show for its work – 85% of the startups you have helped survive the first 5 years. What is the secret behind these successes?

Incorporating early failure into CorkBIC’s process is a large part of why many of the startups we work with are successful. For us, failure does not have a negative connotation – it represents a challenge and needs to be encouraged in entrepreneurial ventures.

Over the last 10 years CorkBIC has taken to pushing businesses that go through its program to grow, pivot, or fail as soon as possible. This enables us to build teams that are very successful in developing innovation, which is essential in any startup.

– How does being part of a network like EBAN help CorkBIC in helping build better companies?

In this day and age, international links are critical for operating and building your own business – they allow you to measure your development against a global reference point. Networks like EBAN allow entrepreneurs and investors alike to learn from international experiences, while also contributing their own knowledge and expertise.

– What’s next for CorkBIC?

During the last 5 years, CorkBIC has been employing a program that both accelerates and invests in companies. The same model has already been successfully used with our International Security Accelerator (ISA), launched in January 2018, and we see it as a powerful tool for the future. The program involves a more complex process than the old-style incubation program, with a registered fund that needs to raise money from business angels, VCs and other types of early stage investors. Investors in the fund can get a 5x return from the successful companies that come out of the acceleration program and reach the seed stage.

In line with this new type of acceleration, we believe that it is increasingly important to have accelerators and angel investors work together, with the goal to enable companies to raise angel investment earlier in their development stage and, conversely, angel investors to become involved with startups earlier – bringing their expertise and networks to the table, and, hopefully, leading to more and more successful startups and exits.

 

EBAN would like to congratulate CorkBIC on its 30 years of achievements and wish it further success in its endeavours. Download the CorkBIC 30th Anniversary Brochure here.

The next CorkBIC event – the 2018 Venture Academy™ – is being held on November 27th 2018 and features EBAN President Peter Cowley. More information can be found here.