Microculture: Port of Capital in Docklands, Dublin

Fawn Fitter

As the first dot-com boom gained steam in the late ’90s, Dublin began a concerted effort to turn a derelict hub of the 19th-century Irish economy into an engine of 21st-century innovation. Twenty years later, the Docklands neighborhood, where the River Liffey meets the Irish Sea, has become so popular with tech companies that locals call it “Silicon Docks.”

In that time, the Irish economy has staggered under two severe economic slumps, but Dublin’s commitment to attracting and supporting the technology sector, combined with Ireland’s famously low corporate tax rate (currently 12.5%), has kept the startup ecosystem thriving. Today, Dublin is eighth out of 60 cities on the 2016 European Digital City Index for startups, and ninth for fast-growing companies with at least 10 employees.

The city established the Docklands-based office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups, an initiative to support tech entrepreneurs and promote Dublin internationally as a hub of innovation.

The Docklands draws its name from the 18th-century Grand Canal Dock, which housed much of the city’s shipping, manufacturing, and warehousing for more than 150 years. By the 1960s, only a handful of active businesses remained in the area, including the studio where U2 recorded some of its most famous songs. The rest of the Docklands was neglected until 1997, when the first tech boom gave the city both reasons and resources to redevelop it.

DIGIT Game Studios is Ireland’s largest game developer. Credit: DIGIT Game Studios

Startups moved in early, enticed by affordable rents just 1.5 miles from the city center. Some of the vacant warehouses and row houses became retail spaces, condos, and offices, while others gave way to new construction that used brick and stone to evoke the neighborhood’s maritime history. Two new railway stations opened, the first in 2001 and the second in 2007, making the area accessible to commuters and tourists. The aggressively modern Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Ireland’s largest theatrical venue, opened in 2010, and the waterfront became a lively pedestrian area. High-end boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants popped up among the pubs and corner stores.

In 2014, Dublin took two further steps to solidify its commitment to the Docklands and its startup culture. The city created a planning zone designed to unite patches of growth into a single, cohesive model of mixed-use urban design that includes environmentally friendly features, such as green construction and bike sharing. It also established the Docklands-based office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups, an initiative to support tech entrepreneurs and promote Dublin internationally as a hub of innovation. For two-and-a-half years, the office fostered a sense of community, tracked the growth of the startup ecosystem, and launched an invitation-only mentoring program where established entrepreneurs guided startups on the verge of rapid growth.

Energy Elephant helps individuals and small businesses manage their energy use. Credit: Energy Elephant

In early 2017, the program successfully wrapped up. The city shut down the office of the Dublin Commissioner for Startups, handing off its newsletter, meetings, and other projects to The Digital Hub, a technology incubator and accelerator managed by an Irish state agency. The mentorship program now operates through DCU Ryan Academy, a nonprofit partnership between Dublin City University and the family of the late Tony Ryan, founder of budget airline Ryanair.

Today, such tech giants as Google, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb call Silicon Docks their European headquarters, helping to drive Dublin’s reputation as a tech powerhouse far exceeding its size.

Among the hundreds of startups that have launched from the Silicon Docks, the most successful may be DIGIT Game Studios, maker of the popular cross-platform online strategy game “Kings of the Realm.” Founded in 2012, DIGIT now has US$3.75 million in early stage venture funding and an estimated valuation of $18 million to $28 million, making it Ireland’s largest game developer.

One of today’s promising locals is EnergyElephant, a winner of the Bank of Ireland’s 2017 Startup Awards, which helps individuals and small businesses manage their energy use. Another is Nuritas, which is working to isolate potential medicinal compounds in food. Nuritas closed a $20 million round of funding in late December after raising $10 million from earlier funders, including Code.org founder Ali Partovi and U2’s Bono and The Edge.

As befalls many neighborhoods with a booming technology ecosystem, the Docklands’ popularity may eventually price startups out. Co-working spaces in central Dublin are more expensive than in many other European cities. And when entrepreneurs are ready to move into their own office space, they may have trouble finding it; The Irish Times reports that developers in the Docklands are reluctant to rent to small, new companies with little cash and a short financial history.

There is also the looming Brexit. European Union nationals who suspect it will soon be harder to live and work in the United Kingdom are already relocating to Dublin, driving up housing prices by 8.5% in 2017 alone. According to the Los Angeles Times, some Irish business leaders believe that Brexit will also make Ireland more attractive to U.K. companies that want to avoid tariffs, protect their existing investment in EU talent, and maintain offices in an English-speaking EU member state. It’s entirely possible that this new wave of potential investors, partners, and acquirers will bring even more energy and opportunity to the startups of the Silicon Docks. D!

Where to eat:

Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud—contemporary French

Dax—modern Irish–French

Etto—seasonal, Mediterranean-influenced cooking and fine wines

Where to stay:

The Marker Hotel Dublin

The Shelbourne Dublin

The Merrion

Fawn Fitter

About Fawn Fitter

Fawn Fitter is based in San Francisco, where she writes about the spots where business and technology intersect.