The Centre for Entrepreneurs at the Startup Nations Summit 2016

This year, the Centre for Entrepreneurs was honoured to attend – for the second year running – the Startup Nations Summit (SNS), hosted by the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN). The SNS brings together start-up community leaders and policymakers from around the world to discuss their experiences in supporting and stimulating entrepreneurship, as well as the challenges they face doing so. For those of us with a tendency to focus perhaps a little too exclusively on the problems in our own countries, the Summit is a fantastic opportunity to build wider networks and learn about things happening slightly further afield.

This year the summit took place in Cork, Ireland’s second biggest city, which – with its compact city centre and world class facilities (from City Hall to the well-equipped campus of University College Cork) – lent itself wonderfully to hosting a global conference. But we also wanted to get a sense of the activity in Ireland’s capital city, so before arriving in Cork we spent some time in Dublin, where we were fortunate enough to be given a whistle-stop tour by Eoin Costello, co-founder of Startup Ireland and CEO of Scale Labs Ireland.

Things kicked off with a brief visit to an all-day conference on Ireland’s entrepreneurship ecosystem hosted at the impressive Guinness Enterprise Centre, before dropping in to the Bank of Ireland’s Grand Canal Square branch, where part of the space – known as the “Workbench” – has been converted into a dedicated area for co-working, seminars and events. We were subsequently given a tour of Accenture’s brand new Innovation Centre, situated strategically in Dublin’s Silicon Docks with stunning views over the water, designed to help both Accenture and its clients meet pressing future challenges with custom technological solutions.

Our next stop was Trinity College Dublin, where director John Whelan runs the Blackstone Launchpad Accelerator as well as the Launchbox accelerator – the former focused on entrepreneurship awareness raising, skills training and idea development, the latter on venture creation through an intensive summer programme. We look forward to learning more about both programmes as we progress with our own research on university incubators. The rest of the afternoon was spent speaking with leading figures at some of Dublin’s most established investment funds, accelerators and co-working spaces, including Lucey Technologies, Red Planet, Dogpatch Labs and NDRC, and being interviewed by journalists Ronan Leonard of Irish Tech News and John Kennedy of Silicon Republic.

A common theme across many of our discussions was the relative strengths and weaknesses of Ireland and the UK in terms of policies towards entrepreneurship. While several of our Irish counterparts raised the long-term economic consequences of the recent Brexit vote, they spoke in high terms of the UK government’s hands-off approach to stimulating venture creation via tax incentives such as the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), and Entrepreneurs’ Relief.

And now back (or forward, temporally) to the SNS. On our first day in Cork, we decided to get out of our comfort zone and visit the notorious Spike Island, a military fortress-cum-prison that now lies abandoned after a major riot in 1985. The site has recently received some investment and is becoming a tourist attraction as well as a rather unique events space – indeed our visit was arranged to coincide with a “Startup Bootcamp” taking place on the island at the very same time. We heard leading entrepreneurs speak about their successes and failures, met some of the 150 start-ups brought over to pitch their ideas, and wandered around the eerily burnt out, overgrown buildings that have yet to be restored. The prison setting could not help but remind us of our own research on introducing entrepreneurship programmes in prisons to aid in rehabilitation and reduce reoffending.

Saturday was reserved for the “Core Summit” where the substantial policy discussion takes place, but that morning there were more than a few bleary-eyes as delegates reconvened after a reception hosted by the Lord Mayor of Cork and a “dine-around” the city’s best restaurants the night before. Nothing a cup of coffee can’t remedy however, and in no time we were listening and contributing to a series of speeches, panel debates and breakout sessions covering everything from new policy ideas submitted through the new Startup Nations Atlas of Policies (SNAP) portal to discussions of scale-up policy, city ecosystems and comprehensive pieces of legislation known as “startup acts”.

The quality of the speakers was on par with the complexity of the policy issues, with successful entrepreneurs, research organisations (Nesta, Kauffman) campaigners and representatives of leading international organisations and governments (the World Bank, the EU Commission, and the Danish, Italian, American, Thai and South African governments to name a few) all present. Highlights included an insightful discussion of the different policy instruments needed to stimulate high start-up rates versus high growth rates, and a breakout session on how regulators should approach disruptive innovation in previously stable sectors – and whether entrepreneurs in those sectors should be asking for permission or for forgiveness after the fact.

The Summit was brought to a close that evening with an awards ceremony to reward start-up policy champions for their efforts in promoting entrepreneurship (read about the winners here), and an informal breakfast the next day where several more policy areas – entrepreneurship education, early-stage capital intervention and agricultural technology – were touched upon by experts in the field. Overall, we left Ireland with a greater appreciation of the country’s dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem and – thanks to the SNS – a greater understanding of common challenges and exciting innovations taking place in start-up policy across the globe. We look forward to building on the knowledge and contacts gained in the year to come – if you were at the Summit and would like to get in touch, do send us an email via maximilian@centreforentrepreneurs.org