“Cork: Big on Life” reads the city of Cork’s tourism brochure. And, indeed, despite its notoriously rainy climate, this south-western Irish city has no shortage of passion for everything from food and recreation to entrepreneurship and innovation.

Hit hard by the economic recession, the city, which has a population of 120,000, suffered significant financial setbacks that forced many of its businesses to close. But Cork residents are now hard at work to revive the city's fortunes, fostering technology and scientific innovation through their research institutions, home-grown start-ups and the multinationals that have chosen to locate there.  

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Cork hosts some of the world’s largest IT companies, among them Apple, EMC, IBM and Intel, and recent years have seen indigenous businesses returning to the fore as the multinationals continue to invest. “There’s something special happening here after many years of collaboration to build a globally recognised cluster,” says Denis Collins, a board director of national investment agency IDA Ireland and the Cork Chamber of Commerce. An American expatriate, Mr Collins first came to Cork as a global executive for IBM and has lived in the city ever since. He is now chief executive of business advisory firm Smarter Dynamics, chairman of software services company LearnLode and is a former chairman of the IT@Cork European Tech Cluster. 

“The spirit of this place is ‘work, learn, live’,” says Mr Collins. “From a work standpoint you could work for a multinational, a start-up, or a mid-range company. In terms of learning, there is an academic ecosystem from University College Cork (UCC) to Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) to Cork College of Commerce to the research powerhouse Tyndall National Institute. And, as for living, this region has the topology of the whole country. Rivers, mountains, beaches, golf courses… we have it all. And living costs are much lower than in the capital Dublin – rent is [on average] half [as much].”     

Universities and IT centres work very closely with industry in Cork – recently, the CIT worked with software multinationals IBM and EMC to design the world's first master’s degree suite for cloud computing, which has been attracting students from all over the world. UCC, which in 2015 celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of its first mathematics professor and the inventor of Boolean algebra, George Boole, is home to 19,000 students from around the world and contributes significantly to the area’s tech and R&D workforce.

Work ahead

“We want to be able to leverage investment to help elevate Cork nationally but also internationally,” says Roger Hobkinson, a director of destination consulting at Colliers International, a US-based real estate services company. Much of this requires further development of the city centre, he explains. A shortage of housing and office space, in both Cork and Ireland in general, proves a challenge, and agencies such as Irish Rail and the national government have been criticised for being slow to release much-needed publicly held land.

Meanwhile, Cork’s major IT companies mostly occupy the city’s fringes, but that is set to change gradually as the city develops its 'digital quarter', creating new space for tech companies and start-ups, complete with restaurants and attractions. “Across the board there are developments such as the convention centre and the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh [sports stadium] that build up the city,” says Mr Collins.  

Taking part in this vision is US security systems company Tyco, which employs about 60,000 people in more than 50 countries and opened its global headquarters in Cork in 2014. Tyco plans to open a new office in the city centre, which its general manager for Ireland, Donal Sullivan, says will be ‘transformational’ to the city.

“Our hope is that we grow to a 500- to 600-person operation focusing on R&D, software development, cyber security and smart building services,” says Mr Sullivan. “The R&D ecosystem in Cork is really important, between Tyndall which has 460 researchers, UCC’s faculty and CIT. If you’re trying to do R&D like we are, having these facilities and talent available on your doorstep makes that a whole lot easier.” 

Innovation incubators

Another pillar in Cork’s rapidly growing tech landscape is the National Software Centre (NSC), which since 1988 has been a privately led but public-private partnership-funded facility housing 40 companies from tech start-ups to multinationals, and provides equipment and space based on their needs. “We have put the indigenous companies and the foreign investment companies together, so there is a very close and personal interaction – that’s how a cluster builds,” says Michael O’Connor, chief executive of Cork BIC, a private venture consultancy that builds knowledge-intensive companies by supporting promising start-ups and individuals, which is operated by the NSC.

“The start-up community has grown enormously in Cork,” says Mr O’Connor. “We put them through programmes that dramatically enhance their chance of success and raising money. Ten years ago we built a network of angel investors to invest in these start-ups, and that helps keep them here.” For example, one of Cork’s indigenous start-ups is Voxpro, a business process outsourcing company that now provides customer care services for 300 companies, including Google and Airbnb, and employs 1500 people across Ireland and the US.

“You are getting FDI at the start-up end of the spectrum,” says Mr O’Connor. “Ireland, and Cork in particular, is a really good place to do that. It’s not expensive and there is no complex bureaucracy but it is the environment and the people that are the critical elements. People need the environment where they can build a team, and the team enjoy being here.” 

Joined-up thinking

A “coalition of the willing” is the phrase Mr Collins uses to describe the joining up of industry, academia and private and public sector professionals, who have come together to nurture Cork’s market opportunities and tell the world its story. “Because of our size,” he says, “we are the right mix – we have been fanatical about bringing business people, government and academia together to achieve commercial, social and academic results.”

Dr Anita Maguire, vice-president for research and innovation at UCC, where she is also a pharmaceutical chemistry professor, says: “We are absolutely committed to maintaining R&D, but we want to do it in partnership with industry.” The university’s active collaborators include BT, Disney, GSK, IBM, Intel and Pfizer. UCC is also part of the Irish Maritime and Energy Resource Cluster, which partners the university, CIT and the Irish navy. “You are bringing together players who are not often easily clustered,” says Ms Maguire. “So the ability to make a difference in that space is enormous – a real magnet for companies to invest.” The country aims to create 3000 new jobs through this cluster by 2025. 

Perhaps the crown jewel of Cork’s research landscape is the Tyndall National Institute, a partnership between UCC, Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Tyndall incorporates the microelectronics and photonics communities of UCC and CIT, and hosts teams from many of the area’s multinationals. “[US medical devices developer] Boston Scientific, for instance, has a really valuable partnership with Tyndall because it brings together the electrical and ICT side to complement Boston’s internal expertise,” says Ms Maguire. “The relationships that you build are absolutely invaluable.”  

There is work to be done, but it seems that the can-do attitude has not been lost in Cork. “Ireland came out of a very tough time,” says Mr Collins. “A lot of things that were done, even though they were tough, have brought us to a place that makes us marketable from an FDI standpoint. We have not lost our FDI footprint.”