The European Union has named Ireland’s Northern and Western region as European Entrepreneurial Region 2018, recognising the ‘enormous strides’ the region has taken to foster entrepreneurship and reverse decades of decline.
‘Thinking small first’ was the theme behind the Northern and Western Regional Assembly’s (NWRA) bid for European Entrepreneurial Region 2018.
“We’re a great country sometimes for hyping up the multinational investment and some of our export led companies but really the cornerstone of our economy is small to medium sized enterprises,” says David Minton, Director of the NWRA.
“That’s everybody from your small business to your retailer to your tech entrepreneur who’s operating from their bedroom.”
Mr. Minton, who recently accepted the EU award on behalf of the NWRA region – which comprises Galway, Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim and Cavan – said the spirit of entrepreneurship was driven by the network of collaborative Local Enterprise Offices supporting over 45,000 businesses.
He describes the award as “an opportunity for a part of Ireland that has been traditionally marginalised to emerge stronger and more attractive as a place to live and work for our young people, a viable alternative to living on the hugely overburdened east coast”.
The European Entrepreneurial Region 2018 designation will be marked with a series of keynote events and initiatives throughout 2018 to support and build on existing and new job creation projects and innovation across the region.
Previous award winners include Glasgow, Barcelona and Lisbon, and Northern Ireland. All have used the year to establish successful programmes and schemes to encourage innovation and job creation, including Lisbon who used the award as a platform to bid for major conferences including the Web Summit.
Offering an alternative
The award comes at a crucial time for the region as it looks for ways to insulate itself from the unpredictable impacts of Brexit and offer an alternative economic focal point to Dublin and the east coast.
Mr Minton is hopeful the award will “open doors for existing businesses” who are particularly reliant on the UK market.
Affordability, accessibility and skills are the key factors that will attract potential investors, he stresses.
“We need to start telling the story of the affordability,” Mr Minton explains. “Everything from commercial, industrial property to domestic and being able to acquire housing and property.”
With Shannon Airport connecting the US and European markets and Ireland West Airport Knock connecting the UK market, Galway is a very accessible location, says Mr Minton, before adding that the 65,000 third-level skilled students in the region attending NUI Galway and GMIT are also an advantage.
Athenry for Apple
Asked if he believes the delayed decision on Apple’s proposed €850 million data centre for Athenry would be a turn-off for potential investors, Mr Minton says it’s “not just an issue for the West”.
A hearing on the Apple project, which has been dogged with delays, is nowset to take place in October.
Mr Minton believes the Irish planning system needs to become responsive to new industrial and commercial needs.
“We need to make sure that brands like the Apples of this world, when they do make the decision to locate in Ireland and they are given certain levels of confidence that we can do business that we deliver on those results and if our systems are not working that respond to our community needs then we need to address those systems.”
At the height of the recession employment levels in the construction industry were decimated due to economic stagnation – a lesson we must learn from, according to Mr Minton.
“When you go back to 2008/2009 we were extremely reliant on one or two major sectors manufacturing and construction,” he says, before warning that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
“What we need to become is an extremely vibrant, low carbon and green economy. Most importantly we need to divest our traditional industries into new industries and the likes of The Portershed and those types of initiatives and incubation spaces, so it’s not just about delivering companies, what we’re doing is allowing our people create jobs for themselves and that’s where resilience is coming from and making sure our people are aware of international trends and then it’s the responsibility of government who are going to have to start mitigating those challenges.”
Describing the city centre innovation hub The Portershed, located at the back of Ceannt Train Station, as a “flagship world class example”, Mr Minton says the EU award recognises the start-up ecosystem in Galway..
“I always use the analogy Tel Aviv in Israel has 15 entrepreneurs per square kilometre, it’s a very dense urban area. We have more entrepreneurs in this region than Tel Aviv and Tel Aviv has the international recognition as being a start-up city so we can become the start-up region, not just a rural region, but a region that has really vibrant urban areas.”
However, he believes Ireland must be able to move with the times and embrace the international changes occurring as a result of the fourth industrial revolution.
“The world economics have been very clear in stating what the skills of the future are. We’re seeing changes in jobs, we’re seeing the introduction of robotics and artificial intelligence, how do we make sure our people lead Ireland and are leading participants in Europe in AI and robotics? So we need to invest in innovation, we need to invest in our third level sectors, we need to invest in our schools.”