We caught up with Sean O’Sullivan @ founder of SOS Ventures and Car.ma. Sean O’Sullivan will be addressing the ITLG Silicon Valley Global Tech Summit in Fingal on 26 May. Sean will be sitting on the investment and VC leadership panel and will be attending the networking sessions also at DCU. For more info, see www.itlg.org
Why did you move to Ireland?
My wife and I were in Spain, we didn’t speak the language well enough to do business there, but we wanted to remain in Europe. And I have Irish roots, so that was always going to be a possibility. The Irish tax system was also of course a factor too.
Was it the climate?
No, seriously, your business partner Bill Liao did move here for asthma related reasons, less dry than Australia.
(still laughing) oh yeah the climate!
Ok, so why Cork?
We came, we looked at Galway, where I had enjoyed myself on a previous time in Ireland. We also looked at Dublin too. Both great cities, but, at the time, the traffic just seemed too congested, the planning was bad, very blocked up. This was around 2006 and then we looked at Kinsale and we knew we’d found the right spot for the quality of life we were looking for. Almost a decade later we’re still here!
SOS Ventures, it’s been around for 20 years, would you do anything differently if you were starting out again?
No. I believe it’s all an iterative process. You learn by doing things, to move forward you have to have these experiences. For the first ten years or so SOS was just me too. It’s only more recently that the other partners came on board and we expanded our range of investments and activities. I’m very happy with how it’s gone. It’s been a continuous process of iteration and discovery for SOS. We took a long term view of how we used our finance. The goal was to change the world in a positive way in a hundred years time. We developed the accelerators. I’m happy with the strategy we followed, and with the growth of these companies aiming at making a positive impact on the world.
— Sean OSullivan (@sosventures) May 9, 2015
The ethical concept, do you have a guiding principle as to what you will and won’t invest in?
Yes. We have three pillars to this strategy, following the ideas already mentioned, of looking to support companies that will make a difference to the planet in a positive way. This then shaped the thinking for the types of accelerators we established.
Our first accelerator in Shanghai, China Accelerator was geographically focused, and very successful. Our next three accelerators were more concept based. These are; HaxAccelerator located in Shenzhen, a hardware accelerator, then the synthetic biology accelerator IndieBio based in Cork and San Francisco, and finally the Food-X accelerator in New York.
— Sean OSullivan (@sosventures) March 22, 2015
All of these accelerators are helping to mentor and develop companies that have good commercial opportunities, but, and most importantly, they are also able to do well by doing good. They have been achieving a good, to great return, in the top 3%, and possibly even the top 1% for VC global returns. The success of these companies is helping to change the agenda of what is possible, and what VC’s will invest in.
This is why we are interested in the early startup sector. We believe we can help here, and provide strong foundations to support them in achieving this greater goal of wider good for the planet.
— Sean OSullivan (@sosventures) May 21, 2015
We also invest time and money into charitable ventures such as Coder Dojo, where we have no expectation of any financial returns, but we know they are worthwhile projects to support. This is a further reflection of our wider goals to use our investments to achieve wider global benefits.
Are there any differences in startups across the world?
Whew, are you asking me if different cultures work differently? We issue global alerts for our accelerator calls, so teams can come from anywhere in the world to participate. I think in China the startups are very strong on the tech and implementation side, but less aware of the branding and big picture issues, and the usability of the products. However I’m not willing to start making sweeping generalisations about different cultures!
To rephrase the question, how do Irish based startups manage the challenge of scaling up to reach a global audience?
Traditionally Irish companies have tended to customise products to fit the customers in the local market. This made sense because it was a small market and so it made sense to tailor the product to fit the particular needs of the local customer. However this doesn’t work so well in a much bigger market. Here you want to sell more, of the same product, without having to tweak it every time to the needs of each customer. This product management experience would be a difference with Irish based startups, and I’m not going to make any further sweeping generalisations here!
Now too we have seen more and more Irish companies create products that are immediately sold on the global market. Sometimes even with no sales within the Irish market, they have gone global from the beginning in terms of the markets they have reached. This is a great success and shows that it is possible for companies to reach a global audience from an Irish base.
Why are Irish start-ups doing well?
The improvement in the visa allocations has helped. It’s allowing talented people to come to Ireland and create startups. It’s has a good international mix of people here. All the leading Silicon Valley companies were started by diverse nationalities, and this mixture is also found in Ireland too now.
What’s the survival rate of companies coming through your accelerators?
It’s pretty good. Over 70% and closer to 85% in the first two years after completing the accelerator. This is good, but we have a good screening process to even reach that point too. Over 4,000 companies have applied for the 120 slots to date. This screening process really helps to work out which companies have the best potential for success. Of course, of that 85%, we’d only expect about 1/3rd to still be around ten years later, for a variety of reasons, including acquisition and all the other reasons why companies cease to exist.
What’s your strategy for a life / work balance?
I take Sundays off, and work only 12 hours a day on the other 6 days. I also stop at dinner / bed time, to see the kids and spend time with them, before resuming for a couple more hours in the evening. Naturally to work like this, it is important that you do something you like doing, otherwise, well, it would really be a struggle. However if you can manage to do something you enjoy, then it’s not as difficult.
What type of tech is Cork doing well, and what might it excel at in the future?
Biotech and bio-design is a great opportunity for Cork. Cork has 12 of the top 15 pharma companies in the world based here. Cork has a great opportunity to become a world centre and leader for synthetic and biotech tools. It could also become a centre for hardware, especially with the coming explosion of the Internet of Things. I don’t want to be more specific than that, but there are lots of opportunities coming our way.