By @SimonCocking

You are involved in a lot of things. A natural consequence of a broad range of interests and ongoing curiosity in things? Or something else?

One of the things about being an academic is that you can choose to interact with the broader community in a variety of means. So I teach first years and second years at NUI Galway (engineers and computer scientists), carry out research with some great PhD students at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and now more recently contribute to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Galway and beyond.

I like the fact that you can switch gears and change between them; but they are also all linked in some manner. You may be teaching some students who are entrepreneurial and want to go on to set up their own startup or work for other startups in the community; you may have some cool intellectual property developed by a postgraduate researcher that could be used by an existing or new company; or you want to show those who don’t realise what’s on their doorstep that people can flow from one place to another simply by showing them the paths (perhaps already taken by people previously in a similar place to themselves) between all of these opportunities.

How was 2014, what were you most pleased about?

Lots of things. I finished a new book with colleagues in Southampton and Chile; we got momentum going around Startup Galway, our monthly tech meetup, such that about 100 people now come to each event; I had some great PhD students who completed their research; and I got to drive the BMW i3 as an ESB ecars Ambassador, albeit only for a few months!

Over the last 10 – 15 years, anything you would have done differently?

I had two startups that I was involved in, New Tech Post and StreamGlider, that I really wanted to succeed but they didn’t for various reasons. With New Tech Post (an online Irish tech publisher), we created great content, had a fantastic team, and really filled a gap in terms of emerging technology startups not having the opportunity or the communications channels to tell their stories, but we failed because we didn’t build in appropriate revenue channels early enough. With StreamGlider (a newsreader for real-time news and social streams), we had one of the coolest apps at the time for the emerging iPad platform, but waited too late and tried to do too much rather than launching the MVP. They are common issues but hindsight is blah blah blah!

What would you like to be working on in 2016? / Moving forwards?

2016 is too far away for me! Maybe I operate on short cycles but I can’t see beyond autumn right now. But I would love to do more around the intersection of electronics and social media, combining my background as an engineer and more recent research expertise into the Social Web.

Startup Gathering, you are the regional rep for the West. Why did you get involved? And what do you hope will come out of it?

Eoin Costello, CEO of Startup Ireland, asked me if I’d do it… To be honest I was a little bit hesitant because I am a bit overloaded and I wasn’t sure I could commit the requisite effort, but driving the startup ecosystem in Ireland and of course in Galway is something I am passionate about so I am doing what I can.

I hope we can raise awareness of the range of fantastic startups that already exist here, but also encourage people in Ireland and abroad to realise that the country is a great place to live in and maybe have a startup too!

Technology Voice, some great, interesting, eclectic  content, is this an outlet for things that interest you, but don’t fit elsewhere?

Technology Voice was really a home for the content that was left over from the defunct New Tech Post company (Social Media Ltd.), as we had a bunch of companies who used our articles as reference material for their own promotion and were quite distraught when the site went away. But as Technology Voice, we also try to write occasional articles around important topics, for example, the Talented 38 Irish Tech Women series which has had three iterations so far (and hopefully a fourth this year), as well as the Galway Tech Map which is now at version 2. We also had a lot of fun doing our monthly podcast, with Tom Murphy, Marie Boran, Fergal Gallagher and guests, but again we didn’t have the momentum to keep it going on a regular basis so have opted to do one-off specials as the need arises.

The Social Semantic Web, 2010, since you researched and wrote this, things seem to have come a long way in social media and how we use it. Would you agree, and have you now come to any different conclusions from those you reached when writing the book?

The Social Semantic Web is basically all about trying to improve the social platforms we use using semantic technologies. The Semantic Web part is focused on linking previously disconnected things together (in a meaningful manner, beyond hyperlinks) as well as adding more meaning behind the text that is on the (Social) Web. It’s fair to say that there are still a lot of limitations with disconnected items on social media sites that could be solved using frameworks such as the Semantic Web. In the book we talked about some of these challenges that seemed important at the time, and many of them still exist even though social media has changed somewhat.

I find it interesting that many social sites like Facebook and Google+ have rolled the creation of multiple types of content (status updates, photos, resources, etc.) into a single “post” function, but yet we have Google+ splitting out their combined service into separate offerings like streams and photos. So sites want to make it easier to create stuff but they still want to separate out different types of content. But they still don’t allow users to easily link to other stuff (related posts, topics, media, etc. – your own or other people’s) when creating content, like Zemanta tried to do before.

You still can’t easily see a person’s contributions across multiple platforms, so finding an expert in a particular area from their decentralised set of social media updates is difficult (you are relying on it all being on one site). There’s a vast amount of untapped knowledge in forums and Q&A sites, but again it’s difficult to find and reuse the best answers to common problems, since the expert may be hidden from common search views. It’s also tricky to figure out where the best place is to talk about a certain topic – try a social platform at random and hope for the best, use a search engine to find the community most related, make your own group? And when you ask for information about a topic, how do you know the question hasn’t been answered elsewhere, either partially or wholly?

Galway Innovation Hub – why is Galway a great place to startup? And when will it be rolling out / built / expanded?

Galway is just a cool place to live in. It’s small enough to walk around; it’s a college town with a young feel about it; it’s multicultural; there’s lots to do within a 1 hour drive of the place, from the Burren to Connemara; and it has a good, strong tech ecosystem across ICT and medtech. But there is the absence of a downtown innovation hub like the Digital Hub or Silicon Docks with density of creative, innovative and entrepreneurial types in what is the coolest city in Ireland. So we want to make that happen and allow startups to flourish in proximity to transport, cafés and restaurants and shops, the harbour and the sea, and everything else that Galway City has to offer. We’ve just secured the funding for the first building, the PorterShed, which we want to have renovated by the autumn.

Scaling, what’s your views on this, you mentioned some successful Galway companies. In your mentor role how do you help them to look at making a global impact?  

We need to hear more about the stories around scaling from successful companies like Creganna, Apica, Fintrax, etc., so that’s something that would be useful – a day-long event with the founders telling those stories, because startups get stuck at a certain size and don’t know what to do next.

For global impact, I think it’s just important to know where the market is and realise that it most likely won’t be in Ireland due to the population. You will have to travel to find out where it is, what the challenges are for the people there, and of course figure out how best to create that global impact from your base in Ireland. Lots of companies can do it: OnePageCRM, SpamTitan, Netfort and Rivada to name but a few have a great global presence with most of their customers outside of Ireland, so their stories would be very interesting to gather and contrast.

The Salesforce model of including philanthropic practices from the very start, what’s your views on this, is it applicable generally? I recently read the book by Mark Beniof, Salesforce, here is the link to their approach to philanthropy I’m not saying that this is how it should be, rather that it illustrates that philanthropic ventures is something that some companies hardbake into their ethos from the get go. Therefore for you, the question is just your own take on finding a balance between profit and having some sort of social responsibility strategy.

I think that customers like dealing with companies that exhibit social responsibility as part of their ethics. It doesn’t have to be just tech – think Ben and Jerry’s – so baking this in from the beginning is great, although I’m not sure how much time/finances the startups have for carving out a portion of their resources for social good. Some do it in different but useful ways, for example the organisers of Startup Communities, although a different type of social/community effort, are often led by entrepreneurs and do have a positive effect on the community as a whole as well as others trying to start.

I am on a six-month sabbatical from teaching and admin activities between 1 January and 30 June 2015.

My inbox will become a bit of a black hole during this time I concentrate on my research activities.
For queries regarding Electrical & Electronic Engineering, please contact [email protected].
Dr John Breslin
Senior Lecturer, Electronic Engineering, NUI Galway
Researcher, Social Semantic Web, Insight Centre for Data Analytics

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