Belfast Telegraph

IT entrepreneurs return to invest their talent at home

By Symon Ross

In the days of the Troubles and the subsequent years when Northern Ireland industry was seriously lagging behind the major economies, the province lost some of its brightest young people to Great Britain, the Republic and further afield.

But now many of those who chose to pursue careers outside Ulster’s borders are keen to contribute to the recovery of the local economy. As part of the Belfast Telegraph’s ongoing series Our Business is Our Future, we profile two successful expats — one of whom has recently come back to Belfast — looking at why they left, the experience they have gained overseas, and the advice they have for the next generation of up and coming entrepreneurs.

Case Study 1: Johnny Gilmore, Sling Media

Silicon Valley is a long way from Warrenpoint, but Co Down native Johnny Gilmore remains very much involved in Northern Ireland’s technology sector.

As chief executive of Sling Media, he manages a fast growing tech company whose Slingbox product turns any Internet-connected PC, Mac or mobile device into a home television, meaning you can watch TV anywhere in the world.

Mr Gilmore was instrumental in leading the company through the successful acquisition by EchoStar Corporation in 2007 and his goal now is to make Sling Media a $100m company.

He went to university in Manchester and left home for good in the mid 1980s, working for 11 years as a consultant for Anderson in the UK, Australia and the US.

“Back then, when I left Northern Ireland, it was a tougher time. I made the choice to pursue a career that would let me travel the world.”

In the mid-1990s after being exposed to the high tech world at Anderson’s San Franciso office, he moved into operations roles for hard drive producer Iomega and smartphone maker Handspring which became part of Palm.

Despite being based in the US for the last 15 years, Mr Gilmore remains passionate about promoting his homeland and is treasurer of the Irish Technology Learning Group, a group of senior Irish-American technology executives committed to strengthening ties between Silicon Valley and the island of Ireland.

“I obviously have an emotional connection to home, it’s the place I went to school and I still have family there. There’s a desire on behalf of many of the diaspora to contribute back to Northern Ireland.”

He believes progress is being made among local entrepreneurs.

“Some of the guys running companies I’ve met are no different to people I see in the US. They are smart, they want to grow their business but they don’t have the infrastructure around them to grow it.

“But the potential for NI based entrepreneurs to be more successful is starting to gain some traction. It comes down to three things — access to real venture capital, access to customer base and an ecosystem of people who are doing that sort of stuff all the time,” he says.

“The types of software and technology being developed in Northern Ireland, with the broadband connection through Kelvin type efforts, are instantly deployable in the US. That’s huge, to have immediate access to a 200-300 million consumer base that speaks English.”

Case Study 2: Greg Maguire, co-founder of Zoogloo

When Greg Maguire left the University of Ulster 20 years ago, a 3D computer animation workstation cost in excess of £70,000 and starting his own company wasn't even an option.

After a year working in a small facilities house in Belfast, he landed his dream job at Don Bluth Studios in Dublin, and ideal training ground in his chosen career of computer animation and effects as its US staff were early pioneers of the technology on the 1980s classic Tron.

After four years he was head hunted to California and became involved with projects including, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Terminator: Salvation and Avatar.

He met Andy Buecker at Industrial Light & Magic and decided that instead of creating tools for different employers over and over again, they could start a company and write the tools for themselves that could deliver the same level of expertise to more companies.

Though the company is based in San Francisco, improving technology due when Project Kelvin is completed means that he has recently been able to come back to Belfast and still work for clients in the US.

The Kelvin network, currently being built by Hibernia Atlantic and due to go live in March, will provide a direct fibre optic cable link from the province to North America.

This will allow greater amounts of information to be transimitted at super fast speeds and greater security of connection as traffic does not have to go through Dublin.

“Since we formed Zoogloo in 2006, we have worked on 28 different projects from games to episodic television to films such as Happy Feet, Spiderman 3 and Where the Wild Things Are,” Greg told BusinessTelegraph.

“We designed Zoogloo as a virtual studio so that we could work remotely for clients all over the world no matter where we were. Andy likes living in San Francisco but I've always wanted to come back to Belfast.

“Now that Project Kelvin is delivering a secure network and the price of computing has plummeted, I can continue to collaborate on some of the most exciting projects in the world, all from Northern Ireland.”

His advice to people keen to go out on their own in business is simple.

“Whatever business you start, you must know your market, who your customers are and what benefit you are to them. There are 6.7 billion people in the world today and only 1.7 million of them live in Northern Ireland. Your market could be much bigger than you realise.”

Belfast Telegraph