Posted on Thursday 5 December 2013 by Ulster Business

FNMU phouse 107

Some of the FNM team: Geoff McGimpsey, Caroline Smith, Aaron Taylor, Herman Chan, Katie McQuillan and Graham Moucka. 

Northern Ireland's newest entrepreneurial support network is a little bit different to the norm. Actually make that a lot different.

The team behind Friday Night Mashup have taken it upon themselves to create a series of events for tech entrepreneurs by tech entrepreneurs.

So there are no suits. No name badges. No glasses of dubious bargain bin wine. No cringe-worthy ice breakers. Instead, there's beer. There are pulled pork sandwiches. There are 150 people, mostly under 30, in t-shirts and jeans, from Belfast, Derry and Dublin. There's a proper buzz in the room.

It is exactly the sort of vibrant atmosphere you'd expect from an event which aims to provide a platform for new talent and act as a launch pad for local companies seeking to make an impact in the US and Europe.

The goal for Mashup is to energise the entrepreneurial eco-system in Northern Ireland and "connect and empower entrepreneurs to go out and take on the world".
It's a bold mission statement, but exactly the sort of ambition we've long been told is lacking on these shores and which has proved a major stumbling block for our best young tech businesses.

Mashup is the brainchild of Aaron Taylor, CEO of casual gaming tournament company GoPrezzo, which offers real world prizes from some of the biggest brands in the US and which already has a presence in New York and San Francisco.

Sitting in a hotel bar after attending Dublin's Web Summit, Taylor and some contemporaries from Northern Ireland who were already past the start-up phase of their own entrepreneurial journey found themselves lamenting the lack of a local meet-up that would help those following in their footsteps to meet the right people and build their own networks.

"We wanted to find a way to connect the tech community. There are so many great people out there who aren't getting noticed," Taylor told Ulster Business.

"There are people doing some really cool stuff who just need doors opened for them. As entrepreneurs we need to help one another. The people who have maybe achieved a bit more need to shine a light on the others."

Brash, full of confidence and not afraid to fail, Taylor took it upon himself to pull the event together, rallying a group of like-minded individuals that included Taggled TV's Ian Scott, Ronan Cunningham of Bambatech, Junior Nelson from GoPrezzo and Geoff McGimpsey from McGimpsey PR.

What's most impressive is that they did it in just over three weeks, bringing in speakers from outside Northern Ireland including Paul McDonnell, Start Up Director at the Dublin Web Summit and John Pryor from San Francisco tech hub RocketSpace.

They also drew inspiration from within their peer group, inviting Chris McClelland from Brewbot, the start-up which has combined smart technology with home-brewing and recently attracted over £100,000 on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter (his main advice: hardware is the new software).

And on the night, four exciting, highly scalable start-ups who are poised to make an impact in their respective markets were given the chance to demo their businesses - CanDo3D, Komodo, Pirate Dashboard and Sian's Plan - hopefully bringing them to the attention of potential customers, investors or strategic partners.

"For me Mashup is all about helping the tech community to thrive, not just survive. It's not about what we can get out of it," said Taylor.

"We want the event to become a regular thing, to engage people, to stimulate activity, to integrate more people into the tech ecosystem and give them a chance to meet with other entrepreneurs, tech enthusiasts, investors and media."

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John Pryor, Aaron Taylor and Paul McDonnell at the event.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

John Pryor from RocketSpace believes Northern Ireland is on the right track when it comes to the tech sector but says more collaboration will help firms coming out to San Francisco to be ready to step into the big leagues.

"You have to think of coming out to Silicon Valley like the Olympics. You might be the fastest sprinter in Ireland but that doesn't mean you'll run quick enough to make the Olympic final," he told Ulster Business.

"There are more high quality start-ups in San Francisco than anywhere else in the world. It is not that they are better it is just that there are more of them."

RocketSpace was launched in January 2011 as a high-quality technology community that offers flexibility for a rapidly-growing tech startup. Its physical space – which has just doubled to 70,000 sq ft to act as a base for 600 from 130 start-ups - is a platform to deliver an entire ecosystem custom-focused on accelerating the growth of its technology companies.

Since it launched RocketSpace has had some well known success stories come through its programmes including Spotify, Uber, Podio and Supercell, but it is focused on encouraging corporate innovation too, helping create partnerships for start-ups with Fortune 500 giants like General Electric, Microsoft, BA and the FT's publisher Pearson.

"It's not as simple as getting a building and that becomes your accelerator. It is a hard thing to execute well. RocketSpace's sweet spot is between the seed and series A funding. We take companies out of incubators, who are beyond the ideation stage and help them to scale and find market momentum. That is hard to do," said Pryor, a corporate innovation consultant at the San Francisco tech hub.

The company is about to set up in London and ultimately plans to establish other hubs across the world. Pryor says several local firms are already on his radar, naming GoPrezzo (which is a Rocketspace company), Taggled, DisplayNote and Roll TV as exciting examples.

"We're seeing really high quality start-ups in Northern Ireland. The representatives you guys have over the Valley are doing a really good job and we have a good relationship with them. When we open in London we'll be a lot closer than San Francisco so we are looking forward to building on that," he said.

"The next stop will be London, which is scheduled for next year. After that we are probably looking at New York, we don't know exactly, but the goal in the next three years is to have a RocketSpace in every major tech hub in the world," Pryor added.

"Dublin is on that radar, Belfast is on that radar, Berlin is on that radar. There are a lot of cities that are putting an emphasis on tech, but the relationship RocketSpace has with Invest Northern Ireland and the start-ups we are seeing here is definitely in Northern Ireland's favour."

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"It's like Lego for sound..."

Sebastien Heinz is proof positive that it doesn't have to take long for a good idea and great technology to gain traction.

The Queen's University PhD student, originally from Germany, last month saw his programmable mini synth modules, known as Patchblocks, smash his goal of raising £10,000 from crowdfunding website Kickstarter – ultimately raising more than £61,000.

His programmable synthesisers combine software with hardware - small boxes with knobs and faders on them - and are designed for music-makers of all genres.

"It's like Lego Technics for sound, if that makes sense," he says. "It's for geeky music people, it allows you to create your own elements of a synthesizer. The software allows you to do low level stuff with the fundamentals of electronic synthesisers and then combine that with a module you can use in a more physical way to create bigger sound effects."

Sensing I'm not getting it, he adds hopefully: "You create in the software a programme you can upload to the hardware and it runs independently of the computer because there is a little computer inside the hardware."

With a background in programming Sebastien came to Belfast when his Masters in London led him to the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's. He's putting the PhD on hold for 2014 to see if he can make a business of Patchblocks, investing the Kickstarter money in making the software more accessible and building an injection moulded casing as well as in more powerful processors and memory in the hardware device.

"The turning point will be end of next year. If I manage to bring out version two and if it is a successful product, it will probably be a pretty successful business too," he says.

"At the end of next year I want to introduce it to a wider audience by making the software more accessible to teenagers and people who are not necessarily into the geeky stuff but are interested in making electronic music. There is also a cool factor that goes with electronic music production, which is aesthetic and stylish and we're trying to bring that too, but for an affordable price."

 

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