Ireland’s billion dollar tech stars

Ciara O’Brien runs the rule over Ireland’s growing unicorn herd

Unicorns used to be a rarity, but these days, there are more of them around Ireland than you’d think. We aren’t talking about mythical creatures with horns and hooves though; we are talking tech unicorns, the privately owned companies that have achieved a $1 billion valuation. The popularisation of the term is attributed to Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee, who coined the phrase back in 2013.

And there have been plenty of them over the years, not just in Ireland. If the State fulfils its promises, there may be many more to come. In February 2022, the Government unveiled a new €90 million State-backed fund for Irish start-ups that will not only help them get set up here, but also keep them in Ireland as they grow.

But what about the ones that already exist?

Back in 2018, Irish-founded but US headquartered Intercom reached the magic valuation. The company, which was set up by Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, Ciarán Lee and David Barrett in 2011, developed a software platform which brings messaging products for sales, marketing and customer support together and allows companies to communicate with customers easily through their own websites, web and mobile apps, and by email. That approach appears to have paid off for the company, which claims more than 1 billion end users, and rumours about a potential IPO have swirled around for some time.

That was followed by Workhuman in 2020, when the world was in the grip of the Covid19 pandemic. The software company, which is co-headquartered in Massachusetts and Dublin, brought in London-based Intermediate Capital Group (ICG) as a strategic investor, pushing its valuation to $1.2 billion. It wasn’t always known as Workhuman though; when it was founded by Eric Mosley and Eddie Reynolds in 1999, it was known as Globoforce. Over the years, the company has operated employee reward and incentive schemes on behalf of some of the world's biggest companies – Procter & Gamble, KPMG, Cisco, GE, to name but a few – and more than 5 million employees are on the Workhuman platform in 160 countries. And the pandemic that hampered so many businesses caused a surge in demand for Workhuman’s services, as companies tried to keep morale up in difficult circumstances. Then in 2021, it was Fenergo’s turn. It was investment by London-based Bridgepoint and French private equity group Astorg that finally got the company over the line. Fenergo develops software for financial institutions that helps them with issues such as regulatory compliance and managing client data. Founded in 2008 by chief executive Marc Murphy, it was spun out of Irish tech veteran John Purdy's Ergo Group. All eyes are now on growth, with the company recently making its first acquisition to strengthen its ability to help customers tackle financial crime. Pre-pandemic, the idea that you could test at home for certain conditions, illnesses and diseases was a niche one. But it was a business model that LetsGetChecked founder Peter Foley was betting would become more mainstream in the coming years.

It started off with sexual health tests before moving into diagnostics for other conditions, such as cholesterol, a thyroid test, men’s and women’s health tests, and Covid-19 testing. Millions of tests have been shipped to customers around the world and the company achieved unicorn statusin 2021 after raising $150 million in a Series D funding round. This year saw two more achieve those lofty heights. Flipdish became the fifth official home-grown unicorn in January, when it announced it had raised $100 million in a round led by Chinese conglomerate Tencent. That came on the back of a $48.5 million investment the year before from Tiger Global Management, and with a total valuation of $1.25 billion, Flipdish’s place in the hall of Irish unicorns was set. Considering the digital food ordering platform, which was founded by brothers Conor and James McCarthy, had a $25 million valuation in 2018, it is not a bad growth trajectory.

The platform has set itself up as a challenger of sorts to the food marketplaces, offering restaurants a way to sell directly to their customers.

Achieving that valuation hasn’t gone to Flipdish’s head though. The company is still trying to help the ecosystem, with its latest project giving restaurants a way to reach customers without having to go through the food marketplaces – and also without having to be a Flipdish customers. Following closely on its heels though was Wayflyer, which achieved unicorn status in February after it raised $150 million from investors. Not only was it joining rarefied company, but it was also the fastest of the lot to achieve it, taking just two and a half years to reach the requisite valuation. Founded by Aidan Corbett and Jack Pierse in September 2019, the start-up provides revenue-based financing and marketing analytics for online businesses. Ecommerce stores can access affordable unsecured loans to allow them to fund advertising and inventory ahead of selling items, while also helping them improve their sales performance by offering detailed analytics. Since then, the company has been busy, securing $300 million in debt financing from JP Morgan, snapping up creator funding provider Peblo in its first major acquisition, and beefing up its management team.

A late entry to the list is TransferMate. The international payments firm, which was founded by Taxback Group founder Terry Clune, Barry Dowling and Sinéad FitzMaurice in 2010, raised $70 million in its latest funding round in May, pushing it into unicorn status. The company is based in Kilkenny but has a global reach, facilitating global payments in 134 currencies across 162 countries It is also the first Irish unicorn to be led by a woman; chief executive Ms Fitzmaurice has headed up the company since 2019.

There is one other unicorn that has an Irish link: Stripe. The payments infrastructure company was set up by Irish brothers Patrick and John Collison and has already blown past that $1 billion valuation. In fact, with a $95 billion valuation at the last count, the company had hit decacorn status - $10 billion valuation – and was heading for hectacorn, which is a $100 billion valuation. But although it has Irish roots and is now co-headquartered in Ireland, Stripe was founded in the US, and for much of its early development, it was primarily focused on the North American market. It opened its Dublin office in 2016, and things have grown from there. At the last count, the company was planning to add 1,000 jobs over five years to its 400 staff here, and also plans hundreds of new engineering jobs.