There is something magical in the water that flows along the Royal Canal in Mullingar. The line: ‘That fair metropolis, so great and populous, adorns the regions of sweet Westmeath,’ still perfectly sums up the town in the 21st century. So many selfless people throughout the town’s history came together to lay the foundations for generations to follow. They were not in it for fame or glory. Their only vested interest was to see the town prosper and grow its burgeoning industrial heritage. Mullingar was safe in the hands of our predecessors who needed the town to grow, compete and succeed.
Two hundred years ago, ever resourceful and strong local voices ensured the creation of a direct connection to Dublin firstly by a canal and then by rail. Today, the journey into Dublin from Mullingar is approximately 40 minutes by motorway. This desire by the business community for the town to remain a leading beacon of prosperity remains true. That’s why Bert Farrell, CEO of Zoosh Ventures, chose the former tobacco factory-turned National Science Park, as the headquarters for his European venture capital (VC) firm.
“There are some great examples of people who grew their businesses into multimillion sized concerns. I firmly believe entrepreneurship is in the DNA of Mullingar people. There’s something in the water” Farrell enthused when I met with him recently.
Zoosh Ventures was founded about 6 years ago by Farrell and 3 executives from Nokia (the once-ubiquitous Finnish IT and telecommunications company), Mervyn Graham, Kimmo Arrpe and Balazs Bakos. Their technical expertise perfectly complemented his experience of running the New Frontiers enterprise development programme at Athlone Institute of Technology. New Frontiers was an initiative that empowered entrepreneurs to accelerate the growth of their businesses. Though Farrell graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a BA in Computer Science, he believes that he saw a bad programmer every time he looked in the mirror! Nevertheless, he carved out a very successful European career in the software industry and still found time to complete an MBA (Master of Business Administration) too. Zoosh Ventures currently has 45 full-time employees between Hungary and its HQ in Ireland and has another 30 people indirectly working with them.
Traditionally, a venture capital firm buys a stake in a business idea that it believes has long-term potential. It helps that business to grow before hopefully making a return on its investment. I asked Farrell whether Zoosh Ventures was that type of VC firm.
“When people think of VC firms – they think of big Silicon Valley investors who fund the Facebooks of the world. We are going to leave that sized deal to the Silicon Valley guys because they are going to be much better than we will. Over the last 6 years, we helped create 12 digital companies employing 120 people between. It took us a very long time to work out what our niche is: we consider ourselves as venture builders – we build companies that are based in the cloud.”
Simply put, cloud computing involves storing and accessing data and programs over the internet instead of your computer’s hard drive.
“So, we are neither a VC nor are we an accelerator like New Frontiers. We are somewhere in the middle of both, an Accelerator Plus.”
Business domain expert
The team at Zoosh Ventures has a vast amount of expertise that can add value to the right start-up.
“I could get 40 -50 business plans a year. I go straight to the sports section which in the business plan is the financials. Then I check for any research that has been done. Even at the idea stage, if someone can bring their first customers with them, it piques our interest.”
Ideally, somebody seeking investment from Zoosh Ventures, should have 10–20 years of industry experience and be able to demonstrate a deep knowledge of that industry. This is what Farrell refers to as a ‘business domain expert.’ Also, the actual opportunity to leverage technology should be highlighted.
“I came from the start-up background and understand implicitly how difficult it is to raise funding for a new business venture. Zoosh Ventures has access to some quality technical people, that a start-up company would never get access to. Though someone might be an expert in a particular industry e.g. Shoe manufacturing, it is highly unlikely that they will have the expertise to create a technology company. We provide the technical elements that they might be lacking.”
Farrell believes that there should be a constructive partnership approach. He invests in ventures where he can immediately see where a proposed product can fit the market.
“Zoosh Ventures invests in the entrepreneur as much as the idea itself. The idea itself will be thrashed out and paired with the right technology solution. But as important as developing key technology is, we also provide financial investment. We created an investment fund called ‘Zoosh Investment Partnership’ with a network of angel investors who believed in our strategy. The founders of IDASO and TIXSERVE (early companies Zoosh Ventures invested in) are unbelievably strong people. They impressed us with their detailed industry knowledge and convinced us they were capable of overcoming any challenge. They are the types of people we enjoy working with to help build a product.”
On top of investing in their 12 portfolio companies, Zoom Ventures has built over 50 digital products aimed at small and medium-sized companies (SME).
“People are looking to move to the cloud. If you have a big IT department then that’s fine, but most SME’s don’t. There are loads of these types of companies looking to get a piece of the digital action. They are looking to re-invent themselves and are similar in many ways to start-ups.”
Farrell explained that it could take up to 3 years before a start-up business meets the criteria for Enterprise Ireland to get involved by classing it as a High Potential Start-Up (HPSU). Typically, a HPSU must be ready to trade internationally and have the potential to create at least 10 jobs and €1million in sales.
“3 years is way too long because at that time your competitors in China are already doing it much quicker. We try and fast track that whole process by getting your company the initial funding it needs to the point that it can do a Series A round of investment (this is where the start-up will raise a substantial round of money to fund its further expansion.) Currently, Zoosh Ventures doesn’t get involved at that stage. However, for 2021 we are putting together a bigger investment fund that will allow us to invest a lot more money. That will be a significant milestone and allow us to build further value in the company.”
I asked Farrell whether he had any personal favourites amongst the 12 companies he has invested in and also what he saw in the future for the firm.
“We love all our babies! IDASO is doing very well in the traffic and transportation data analysis industry. TIXSERVE, a company that creates digital tickets, recently won a major deal with English Rugby. Another company Xtract, which handles auto insurance claims, has secured a significant contract in the United States. ClubSpot helps to run sports clubs and launched a product during the Covid-19 lockdown. We have a strong pipeline of start-ups that we looking at as well as the portfolio of 12 which are at different stages in their development. Over the next 3 years, we see ourselves being involved in 35 companies and potentially looking at the creation of over 1000 jobs.”
Having a firm of Zoosh Ventures calibre in Mullingar lends further credibility to the town in the same way that Irish Manufacturing Research does. Every town in Ireland will pitch itself well above its weight to lure inward investment from multinationals. Mullingar however, is happy enough building its own multinational businesses. I ended by asking Farrell why he loved start-ups so much and he replied: “Because I don’t do Sudoku.”
This article was published in the Westmeath Topic 22/10/2020.