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Meet the Irish companies taking the Nordics by storm

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Slush brought around 2,600 investors to Helsinki last week, so it was fertile ground for ambitious Irish start-ups. We caught up with some of them, as well as other Irish companies operating in the Nordics.

I spent a fascinating few days at Europe’s popular start-up conference Slush last week, where the investors were nearly as numerous as the start-ups, and the now-obligatory puffer gilets abounded. It has to be said they came into their own in a zero-degrees Helsinki, although the buzz was back in a big way, warming the hearts of attendees.

It’s certainly a hot region for Irish start-ups and companies. It’s easy to forget that the Nordics (an area made up of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland) are home to 26m inhabitants, making the region the 11th largest economy in the world. Plus English is very much the business language in the area.

According to Hannah Fraser, Nordic region director at Enterprise Ireland, more than 460 Enterprise Ireland-supported companies export to the Nordics, with exports reaching a remarkable €1.24bn in 2021, a 30pc increase on the previous year.

Back on stage at Slush, there were lessons to be learned from the founders of Revolut, Spotify, Twitch, Klarna and many more, but the real work went on behind the scenes with the well-prepared entrepreneurs we met, racking up investor meetings in the double digits.

Team Ireland was there in force this year, with twice the number of start-ups as last year (11). We caught up with Enterprise Ireland leaders and the Irish ambassador to Finland, as well as other Irish companies that are quietly expanding in the Nordics.

The video below also features founders of some of the cream of the Irish start-ups that attended, including Waratek, Luna Systems and MyPatientSpace.

Irish start-ups at Slush 2022

Waratek is the security-as-code platform that enables security teams to automate the management of security behaviour to reduce human error, remove false positives and maintain lockstep with the rapid rate of code changes and deployments.

Luna is a micromobility safety company, whose computer vision technology provides irrefutable visual awareness to e-scooters and e-bikes to make them safer for riders, pedestrians and cities by reducing sidewalk riding, collisions and disorderly parking.

Ufurnish.com is an innovative search platform, reinventing the way furniture and furnishings are searched, discovered, compared and shopped online. Ufurnish.com brings furniture retailers and their products onto one website to make search easy for the consumer.

Oblivious is a Dublin-based company building privacy-enhancing software. It offers tools for developers in organisations that need to process sensitive data and collaborate internally or externally without revealing private information.

MyPatientSpace is an innovative digital health company, founded in 2017, powering connected patient tools for global healthcare providers and life sciences companies. The company’s no-code platform allows its customers to provide personalised medical-grade digital companions for patients.

Upscaler, founded by Philip Gillen, is the information security, quality and privacy compliance platform for growing technology companies.

Meili is an advertising and retailing platform that enables mobility companies to integrate with airlines and travel partners, with the aim of creating a friction-free customer experience. Conceived by a team with huge industry insight, the company reimagines mobility distribution, empowering businesses to drive greater revenues, brand loyalty and ultimately success.

Implement Technologies provides software and consultancy services to help software developers deliver faster. Implement works with software teams across Europe to help them accelerate development, improve processes and increase productivity. According to the company, teams have seen an increase in productivity of more than 10pc and reduction in time to market by 55pc.

SocialTalent is an e-learning platform dedicated to hiring and talent management. According to CEO Johnny Campbell, its content enables organisations to find, hire and retain the best candidates and foster an engaged culture while championing DE&I.

Other well-known Enterprise Ireland-backed companies attending this year included Bobby Healy’s Manna, which designs and builds its own aviation-grade drones to deliver food and other items directly from restaurants and stores to consumers’ homes.

And of course Taxback International, the technology and services company that specialises in VAT compliance and reclaim, with technology that enables real-time processing of more than 10bn transactions across 180 countries in multiple languages.

More innovative Irish companies in Finland

While the trams run like clockwork in Helsinki, one of the first pieces of advice I got locally was to download the Meneva taxi app, and it did come in extremely handy for several quick trips across the city, and the customer app is seamless.

I only subsequently remembered that it was powered by Irish technology from Dublin-based start-up iCabbi. Indeed as I was returning to Ireland, iCabbi announced it had surpassed the 1bn bookings milestone.

With operations in Ireland, the UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, its European plans kicked off in Finland. iCabbi was approached by entrepreneurial taxi company Meneva, led by Tuomo Halminen, to see if they could work together.

Today iCabbi powers more than 20pc of Finnish taxis. While Meneva was the first to join in 2018 and saw its 100-car fleet grow 15 times to 1,500 within two years, it has since been joined by Taxi Tampere, which switched platforms during Covid-19 and has seen its business digitally transform.

Established back in 2009, iCabbi has expanded into one of the largest dispatch technology providers in the world, notwithstanding competition from the big global ride-share players such as FreeNow and Uber.

“We share a deep appreciation of our local roots in common with all of our customers,” said founder Gavan Walsh.

“Taxi is an inherently local business, but taxi companies need world-class technology to meet passenger expectations and continue owning the local market they’ve serviced for so long. That’s what iCabbi gives our customers, tools to compete, and we’re constantly striving to find ways to make taxi companies better and better.”

Earlier this year iCabbi launched the Taxi Alliance, an unprecedented joint venture between the technology provider and its customers. It comprises more than 500 companies, representing upwards of 39,000 cars as members, making it the largest taxi alliance in the world – and Finland is just the beginning. Watch out for major announcements in Italy and the Netherlands in coming months.

We also bumped into Colm O’Neill and Tommi Harju of Phorest Finland. It was lovely to hear that they first came across Irish start-up Phorest through an interview with founder Ronan Perceval on SiliconRepublic.com back in 2012, and that it inspired them to propose to Perceval bringing Phorest’s service to Finland, where today its software is used in more 500 salons.

And O’Neill and Harju aren’t done yet, currently adding 10 to 15 salons every month and a potential market of some 4,000 salons there. They believe the Phorest software has developed to a place where it beats any competitors in the Finnish market.

“Most of our competitors are very much marketplace-led, so they try to get customers for salons onto a marketplace and then charge commission,” said O’Neill, “Whereas Phorest does it a little bit differently. They let salons get customers directly, and retain that direct relationship with the customer as well.”

Having chatted to iCabbi, I’m beginning to see a pattern here that could indeed be the future. One has to wonder could we be looking at more local and direct players having greater appeal than the tech behemoths? Time will tell.

Susan Spence’s SoftCo also has offices in the Nordics and is working on a major Finnish government project there. For more than 30 years, SoftCo has delivered finance automation software that streamline processes, reduce costs and ensure full financial control, compliance and visibility.

With offices in the US, Ireland, the UK and the Nordics, SoftCo won a $20m Finnish government contract back in 2016 to help automate the procurement and invoicing processes of more than 70 government departments.

There are countless more examples of Irish innovation in the region. Notwithstanding the minor controversy surrounding Slush this year, innovative Irish companies could do a lot worse than to check out Slush 2023 and get a flavour of what’s going on in this sophisticated, vibrant, digitally enabled corner of Europe.

At Enterprise Ireland, Fraser believes it’s time to think about the Nordics when it comes to export-led, high-tech companies. “It’s a very good place to do business, they’re very reliable customers, language isn’t a challenge, and I’d really encourage innovative Irish companies to think about this region.” If those we met in Helsinki are to be believed, opportunities abound.

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Graphcore launches C600 card for China amid financial woes • The Register

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British AI chip designer Graphcore has wrapped its two-year-old, second-generation Intelligence Processing Unit for China and Singapore amid recently reported financial woes.

The Bristol, UK-based startup announced on Tuesday that its Colossus Mk2 GC200 IPU will be available in the new C600 PCIe card, making the processor compatible with servers beyond the company’s pre-integrated M2000 IPU system.

The company said pre-orders are now open for the C600 card in China and Singapore, and it will be available through approved hardware partners in Graphcore-qualified systems. It didn’t say whether the card will expand to other markets.

The C600 card was designed “in response to customer demand in markets where datacenter configurations, including rack size and power delivery, vary widely,” said Chen Jin, Graphcore’s vice president and head of China engineer, in a blog post.

“This highly versatile form-factor enables Graphcore customers to tailor their system setup, including host server / chassis, to their exact requirements,” Jin added.

It’s not clear if Graphcore had to tune the C600 card to abide with the recent US export restrictions for advanced chips to China. While Graphcore is a British company, the export bans have extended to semiconductor companies far beyond American borders because the restrictions cover US manufacturing and design tools used to make most of the world’s advanced chips.

The US restrictions have prompted Graphcore’s much larger rivals to switch gears, with AMD halting sales of its MI250 GPU to China and Nvidia slowing down its A100 GPU to continue sales in the country. Biren Technology and Alibaba in China have also reportedly had to step down processing speeds for new GPUs.

Tech specs suggest it’s good enough

Graphcore’s C600 card is designed for AI inference workloads at low-precision number formats, capable of hitting up to 280 teraflops of 16-bit floating point (FP16) compute and delivering as much as 560 teraflops of 8-bit floating point (FP8) math.  

The FP8 support is new for Graphcore, as it is for the rest of the industry. Intel, Arm, and Nvidia published the specification for FP8 in September. The goal of FP8 is to create a lower precision format for neural network training and inference that optimizes memory usage and improves efficiency while providing a similar level of accuracy to 16-bit precisions.

The C600 is a PCIe Gen 4, dual-slot card with a thermal design power of 185 watts. Up to eight of the cards can fit into a single server chassis, and they communicate directly using Graphcore’s IPU-Link high-bandwidth interconnect cables. The C600’s IPU-Link bandwidth is 256GB/s [PDF].

The Mk2 IPU inside the C600 card has the same 1,472 IPU cores and 900MB of in-processor memory when the second-generation IPU was first announced in 2020.

The C600 release comes not long after multiple reports have painted a gloomy picture for Graphcore. In September, the startup said it was planning job cuts due to an “extremely challenging” macroeconomic situation. The next month, The Times reported that investors had slashed Graphcore’s valuation by $1 billion in the face of financial woes, including a terminated deal with Microsoft. ®

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200 Irish businesses are getting the chance to test-drive electric vehicles

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The Government is looking to boost the electrification of commercial fleets as part of plans to have nearly 1m EVs on Irish roads by 2030.

As part of plans to drive down emissions in Ireland, a new initiative will let businesses test out electric vehicles for free.

Fully electric cars and vans will be loaned to 200 Irish business free of charge for three months under the Government’s Commercial Fleet Trial.

The aim is to encourage businesses to make the switch to an electric vehicle and contribute to the targets of the Climate Action Plan.

Ireland is aiming to reach a 51pc reduction in emissions by 2030, setting the country on a path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050. One element of this plan is to have 945,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by the end of this decade.

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, TD, said an “important component” in achieving this target is the electrification of commercial fleets.

“Businesses up and down the country are already telling us that they are keen to make the switch to more sustainable practices, but they also need to know that the switches they want to make are going to be good for their bottom line,” he added.

“The findings from this trial will give us real-world feedback and provide us with the evidence to encourage even more businesses to switch to electric.”

The trial will involve 50 fully electric vehicles – 30 passenger cars and 20 vans – while giving businesses the option to install an EV charger.

By the end of this month, 14 businesses across Dublin, Sligo, Limerick, Louth, Wexford, Cork, Waterford and Galway will have received cars to test out.

The trial will be coordinated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Zero Emissions Vehicles Ireland – a new office of the Department of Transport that is tasked with supporting the switch to electric vehicles.

While the number of electric cars in Ireland is on the rise, there have been concerns about meeting the ambitious 2030 EV goal.

Ryan said this week that the Government is “on track” to deliver the 945,000 EVs target, and that it will launch a new €100m strategy next month to boost the number of charging stations installed around the country.

A study last year found that Ireland lags behind other European nations when it comes to EV charging infrastructure, which could hamper the roll-out of these vehicles.

However, the Government has been making moves to change this. It recently announced a new suite of grants and initiatives to boost Ireland’s transition to electric vehicles, and a €15m all-island investment to set up 90 rapid EV charging points across Ireland.

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Changes to online safety bill tread line between safety and appearing ‘woke’ | Internet safety

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The online safety bill is returning to parliament under the aegis of its fourth prime minister and seventh secretary of state since it was first proposed as an online harms white paper under Theresa May.

Each of those has been determined to leave their fingerprints on the legislation, which has swollen to encompass everything from age verification on pornography to criminalisation of posting falsehoods online, and Rishi Sunak and the digital and culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, are no different.

Some of the changes to the bill, which was unceremoniously pulled from the agenda in early summer as the government cleared parliamentary time to launch its own confidence motion backing Boris Johnson, are simple additions. After the law commission recommended updating legislation covering nonconsensual intimate images, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport folded the changes into the bumper bill, announcing plans to criminalise “downblousing” and the creation of pornographic “deepfakes” without the subject’s consent.

But others reflect the contentious nature of the legislation, which faces a balancing act between the government’s desire to make the UK “the safest place to be online”, and its fear of appearing overly censorious or, worse still, “woke”.

On Tuesday, Donelan triumphantly announced that the latest version of the online safety bill would be dropping efforts to regulate content deemed “legal but harmful”. Earlier drafts of the bill had hit upon a canny way to please both sides of the debate: rather than requiring social media companies to remove certain types of content outright, the bill simply requires them to declare a position on that material in their terms of service, and then enforce that position. Theoretically, a social media company could explicitly declare itself content with allowing harmful content on its platform, and receive no penalties for doing so.

But free speech groups, in and out of parliament, worried that the requirement would have a chilling effect, and social networks backed them up: few deliberately want to have harmful content on their platforms, but faced with a legal requirement to take action on it or face penalties, they could end up being forced to over-correct. For topics such as suicide or self-harm, aggressive over-moderation can cause real world harm just like lax policies can.

The push against those regulations reached its height during the Tory leadership contest, when the online safety bill was caricatured by its opponents, such as trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, as legislating for hurt feelings. And so upon its reintroduction, the “legal but harmful” provisions were stripped out, at least for content aimed at adults. And then the government went further: in an effort to burnish its free speech credentials, it added in new legal requirements forcing not over-moderation but under-moderation.

“Companies will not be able to remove or restrict legal content, or suspend or ban a user, unless the circumstances for doing this are clearly set out in their terms of service or are against the law,” DCMS announced. The rules, described as a “consumer friendly ‘triple shield’”, could prevent companies from acting rapidly to ensure the health of their platform, and leave them facing a legal risk if they take down content that they, and other users, would rather see removed.

Some of the changes to the bill are deep and technical. But others seem to be simple headline-chasing. The government has dropped the offence of “harmful communications” from the bill, after it became a lightning-rod for criticism with Badenoch and others arguing that it was “legislating for hurt feelings”.

But in order to remove the harmful communications offence, the government has also cancelled plans to strike off the two offences it was due to replace: parts of the Malicious Communications Act and the Communications Act 2003 which are far broader than the ban on harmful communications was to be. The harmful communications offence required a message cause “serious distress”; the Malicious Communications Act requires only “distress”, while the Communications Act 2003 is even softer, banning messages sent “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. Those offences will now remain on the books indefinitely.

But becoming part of the psychodrama of the Conservative party is the only way legislative scrutiny can occur in this parliament. The rest of this monster bill, stretching over hundreds of pages and redefining the landscape of internet regulation for a generation, has barely been discussed in public at all. Proposals ranging from an attack on end to end encryption to the christening of a first-of-its-kind internet regulator in the shape of Ofcom are being treated as technocratic tweaks, but if they were given the time they deserved, it would be likely the legislative process would outlast a fifth prime minister as well.

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