Tech dealmaker aims to turn start-up dreams into reality
This article was written by Phillip Connolly for The Times on 12 August.
Isabelle O’Keeffe was trying to keep a low profile on her first day.
Having just returned to Dublin to hunt for investment deals on behalf of Suir Valley Ventures, Ireland’s newest tech investment fund, she took her seat in the former Guinness storehouse that now houses the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC). It was early June and the organisation was hosting a demo day to show off its latest cohort of start-ups.
Despite being a new face among Ireland’s tech set and eschewing the traditional name badge, O’Keeffe could not stay anonymous for long. “It showed the difference between Dublin and London — within a few minutes I had three different people introduce themselves,” she says.
O’Keeffe’s first couple of months back home have been something of a whirlwind. Sitting in her new home at Dogpatch Labs, the buzzing start-up hub in Dublin’s CHQ building, the 31-year-old has not had too much time to get comfortable. She has crammed in 12 meetings a week with founders.
“Venture Capital is very relationship based, so a lot of my time has been spent meeting people in different networks. I have always prided myself on being good with names, but the last few weeks have been tough. It has been busy, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of company,” she says.
Suir Valley Ventures was launched last year by Barry Downes, who previously sold the Waterford software company FeedHenry for €63.5m.
With backing from Enterprise Ireland and the London investment firm Shard Capital Partners, Suir Valley raised about €20m to spend on Irish ventures alone. It has already done five Irish deals, with three more set to close soon and a target of 10 by the end of the year. The fund is targeting a portfolio of 20 companies by the end of 2019.
Specialising in virtual and augmented reality, Immersive VR Education is exactly the type of deal which Suir Valley is targeting. Run by wife-and-husband team Sandra and David Whelan, the company last week released a new virtual reality film of the Lancaster bomber to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Suir Valley has invested €1m in Immersive, which is quoted on London’s AIM. With a focus on virtual and augmented reality companies as well as new technology such as blockchain for the financial sector, Suir Valley is jumping onto new technology earlier than most investors.
“Virtual and augmented reality are not easy markets, not many investors are really there yet,” says O’Keeffe. “We look at deep tech — we need to be able to see that it will move the needle and have the people to make it happen.” Some of the ideas are a little out there, she adds, but are becoming more mainstream.
Despite growing up in a medical family in Delgany, Co Wicklow, O’Keeffe gravitated towards business. After studying commerce with Spanish at UCD, she graduated in 2010 just as a bankrupt Ireland became a very inhospitable place to its new generation of talent.
O’Keeffe opted to move to London, completing a master’s in management at Cass business school.
From there she was headhunted by Telefonica, quickly moving from the telco’s finance division into its new digital division, formed to keep up with new tech such as WhatsApp. Splitting time between London and Madrid, O’Keeffe began working with the company’s new mergers and acquisitions department to analyse deals.
“It was a new and small team with a global remit. I was stretched quite a bit while still quite junior in my career, which gave me great exposure,” she says.
By 2015, Telefonica began to restructure its European operations and O’Keeffe decided to stay in London rather than move to Madrid. She joined NBCUniversal to work on content acquisition but soon began to miss the tech sector.
In 2016 an opportunity came up to work as an investment associate with Schibsted, a Norwegian media group that is now the owner of DoneDeal. O’Keeffe briefly joined Techstars London, the UK base of an American start-up accelerator, but by late last year she began to look at options to come home.
Andrew Lynch, a connection who also happens to run recruitment firm Mason Alexander, set up a meeting with Downes at Shard in London.
“People might have seen joining a new fund from a large organisation as a risky move, but for me it was more high reward,” she says.
Investing is no exact science and O’Keeffe is charged with cutting through the noise of the torrent of investment pitches. While Suir Valley has the initial filters of looking for proof of concept and some revenues to demonstrate appetite for the product, a lot still comes down to backing the right people.
“It is understanding the founders, their grit and ability to execute. A lot of it does come down to gut feel. As you meet more people the more you can identify characters that may or may not work, there is a element of pattern recognition to it,” she says.
“In Ireland we want to encourage founders to dream a bit bigger and be looking at large markets,” she says. “We think we are well placed as a fund to enable this and encourage founders to really dream big and not feel that they need to sell their businesses before they have reached their true potential.”
While Elaine Coughlan of Atlantic Bridge helped kick over the traces, and break new ground, O’Keeffe is still a rare enough breed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Of Suir Valley’s five investments to date, two have female founders and O’Keeffe believes that there has been a shift.
“There is still a long way to go but we are seeing more and more female investors and female founders, which is a great thing,” she says.
The plan is to increase the amount of capital that Suir Valley can deploy to about €100m over the next couple of years, with the aim of targeting more investments in both Ireland and Britain.
Things are unlikely to get much quieter for O’Keeffe as the dealmaker searches out Ireland’s top talent.