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The Company Backing Ireland’s Fledgling Entrepreneurs

It was spilling out of the heavens when I met Zack Dutton, co-founder of Unifund, which focuses on providing seed funding for Irish student startups. Unifund has quickly made a name for itself as a champion of student startups, and it is based in the creative co-working space “Huckletree D2” in The Academy on Pearse St, just opposite Trinity’s Science Gallery.

Dutton had just flown in from London where he is based, using a temporary working space with Huckletree when in Dublin. He is currently scouting out a more permanent office for Unifund in Dublin as its portfolio grows.

The traditional facade of the Academy building is quite deceptive, hardly having changed in form since the building was erected in the 1820s, but inside is a different story. Once in the front door and through the large reception area, one gets the impression that this building has been developed with the care and the needs of the modern tech startup in mind.

The mix of clients and sense of community are some of the key attractions of such co-working spaces. Huckletree D2 offers hot desks, cellular and open plan offices, a high spec boardroom, spaces for pitches, launches, workshops and breakouts. They even have a calm zen garden to allow space for thoughts to develop. In the new extension at the back there is also a large roof-top terrace suitable for receptions, with a spectacular view over Dublin city.

Speaking to Dutton, he explains he has been particularly impressed by the talent and ideas he has encountered in the Trinity Entrepreneurial Society’s (TES) Dragons Den competition, where he has participated on the judging panel: “TES are doing great work to encourage entrepreneurship among students.”

He sees the current and growing entrepreneurship culture in Ireland as an exciting and great opportunity. However, in some respects the incentives and supports are stronger in the UK, with Dutton highlighting the better tax breaks.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that Dutton brings a focus, energy and drive typical of an entrepreneur. While studying at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), he took time out to follow his passion for music and entrepreneurship, regularly touring internationally to develop his skills as a musician and sound engineer. While still at College, he set up an international concert promotion and talent management business called “Bad Apple”, which he still runs. He also added that he was currently planning to tour with some bands across Europe from April.

So why did Dutton set up Unifund when he is already so engaged with lots of other successful initiatives? He emphasises that he enjoys dealing with a broad range of people and projects at any given time, and Unifund offers such an environment. “Looking around at the college scene in Ireland, I considered that student talent and student startups were some of the most undervalued and under recognised.” Hence the gap for something like Unifund was blatantly obvious to Dutton.

So what does Unifund offer? Essentially, when it encounters a student startup that it believes has potential and could be the right fit, it can offer seed funding from approximately €5,000 to €25,000 and access to a number of strong mentors. Quite a careful bespoke approach is taken with each startup, and a package is developed appropriate to their particular situation. In return, Unifund generally takes a small equity stake in the startup of five to 10 per cent.

An example of a startup that Unifund is currently supporting is Recroot, a video-based recruitment platform. Another is Campus Advs. As the name suggests, it is an advertising firm that focuses particularly on college campuses. A further example is Applaud Events, which recently won the TES Dragon’s Den competitionand was selected to participate in Trinity’s Launchbox accelerator programme this summer.

Dutton emphasised the importance of the person or team you’re investing in: “I can’t stress enough how much it is the person, more than just the idea, you invest in.” Of course, he continued, you have to have a feasible idea, but so much is about “trust and belief in the team behind any startup project”.

So what does the future hold for Unifund? “We hope to support over 40 startups over the next five years”, Dutton says. “A small number of these may go on to be quite successful and the intention would be that they would cover and make the whole venture worthwhile.”

In the meantime, Unifund would have equity in 40-plus businesses and would be supporting and encouraging as many of them as possible to fulfil their potential. Dutton emphasised that Unifund is open to listening to all inspiring startups from any colleges in Ireland. As a next logical step, Unifund plans to similarly support student startups in the UK.

It seems that Dutton and Unifund have spotted a niche opportunity in the student startup ecosystem and effectively acted upon it. The arrival of Unifund as a supporter of student startups is a very welcome development and an endorsement of the talent and potential of student startups.

Similarly, the development of such a creative co-working space on Trinity’s doorestep is a vote of confidence in, and a very valuable addition to, the entrepreneurial ecosystem developing in and around Trinity.

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