Ludgate – five years of inspiring digital innovation in rural communities

The small rural town of Skibbereen has become the trailblazer for rural digital hubs across Ireland. This summer marks five years of Skibbereen’s digital economy and an ultra-fast internet connection as we look at the impact the Ludgate hub has had on the vibrant West Cork town.

This summer marks five years of Skibbereen’s digital economy and decent internet connection as we look at the impact the Ludgate hub has had on the vibrant West Cork town.

Ludgate digital hub is housed in the centre of Skibbereen town in a building formerly used as a bakery. The hub has space for 75 people throughout its selection of hot desks, co-working spaces and offices. It also has virtual conference facilities and meeting rooms.

The West Cork town was thrust into the digital age by becoming a gigabit town thanks to SIRO ultrafast fibre broadband, the Vodafone and ESB joint venture. It is because of this connectivity the digital hub could happen. The hub will be celebrating it’s fifth birthday during the summer.

“If you look at where we were five years ago Skibbereen was a pretty depressed town economically, there wouldn’t have been that many opportunities other than retail and agri and now what we have here, on the back of digital enablement, is we have fostered a digital economy,” says Grainne O’Keeffe, CEO of Ludgate. “We’ve actively worked on making sure we foster that environment of collaboration, innovation and ideation.”

Ludgate are expanding their capacity by opening a second hub in the town which they hope to have refurbished by October.

“In keeping with the Government agenda of revitalising vacant buildings we will be leasing the old secondary school and refurbishing that through Enterprise Ireland funding. That will double our space and capacity and we are really excited as to what that will allow us to do,” she says.

“Over the last five years we have observed the digital power to enable, it extends into all industries, all sectors and all communities. We have found that over 30% of our members come from the creative industry so we want to make sure we are catering to the creatives.”

“We hope to have a creative studio up in the Ludgate 2 to allow them record whether they are musicians, artists, podcasters or educators. We are very excited about this possibility,” adds O’Keeffe.

From a business development perspective, we can expect to see more incubator and accelerator programmes with the new expansion.

One businessman who is grateful for the opportunity Ludgate brought to the town is Travel Master owner Damien Long. Growing up in the family business of transport he always had a vision of providing a same day event service to customers around Ireland.

For years he considered an online booking system for concert and match goers, and controlling a network of transport providers to enable access for customers no matter where they lived on the island.

“I bought the domain name for my website back in 2005 and I sat on it, I really wanted to do the online business, but I didn’t know where to go, what to do or where to start – I was a little bit afraid of it if I’m honest,” says Long.

“Back when Ludgate were preparing to open, they held an event in the town called Digital Week. Grainne Dwyer was the CEO of Ludgate at the time, and she just said to me to come along and have a look and see what it was about,” he says.

Not fully convinced but he thought he had nothing to lose he went down to the event and was introduced to many of the designers and developers who were going to be housed in the new digital hub.

“I said ok, sure look, it’s worth a try and went to Ludgate the following week and met with them. I gave a couple of my ideas, they came back to me with theirs and from then on there was no stopping, they were so good to me,” he says.

“I started with a desk in Ludgate, I brought some of them on board and they built my website for me bit by bit,” he continues. “We started Travel Master in 2017 and we took €90,000 worth of sales and took over 4000 people to concerts in our first year.”

Those figures have grown with each year and in 2019 Travel Master transported over 40,000 people to concerts and events. They were set to improve on those numbers again in 2020 but the pandemic wiped out the industry in March.

Travel Master have grown their business in Ludgate and what once was a desk and a laptop has grown to an office of seven employees and a network of concert staff and bus companies nationwide.

“West Cork can be hard to get staff at times, but I think it was easier to get people when they knew it was in Ludgate they were going working,” he explains. “I think they love working there because there are loads of other businesses and individuals working in the hub and they are learning all the time.”

“If you have a question about your business, you can pop upstairs and ask someone for two minutes of their time to run it by them,” he adds.

When embarking on a research fellowship with Trinity College in Dublin which led to the commercialisation of cooling systems for central processing units (CPUs) and graphic processing units (GPU) Cathal Wilson co-founder of Nexalus found himself on the road a lot of the time. Ludgate was pivotal to the workload of the Skibbereen local.

“I spent a lot of time in Trinity, but I worked remotely a lot from Ludgate hub as well,” says Wilson.

“In the early days it was good to be in an environment with other people that you could talk to. I spent an awful lot of time on the road going up and down to Dublin and it was always a nice relief to go into the hub. I can walk there from my house. The camaraderie in Ludgate is also very pleasant,” he explains.

“Access to the broadband here in Skibbereen has been huge for me and when I’m on calls with people in Cork city and Dublin we often do a speed test to see what speeds we are getting, and I typically have the fastest. It’s weird to be in that position down here in rural West Cork.”

Now that the research has developed in to four patents, and the inception of Nexalus, Wilson’s team are based in Cork city, West Meath and Dublin but when he is working from home, he still makes use of the Ludgate facilities.

“It’s very useful to me on an ongoing basis for conference calls. Even just having the resources available to print or scan, it’s incredibly helpful,” he adds.

Grainne Dwyer was CEO of Ludgate when the hub opened. She was brought into the project when it was just a conversation of business heads around a coffee shop table, and enabled those ideas to come to fruition and transform how rural Ireland could work.

“We realised that the ambition for the project was bigger than Skibbereen. It was about creating a rural blueprint for other areas and maybe give a bit of ambition and energy and incentive to other towns and villages to maybe look inwards at their own communities and see what they could do with their connectivity,” says Dwyer.

“We knew as a group that the only way rural areas would thrive was actually facilitating digital jobs. It’s not about rolling in a new Dell or manufacturing facilities into rural areas, it’s about getting high value digital jobs into the areas – we knew that was our number one aim,” she explains.

When gigabit broadband was brought to the town by SIRO, the community really got behind the project. Ludgate didn’t want to land a ‘digital alien into the middle of the town’ so they brought the community along on their journey.

“I think we started to inspire people to think differently about work and what you can achieve in a rural area, you don’t have to be in London or Dublin to achieve success,” she says. “We had a guy from Barcelona wanted to move to Skibbereen and we had someone from LA wanting to move over from London.”

Dwyer herself was inspired by all the goings on at the hub. She decided to take the plunge and start her own digital company Stori Creative which creates cinematic branded content for TV commercials, online content, cinema advertising, radio adverts and billboards. Inspired from her own experience of telling the Ludgate story.

“My love then was the marketing video side of it, and I ended up getting investment from two of the Ludgate Seed Fund investors who are wonderful people,” explains Dwyer. “I started up my company there with two other people and we have since grown massively. We lost a few staff because of Covid but we now have four staff and I have anything from fifteen to twenty people working for me at any one time on different productions.”