Take Your Pension Or Portfolio To Another Level

Fizzle sticks! There goes another billion dollar ‘unicorn’ I didn’t back. Sound familiar? This week’s news that Ireland’s Cubic Telecom has entered the ‘unicorn’ club thanks to a €473 million investment from Japan’s Softbank should focus financial planning minds. In particular, we should focus on two things very familiar to readers of these pages. Firstly, speed. The business world is moving faster and faster. Secondly, technologies are rapidly merging and compounding value.

Just over a year ago, Cubic Telecom was reporting annual sales(Sept 2022) of circa €30 million with its connectivity software installed in 10 million vehicles. Yep, €30 million not €300 million. So, what prompted Softbank to enter into discussions for a 51% stake purchase on a valuation multiple of 31x the previous year’s revenues? One could hazard a guess that speed of growth was one consideration, given installations of its software have ramped up to 450,000 vehicles per month and are expected to go ‘exponential’. Also, one suspects the compounding of a number of technologies is beginning to drive traction. Cubic is at the fortunate intersection of the Internet of Things(IoT), 5G connectivity, electric/battery powered vehicles (EVs), cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence(AI). We need to start thinking about multiple technologies compounding at speed rather than focusing on one technology advance, and it’s not just Ireland illustrating these two themes.

All the gloomy headlines this year have put us all in a strange place. And, awkwardly so for financial advisors who possibly went into ‘bunker’ mode. I have been asked to look at 3 different pensions in the last week where returns to date were hovering at just over 3%. That’s actually less than you’d earn on risk-free US Treasuries currently. However, the killer data point is that the tech-heavy index, the Nasdaq 100, is up 48% year-to-date. Oh, and despite all those war headlines and oil worries from Russia/Ukraine and the Middle-East, the energy sector is DOWN year-to-date. Even Germany which is staggering into recession boasts a stock-market (DAX) hitting all-time highs and returning 18% gains this year. Note, the DAX is definitely NOT filled with tech names. However, the Nasdaq is telling us lots of technology from energy storage(Tesla) to cloud(Microsoft) to AI(Google) are emerging at the same time. Just yesterday, Google showed us a new AI bot, Gemini, and its market value jumped by $85 billion over the day. That’s the equivalent of Citibank’s market capitalization after 211 years in existence. Just one day. It feels like wealth creation cycles are shrinking.

Latest reports suggest the AI team at French start-up, Mistral, are raising funds again. Recall that this crew of AI gurus raised over $100 million 6 months ago with no product, no business or revenues. Just a PowerPoint presentation deck. Now the team have a product (large language model(LLM) for Generative AI) and want to raise more than $300 million. The current valuation level for Mistral is ….. reported to be over $2 billion. Six months. However, before we go all dollars dreamy, note that the hard yards and years are still the norm. For example, Cubic Telecom started up back in 2005. At a higher level, consider it took Microsoft 44 years to hit the trillion dollar market value mark, Apple 42 years, Amazon 24 years and Google 21 years. Keep those tech and time thoughts and let’s move to the other end of the business life spectrum.

We have already referenced pensions, but for many investors these are vehicles for a variety of funds investing in a mix of blue chip publicly listed company shares and their debt(bonds), government bonds, possibly some real estate and a bit of cash. Given the fast-moving tech world we live in, it is increasingly apparent that investors’ pensions or savings portfolios should allocate a small portion of monies(5-10%) to early-stage companies. Pensions are not the ideal vehicle(for the majority of people) for these investments, but the good news is that the government provides incentives with a similarly attractive taxation impact.

For years, starting with BES schemes and then evolving into the current EIIS funding initiatives, government has encouraged private investor capital to support employment and growth for early-stage companies by offering tax rebates against income generated in the year of investment(s). That rate of rebate has been a standard 40% but is due to change. More on that later but first, let’s briefly explain the mechanics of EIIS.

If a company is eligible for EIIS investment it will typically be introduced to private investors in three ways. Note, not all companies qualify for EIIS treatment eg. financial trading businesses are not eligible. Companies which do qualify, offer shares through the following:


  • Direct Investment: The investee company offers its shares directly to investors. These direct investment opportunities are typically offered to small groups of investors known to the company’s founders or its financial advisors, and not made public.


  • EIIS Funds: These funds are managed by financial intermediaries/brokers and request lump sums up front from private investors. The capital raised is then deployed across EIIS investment opportunities. The up-front sums can be significant(> €10,000) and the managers will charge annual fees.


  • CrowdFunding Platforms: A platform like Spark (or Seedrs or Crowdcube in UK) will give thousands of signed-up investors access to 12-15 fundraising campaigns by EIIS qualifying companies each year. The business model of these platforms is different to a fund. The investors do not pay any up-front lump sums or fees. Investors can invest as little as €250 in each EIIS investment with NO commissions, and NO management fees. Instead, Spark and other platforms only charge the companies a fee(and only if successful). One other variation on this is Angel Networks, or syndicates, which invest as opportunities arise. However, the entry level investment size (€5,000 – €10,000) and lead times are not for everyone.


So, after paying for your shares, those shares will sit in a broker account, or a fund, or in a nominee account(independent of platform). The company will then apply for EIIS certification from the Revenue. On receipt of this notification, investors will get a certification confirming same which can be filed with the Revenue to offset taxes paid in that year.

What sort of people could this interest? The income which qualifies for tax rebates includes employment income, rental income, dividends and ARF distributions. The amount of income which can avail of EIIS has been increased from €250,000 to €500,000 in a single year under new rules to come into effect in January 2024. Also, note the investment must be for a minimum of 4 years. The new rules in the Finance Bill also have broken the standard 40% rebate rate into different bands which we have summarised in a previous article as follows:


  • 50% for businesses that ‘have not operated in any market’;
  • 35% for a business in its first EIIS fundraise within 7 years of its first sale;
  • 20% for a business in its second or subsequent EIIS fundraise;
  • 20% for a business expanding into new markets or regions; and
  • 30% for investments via a ‘Qualifying Investment Fund’, of which there is only one in Ireland.


Quite apart from introducing potential confusion, the ‘core’ or standard EIIS rebate of an equity investment will now be reduced from 40% to 35%. On a more positive note, the 50% relief for early-stage pre-operating companies could be very interesting for Ireland and Irish investors. It won’t have escaped your attention that the trillion dollar tech club is entirely US based. That can be attributed to deeper capital markets and Silicon Valley tech leadership but could Ireland be a leader now? I’m thinking three big areas where the Irish ecosystem is quietly building real scale and a pipeline of early-stage opportunities. Here we go:

Medical Technology/Bio-pharma: 14 of the 15 biggest MedTech players have significant operations including critical R&D functions in Ireland. Also, 12 of the biggest global pharma players are there too. That ecosystem is beginning to deliver a fly-wheel effect of training, management, success, entrepreneurial juices and world-class innovation.

Cleantech: Irish engineering and construction companies are already leveraging their experience of executing huge hi-spec projects for tech giants like Microsoft and Intel, and global life sciences companies. These Irish companies are now key players in the build-out of EV battery gigafactories, data centres, clean energy manufacturing plants, pharmaceutical plants and chip manufacturing facilities all over the world. It is highly likely this hi-tech project expertise will generate new innovations and young companies to drive the cleantech revolution.

Artificial Intelligence(AI): The creator economy is a $250 billion monster with all the major players from Google to LinkedIn to Meta/Facebook positioning their European HQs in Ireland. It is clear the creator economy is in the cross-hairs of AI and one can expect the Silicon Docks of Dublin to spin out a number of AI innovations. In fact, Spark will be bringing an exciting AI play to investors very soon.


Furthermore, or a bit further afield, we should note interesting developments in Europe. Spark as a newly regulated entity with EU ‘passport’ will be looking at potential investment opportunities and encouraged by the latest data from Atomico’s “State of European Tech 2023” report:


  • Investment levels in European tech has reached $45 billion which is up 18% on 2020. Every other region is down over the same period.


  • Europe’s talent pool has grown from 750,000 to 2.3 million in the last 5 years. And, in 2023 Europe was a net beneficiary of people moving from the US to Europe. How Trumpy….


  • Europe now has 4,000 growth stage tech companies.


  • Europe (not just Mistral) can compete in AI globally. In fact, Europe has more resident AI talent than the US (120k vs 112k).


There will be early stage investment opportunities in a faster world. And, frankly, waiting for IPOs could be a long way off. Thanks to huge private investment pools, companies like Stripe, Shein and OpenAI can stay private for longer, or forever. In the US alone, 70% of early stage/VC funding comes from pension funds and educational endowments. Europe has a bit of catching up to do; only 20% of funding comes from institutional sources. But….. on a contrarian view, this presents an opportunity for European and Irish private/individual capital to step into the gap and seize opportunities that typically might have gone straight to institutional/professional players. So, instead of fizzle sticks maybe think about sticking some funds into one of the EIIS access vehicles referenced above. As always, we recommend a portfolio-building approach, spreading your risk in smaller amounts across 8-10 investments per year. See the table below as a quick summary of what might work for you:



Finally, if it’s speed and technology you’re looking for, then a 3-minute sign up process on the Spark platform is a pretty slick start to your early-stage investing journey.


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