Iconic’s acquisition by RWS on June 9th has brought about a few notable changes. One such change is that Co-founder Páraic Sheridan has transitioned from working part-time behind the scenes to joining our Dublin office full time. We recently had a chat with him to discuss his new role of Co-Managing Director.
Hi Páraic, I’d say ‘Welcome to Iconic!’ but of course you’ve been here since the beginning. Before we get into those details, though, could you tell us a bit about your background?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of computers understanding, or at least processing, natural human languages – Natural Language Processing (NLP). After my undergraduate degree in Computer Applications, I completed a research Masters Degree at DCU working on NLP for search. I then undertook a Masters Degree in Computational Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, followed by my PhD research at ETH Zürich, where I focused on cross-language search. While I was at ETH, we developed the SPIDER search engine, which was then commercialised and spun out into the Eurospider company, which is still in business today.
After my PhD, I moved back to the U.S. to join TextWise, an NLP-focused spin-out company from Syracuse University, where I spent over ten years and held positions in research, project and product management, Chief Scientist, and even a short stint as interim CEO during a transition period in 2000. In 2008, I had an opportunity to move to Silicon Valley, or to move back to Dublin. The draw of home and family won out, and I joined the newly-established Centre for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL) at DCU as the head of Operations. CNGL was really interesting because it was a collaboration of academics and researchers from across four Irish Universities, and it worked on a model of close collaboration with industry. This was when I really began to immerse myself in the Localisation industry, to get to know the people, and to begin understanding where there were opportunities for innovation based on new technologies and university research.
What attracted you to the idea of co-founding Iconic?
Founding Iconic was not something that was really a discrete decision at a point in time, but rather came about from what feels like a natural progression over a long period. All of the ingredients were there; I was naturally inclined to look for opportunities to commercialise university research, we had an EU-funded project to develop MT technology for patent translation, John was a willing co-founder and a natural leader, and we knew from engagement with patent professionals through our EU project and later market research that there was a market opportunity. There is always an element of risk-taking in founding a new enterprise, but our confidence in the technology together with a range of supportive stakeholders along the way, including early Iconic customers, and angel investors, helped us over the line.
Your background includes studying at Dublin City University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the ETH, in Zurich. How do you think your background gives you an advantage when it comes to running a Machine Translation company?
I don’t think it’s as much what I studied, though clearly my interest in AI/NLP has always been at the core, but rather the experiences gained along the way, including at TextWise and at CNGL and more recently the ADAPT research centre. Working in diverse environments with a range of different language technologies towards different product/market opportunities has contributed hugely. I’m conscious that commercialisation of research and advanced technology can easily become a case of a ‘solution looking for a problem’. Therefore it’s so critical to understand customer needs and understand how a technology solution creates a compelling value proposition. The other aspect I would mention is clearly understanding the value of a great team and great teamwork. I’m proud to say we have been surrounded by a world-class team at Iconic and whatever success we achieve is down to the work of that team.
Following the RWS acquisition, your new role is now Co-Managing Director. Could you tell us what this new role will entail?
John and I have already been working side by side for over ten years now and there are some natural ways in which responsibilities can be apportioned as co-managing directors, though it is naturally going to take a little time for us to settle into our new roles together and carve up responsibilities. The mantra of, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”, comes to mind in that John has done a tremendous job as CEO of the company thus far, so, initially at least, it’s more a case of me finding ways to bring additional capacity to bear in engaging with the new opportunities that will come to Iconic as part of the RWS Group.
You’ve been involved in the localisation industry for quite a few years now. What is your favourite aspect about being in this industry?
Interestingly, I was very involved in the localisation industry in the period 2008 through the end of 2014 in my role at CNGL and the ADAPT Research Centre but then stepped back ‘behind the scenes’ when we completed the seed funding round for Iconic and we decided that John would lead the company as CEO and I would retain my position at the University. My favourite aspect of the industry was easily the people – I really enjoyed the various conferences and workshops both large and small and the opportunities to catch up with a really diverse set of people from many different backgrounds and cultures who work in the localisation industry. I’m looking forward to ‘getting back out there’ when this global health crisis eventually subsides and we return to some kind of normality.
What are your hobbies, interests and passions?
Well, I have always had a passion for AI and language technology. Beyond that though, I really enjoy cycling, which is something I started four years ago. Over time, I’ve built up the distances and then I joined my local cycling club ‘Cuchulainn’ in Dundalk. It’s fantastic to get out with a group of cyclists at the weekend for a few hours on the open road.
Any words of wisdom that you’d like to share?
For a long time, I had a yellow sticky-note on my cubicle at TextWise with a quote from Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s search for meaning”, which read:
“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue… as the unintended consequence of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself…”
I was reminded of this at an all-hands strategy workshop we held with the Iconic team a few years ago. We focused the workshop on “Why” as a core question of the company’s existence, vision, and strategy. I was really struck by the core belief that the Iconic team espoused:
We believe above all in the power of language technology
to improve global communication.