Riding the startup express

November 21, 2013, 12:35 PM UTC
The Startup Express en transit
Photo: Roger Overall

Under a drizzly sky in Cork, in southern Ireland, Pat Phelan, the CEO of the tech startup Trustev, is trudging across a railway bridge in green sneakers, pulling his suitcase behind him, when he says, “It’s like we’re on a Boy Scout trip.” The three-hour Startup Express train ride to Dublin on Oct. 29, with dozens of entrepreneurs onboard, has the feel of a kids’ outing, from the group photo before departure to the brown-bag snacks on the train.

But this is Ireland in 2013. And while there are plenty of Irish scout troops, the country is fast shedding its folksy, parochial image. Apple, IBM, Dell, Facebook, Google, and dozens of other tech companies have large operations in Ireland. The country is also home to hundreds of startups. The three-car chartered train — one of Phelan’s many ideas — transported about 50 mostly Irish startup execs, as well as venture capitalists from Luxembourg, New York, and Ireland, to the summit, an annual two-day tech conference in Dublin. This year’s event drew about 10,000 people, including SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Skype founder Niklas Zennström, who engaged in 48 hours of frenzied networking and dealmaking.

For three hours, however, the Startup Express offered a mix of homey pep talks and exacting preparation. As the train rolled through the Irish countryside, with old farmsteads and bright-green pastures outside, entrepreneurs braced themselves over scones and jam for the bedlam ahead.

Phelan, 48, a Cork native and onetime butcher, dreamed up the train ride as a way of “giving back” to Cork’s multitude of startups, helping the tiny companies from his home county break into global markets. He says Ireland’s entrepreneurs find crucial connections among Irish transplants in the U.S., several of whom traveled to Dublin for the October summit. “There is always an Irish somewhere, especially in Silicon Valley,” says Phelan, jammed into one of the Startup Express cars. “It’s not a free ticket, but it certainly helps.” Grabbing a microphone, he introduced to the crowd Niamh Bushnell, who moved from Ireland to New York 15 years ago. Phelan told them he met Bushnell recently in a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and “the next day I had 40 contacts.” Bushnell, founder of the startup Kinnecions, told the entrepreneurs they needed to grow their business beyond little Ireland. “All investors care about is scale,” she said.

For many on the train, Phelan is an example of how to expand. In October, Trustev announced $3 million in seed funding for its six-month-old fraud-prevention business. Phelan and his wife plan to move to New York in January to open Trustev’s global sales office. “The Irish have always had this ‘Go west, young man’ mentality,” Phelan says. “We are going to be a small fish in a very big pond.” Far bigger even than Dublin.

This story is from the December 09, 2013 issue of Fortune.