Former winners of innovation awards: where are they now?
With just a week left before the announcement of this year’s Irish Times InterTradeIreland awards ceremony, we look back at how two previous overall winners have fared
Trustwater chief executive Edmond O’Reilly (centre) with ‘The Irish Times’ InterTradeIreland 2013 Innovation Overall Winner Award. Also pictured (from left) are Thomas Hunter McGowan, chief executive of InterTradeIreland, Liam Kavanagh, managing director, ‘The Irish Times’, Kevin Keane (Trustwater) and Chris Horn, founder of IONA Technologies.
2012: Gabriel Scientific
Having won the overall Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Award 2012, successfully entering new markets in Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America, raising funding through the EIIS scheme, and more than doubling sales in 2013 it comes as somewhat of a surprise to hear Gabriel Scientific CEO David Woolfson mention the mistakes the company has made rather than concentrating on its successes.
“The innovation award was very important to us particularly in markets in the Far East where these things are seen as very important,” he notes. “The calibre of the sponsors is also enormously important and carries a lot of weight. The award got us onto the radio and the Late Late Show and that boosted domestic sales greatly. But we have faced real challenges and made a few mistakes along the way.”
The challenges mainly centred on the broad appeal of the company’s product – the Sleep Angel pillow which significantly reduces exposure to allergens for people asleep in bed at need as well as lowering the risk of patients contracting hospital-acquired infections (HAI), such as MRSA, from lying on contaminated bedding. The pillow uses a membrane that is normally employed as a filter in heart stents to keep out bacteria, and is sealed by melting the edges together rather than sewn.
“Because we have a product with global appeal which crosses sectors such as the consumer, medical, and hotel markets one of the lessons we have had to learn is that despite the exciting potential we have to forego a lot of prospects to keep our focus”, says Woolfson. “I had been involved in exporting with my family business, Kayfoam Woolfson, but I had never experienced such a level of demand from prospective partners and customers in such a variety of markets. We had to bring in the skills to help us with that and we got it wrong a couple of times. This meant we wasted quite a bit of time before we started to get it right.”
The turning point came back in November 2012 when he travelled to the US in the company of a businessperson with a wide range of senior contacts in the medical and retail sectors. “We got great introductions on that trip and while no one said no to us they all had questions and we came back to Ireland with a lot of homework to do.”
This homework was mainly in the areas of product design, range, packaging and marketing.
“The product itself and its packaging looked as if it had been designed by three blokes, which it had been. Also, the packaging wasn’t very consumer friendly in look or in what it said. There are too many good things to say about the product and consumers don’t have the bandwidth to absorb them all. The data we were presenting was also too technical. Also, we were only offering a pillow and we were told that we should be applying the same technology to other cushioning devices such as mattresses. We knew if we wanted to play in the top division that we had to address all of those things.”
The company invested a lot of time and resources in this work during 2013. This included the use of the Airmid testing facility in TCD to independently validate the product’s characteristics. “They work with companies like Dyson and 3M the Sleep Angel delivered results they had never seen before in terms of offering a 100% barrier but still being breathable. This independent validation allowed us to put much simpler messages on the packaging.”
Next came prototyping of other products with Dublin based bedding manufacturer Pownall & Hampson which has since become a product licensee for the Irish market.
“Having expanded the range and done the high level testing, we then had to address the branding. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find an agency here which could meet our needs but we found one in London. The Curious agency did a great job for us and helped give us branding and packaging suitable for global markets.”
Everything was in place by the beginning of 2014 and the company is targeting a further doubling of sales in the year ahead. “We have all the assets in place now. We have the products, we have the validation, and we have the right packaging and branding. We have also been working on partnerships with local firms in export markets who we can ship the covers to and they will fill and seal them. This is a very good model for us as it will allow us to licence the product in key markets around the world and will mean that we don’t have to hire salespeople in those markets. We are close to signing a major deal with a US licensing partner and there is another deal very close with a partner in China and we are about to announce a major contract with one of the largest NHS Trust hospitals in Britain.”
This is not at all bad considering the mistakes he believes were made. And he’s still not counting any chickens. “We’ve still got major challenges in terms of hiring the right people, getting our supply chain right, and in getting the sales operation right. It really is about sales, sales, sales.”
2013 Innovation Award winner Trustwater has spent the last 12 months building its business in its core beverage industry market as well as expanding into new markets in the healthcare sector. The company’s highly innovative technology is used for the cleaning and disinfection of fluid lines. Its advantage over competitor systems is that it does this in a fraction of the time and at much lower costs as well as removing pungent odours.
This is very attractive to beverage companies which might have several product changeovers each week. With traditional systems involving downtimes of up to six hours the advantages of the Trustwater system which reduces this by up to 80% are obvious.
The system is based on an advanced patented electrochemical activation technology which generate rapid acting, broad spectrum detergent and biocidal solutions. The technology produces a detergent in the form of a hydroxide solution known as Aversol which replaces traditional caustic chemicals and an anolyte called Ecasol which is a hypochlorous solution which is more than 100 times more effective than chlorine as a disinfectant.
“There are a wide range of applications for our cleaning and disinfection technology”, says company founder and ceo Edmond O’Reilly.
“In the healthcare sector there are two main areas which are Legionella control and dental unit water line disinfection. In hospitals where you have a lot of immuno-compromised people water quality is critical. The same goes for the dental sector. We have recently installed our technology in three dental hospitals in Saudi Arabia – that overall contract was worth €1 million in total.”
The company’s primary market is still the beverage industry and there are encouraging signs of renewed investment there. “Spending in the global beverage industry was in a trough in line with economic conditions but we are now seeing it beginning to rise again. There are a large number of projects in the pipeline and we expect our business to grow in line with that. We now have a number of installations in the Middle East, North America and South America and over the past 12 months we’ve installed our systems in a further nine countries.”
The healthcare sector has also proven to be fertile ground for the company with its technology now installed in more than 150 hospitals across Europe. “We are very well established in that market,” says O’Reilly. “Our technology has stood the test of time there and has been proven to be very effective. But we will remain primarily focused on the markets we are already in. They are large enough for us and we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. We are of course looking at expanding into new areas but we will probably do this through joint ventures. We already have the heads of agreement signed with one partner who will be looking at the use of our technology in the treatment of respiratory diseases.”
Trustwater now employs 30 staff at its Clonmel base and has doubled turnover over the past 12 months. “Our target is to double turnover again this year and we will achieve this through growth in our established markets and continued innovation. We have to continue to innovate to stay ahead of the curve. This is where our future lies.”
– BARRY McCALL