EY Entrepreneur of the Year profiles

We profile two of the eight finalists chosen in the emerging category for this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, followed by two in the international category

John Harkin, Alchemy Technology Services

John Harkin launched Alchemy Technology Services in Co Derry in 2018. Alchemy works with insurance companies, system integrators and software providers to support the digitisation of the global insurance industry.

It employs over 130 people and has increased revenue by 275 per cent in the last two years. It recorded revenue of £9.5 million (€11.2 million) last year.

Q: What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?

A: The signing of our first direct customer deal rather than via a third party. It was also our first million-pound deal at the time. We had demonstrated that we could deliver a complete service to a very significant player in our industry.

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Q: To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your future plans/ambitions?

A: We do not do any business in Ireland yet as we have focused in the UK and Europe and that is where our initial clients are based.

We signed our first North American client in Canada last year and are now close to signing our first US client. We plan to expand our business in Europe and North America and are looking at a site for a US branch in the next year or two.

Q: Where would you like your business to be in three years?

A: We are on a good growth trajectory, and I would expect us to have doubled our workforce and revenue in this timeframe. We will be well established in Europe and North America and will have added a number of joint ventures that will also create very well paid jobs on the island of Ireland.

Q: What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

A: The insurance industry is going through a key season of change. Insurance companies are upgrading their legacy IT systems globally at a rapid pace, recognised as one of the top three priorities for insurance companies.

We are at the forefront of the disruption in insurance as digital transformation and change leaders in an industry which had let digitisation fall behind.

Q: What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?

A: Our vision has always been, and remains, to bring new talent at attractive rates into a market that needs it. From discussions with peers and customers, we know this remains the pain point and barrier to success.

In addition to our continued investment in industry leading training for our people, we are making targeted investments in the products and areas we know are in demand.

Q: What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives.

A: Not only do we support our people in becoming the best versions of themselves, but we have an open and transparent approach to career progression with our leading salary, bonus and promotion structures.

Q: How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?

A: I believe we are well placed as we never planned our business on the basis that Ireland would provide low-cost employees. We have always budgeted for world-class salaries in what is a very competitive global environment.

Before there was a pandemic and working from home became the norm, we had anticipated a remote working model as this had already emerged in our industry. We had anticipated that we would be competing on the global stage for our talent.

Our employees are very well paid. Our salary increases and bonus scheme ensure that they will be able to maintain a high standard of living moving forward.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

A: Entrepreneurs make many mistakes as these types of people try new things and in order to succeed the road to success often involves failure. I guess the mistake would be not to anticipate this.

Q: What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

A: Don’t go it alone. Surround yourself with people that you trust and who believe in your plan.

Niamh Parker and Allan F Beechinor, Altada Technology Solutions

Niamh Parker and Allan F Beechinor are co-founders and co-chief executives of Altada Technology Solutions. Niamh has over 20 years’ experience across the legal, hospitality, sport and technology sectors. Allan has more than 20 years of experience in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science.

Altada is an AI company working with financial services companies and global technology providers. It has 12 offices across Europe, the US and Asia, including Dublin, Malta, London, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Delhi.

Q: What is your greatest business achievement to date?

A: Our greatest business achievement to date has been growing our work force from a team of nine in 2019 to a team of over 140 worldwide today. Filing three fast track patents this year was also very exciting for us.

Q: What was your “back to the wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

Our back to the wall moment took place when we realised that GDPR was not going to deliver what we expected it to in terms of demand.

We built an engine for personal identifiable information which was designed to manage a data subject access request but the market was a lot smaller than we initially expected.

Following this realisation, we had to refocus and pivot our capabilities into financial services and into the US market in 2020.

Q: What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best piece of advice we received was to have an IP strategy at an early stage. Investing in patents and having a well-defined, solid IP strategy will ensure that you can appropriately safeguard your IP assets, boosting and supporting your company’s growth and success.

The worst piece of advice we have ever received was to be sector-specific and to focus on one channel to access the market. We have learned that focusing on one channel brings concentration and limits your ability to scale your business.

Q: What is your growth funding path?

In September 2020, Altada raised €1.3 million in a seed funding round. There were two investors in this round, Enterprise Ireland and Rocktop Partners. A year later, we raised $11.5 million (€11.5 million) in Pre Series A. This investment came from Rocktop Partners, Enterprise Ireland and Elkstone Partners.

We will be raising a Series A round later this year and ultimately Altada has ambitions to IPO in the next two years.

Q: What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?

Our innovation continually improves upon previous attempts as our AI becomes smarter and more efficient by reiteration and by training on larger and larger data sets.

In addition, leveraging a larger number of converging technologies under the AI umbrella will continue to be a key focus for Altada. We have a large R&D team working on quantum computing with some other great Irish technology companies.

Q: What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives.

A: Altada implemented a pilot four-day work week in November 2021, which proved to boost engagement and efficiency, and as a result we have now made it permanent.

In addition, we partner with a number of healthcare, financial, and professional-development firms to ensure there is support available to our employees if needed. We regularly sing together and have an Altada company beverage, which is the whiskey sour.

Q: How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?

Overall, this inflationary environment is a huge opportunity for tech companies like ours, as we create solutions to support digital transformation. We built a business that is recession-proof and that can support companies fighting financial distress during inflationary times.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Common mistakes we have seen are early-stage entrepreneurs taking funding from the wrong investors, which results in decisions being blocked at a later stage. It is vital to share the same vision as your investors, as alignment of stakeholders is critical.

Learning the fundamentals of scale is also very important, as not having the mechanisms to scale will limit your business and having the right team alongside you will unlock your scaling capabilities.

John T O’Sullivan, BioAtlantis

John T O’Sullivan founded BioAtlantis in 2004. BioAtlantis is a biotechnology company. It invested €1 million in an extraction facility in 2006 and entered the crop biostimulant market in 2007 with stress mitigation as its central strategy.

It has invested over €15 million to date in its Tralee facility and employs 75 people there, as well as 15 more overseas. It achieves annual revenues of about €15 million.

Q: What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?

A: As operations manager for Kerry Ingredients, I identified nutraceuticals as a growth area. At the time, Kerry was not interested in pursuing this opportunity. Seaweed was primarily used as a source of alginate and, in my opinion, other compounds in seaweed had a role to play in animal, human and plant health.

Q: What was your “back to the wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

Commissioning the Tralee facility in 2019, where everything that could go wrong went wrong. Production problems resulted in delays in fulfilling orders, with consequent cash-flow issues.

Production issues were resolved over time. We negotiated interest only with the bank for a year and obtained deferred payment of a major creditor, which improved cash flows. Despite all, we managed to grow revenues in 2019 by 2 per cent and were battle hardened when Covid arrived in February 2020.

Q: What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?

Invoice discounting. Being told by the bank that they would provide 70 per cent of the sales invoice value up front allowed us to grow the business with access to working capital.

Q: What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best was that if a new employee does not impress in the first month, they are unlikely to do so going forward.

The worst was advising start-ups to raise money from VCs too early. In my opinion it is better to prove the concept or obtain a customer prior to raising funds. I appreciate this may not always be possible.

Q: To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your future plans/ambitions?

We export 98 per cent of our produce. We currently sell in 35 countries and plan to double this within the next five years.

Q: What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

Agrochemicals solved many problems in the last 100 years. While beneficial, agrochemicals also caused significant collateral damage, which is no longer acceptable. New technologies that are sustainable and effective are required. This is an opening that can be exploited.

Minimising the use of antibiotics and zinc oxide in the pig and poultry industry is disruptive and necessary for human health and environmental reasons.

Q: How will your market look in three years?

Problematic plant protection products will be deregistered and new low-risk substances are required to fill this gap. Biostimulants will be used to strengthen crops against oxidative stress, making them more resilient against other challenges.

The market focus will be on preventative and sustainable solutions with low residue levels, applied as required to deal with issues such as blight pressures and changing weather conditions. Applications will be minimised and drone technologies employed for more efficient application.

In the pig market, zinc oxide will be removed and therapeutic use will be minimised, providing an opportunity for an effective product targeting the issues or products targeting maternal immunity transfer.

Q: What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives

We have a flat management structure with a multidisciplinary team from a variety of nationalities. We offer a generous benefits package and further education is encouraged.

BioAtlantis products provide societal and sustainability benefits, which is rewarding and motivating to employees. The company actively supports the social club and charity events organised by employees.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Excess ego. The day one feels invincible is potentially a prelude to a crash.

Q: What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Perseverance. I have experienced the old proverb of “misfortune coming in three parts” but invariably the tide/wind turns and good things happen. It is important to persevere when experiencing a bad patch.

Greg Bradley, BLK BOX

Greg Bradley is the founder and managing director of BLK BOX, which he set up in 2012. It is one of the Europe’s leading manufacturers of strength and conditioning equipment and specialises in the design and fit-out of world-class training facilities.

The company has come from using his parents’ garage as its first warehouse to a cutting edge 130,000sq ft headquarters. It employs 90 people and recorded revenue of £13.9 million last year. It has worked with Arsenal, Manchester United, Google, and Irish Rugby.

Q: What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?

A few years before starting the business, my GAA club received a grant to put a gym in the clubhouse. I felt the company that supplied the equipment knew it was a grant, took advantage of the club slightly and didn’t provide the correct equipment or add any value.

I was then searching for an alternative but didn’t find anything, so I decided to download pictures of equipment (which I didn’t have) and added listings to adverts. Lots of people started contacting me, which validated there was a demand.

Q: What was your “back to the wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

As a bootstrapped business without investors, I’d be dishonest if I said there haven’t been concerns over cash-flow. Securing loans and convincing banks to lend has also been a massive challenge. I think what has helped is a healthy amount of self-belief and having a great team around me.

Q: What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?

In 2013, I had a life-threatening accident playing Gaelic where I fractured my neck and skull. The experience gave me perspective on how fragile life is and made me all the more determined to build a successful business.

Aside from that, winning an exclusive contract with the UK’s biggest gym chain, PureGym, in 2018 and moving to our new headquarters last year.

Q: To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your future plans/ambitions?

A: We ship worldwide and have sold to over 50 countries. We have a strong presence in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the future, we will expand further across Europe with plans to open a distribution centre in Venlo, close to the German border, and potentially in the USA. We are also doing the new high-performance centre for the Sydney Swans in Australia.

Q: What is your growth funding path?

To date we have been bootstrapped through debt. Initially, I was being charged £5 per day for being in my student overdraft. To date we have borrowed approximately £3 million through loans, asset finance and trade facilities.

Q: Where would you like your business to be in three years?

To be the number one brand in Europe with a team of over 250 team members.

Q: What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

In the last 10 years, training has emerged as a distinct lifestyle, community and product category. It is now a sport in its own right and with the emergence of this has been the birth of a new category amongst global and niche sports brands worldwide.

BLK BOX is one of few authentic training brands uniquely connected to their audience through first-to-market product innovations and with strong links with the global training community.

We believe training has the potential to be the biggest sporting category globally. One of the positives from the pandemic was that people started to take their health more seriously and we saw this through the demand for our products.

Q: How will your market look in three years?

A: We feel that people will still train at home about 40 per cent of the time, but gyms will stay play a key part and be the third place in people’s lives after home and work.

Q: How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?

Unfortunately, there are significant macro challenges the world faces and we are being impacted massively with significant increases in shipping, energy, steel, materials and labour. I hope this will get better in the near future but feel it might be another two or three years.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Falling in love with their product instead of their clients/customers.