Emerging entrepreneurs vie for EY Entrepreneur of the Year title

Finalists have built businesses in cosmetics, retail apps, medical devices and agriculture

Profiled today are four nominees shortlisted in the emerging category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 competition. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony in Dublin later this year.

Brendan McDowell, BPerfect Cosmetics

When Brendan McDowell (38) was 18, he moved to Belfast to study building engineering. After realising it wasn't for him, the entrepreneur moved into sales, a role that served him well when he went out on his own in 2013 to found BPerfect Cosmetics, a business that sells unique make-up products and scented tanning products.

Today, McDowell’s brand is stocked in more than 1,800 stockists throughout the Republic, Northern Ireland, Britain and other countries. The business has also built up a healthy social media following, enabling it to count more than half a million online customers who repeatedly give it business.

The Lisburn-headquartered business employs more than 40 people and, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, has managed to improve its marketing reach online and engage more consumers to buy the company’s products.


Part of McDowell’s success is his ability to react swiftly to new trends in an ever-changing industry, something that has enabled him to remain calm in the face of challenges such as coronavirus and Brexit.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique.

What makes us unique is that we adopt the same approach as fast fashion but in terms of make-up. We see a trend, we instantly react to it and develop that product to the market. We also work very closely with Instagram make-up artists to create products that are totally on trend.

What was your back-to-the-wall moment and how did you overcome it?

Coronavirus. At the beginning of the virus, I had my back to the wall for a full week. I thought I was going to have to close the business down and not trade until things were set to reopen. We started entertaining people at home, we started doing fitness classes, hosting live DJs, and a multitude of make-up and beauty master classes which built a really engaged audience online. We grew quickly in terms of online sales.

What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer or turning point for the company?

When we launched a make-up palette called the Carnival Palette. It took us from being an Irish brand to an international brand within a few weeks, all through non-sponsored Instagram make-up artists using our products. It gave us that global reach and we haven’t looked back since then.

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

The best piece of advice that I have received was to take risks, but to make sure they were calculated risks.

The worst piece of advice was not to tell anybody else what you’re doing, not to network with any other business owners, and not to share any of your information. If you do that, you cannot learn and I feel like you can learn so much from your competitors and other people within your industry.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Last year I overestimated the power of working with an influencer. I way over-ordered the opening order rather than playing it safe. I therefore panicked coming up to Christmas as I was left with a lot of stock that we had to heavily discount.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Taking big risks. You know, if somebody does quite well and they then decide to take a huge gamble and don’t calculate it. They put all their eggs in one basket and then it doesn’t work out, leaving them snookered.

Devan Hughes, Buymie

Four years ago, Devan Hughes surveyed the market for online grocery shopping and found it to be outdated. As a result, he established the grocery delivery platform Buymie, which allows users to order groceries from long-established retailers such as Lidl and Tesco, having their groceries delivered in as little as an hour.

With 27 full-time employees, Buymie operates in both Ireland and Britain and now services more than 650,000 households. The business has raised more than €10.5 million over the past three years to support its expansion, with funding from heavyweights such as Eamonn Quinn of the Superquinn family; Scott Weavers-Wright, the former chief executive of Morrisons.com; and Keith Weed, the former chief marketing officer for Unilever Global.

In its short time in business, the company has had significant battles but has managed to come out on top. Now, Buymie is looking to disrupt a sector which appears to find profitability elusive. It has established operations in Ireland, Britain and Armenia. Over the coming five years, the business intends to expand into 15 different cities.

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

The idea for Buymie came from the place where all great ideas come, over a pint of Guinness in a Dublin pub. A friend told me that the online grocery market in Ireland and Britain was worth over £9 billion annually but that, due to the poor delivery models used by retailers, it was losing a combined £300 million per year. The market needed a better mousetrap.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

In 2018, Buymie became the very first independently-owned ecommerce platform to take the fast-growing ‘discounter’ channel online, through a first-of-its-kind partnership with the largest grocer in Europe, Lidl.

What was your back-to-the-wall moment and how did you overcome it?

That was when we were launching and we had one of the largest grocers in the country taking action to shut us down. We had to decide there and then what type of businesses we were going to be. We decided that if the market needed us to be the disruptor then we would take on that role and really lean into it.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Like the rest of the grocery sector, Buymie was well placed and experienced a strong level of growth throughout the Covid crisis. We have certainly seen the market settle into the new normal. Consumer behaviour has most certainly been changed and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

When we first launched Buymie, I was our one and only personal shopper. We operated 9-10 Monday to Sunday and, for the first year of the business, if an order came in any time during that window, I would need to drop what I was doing and jump on it. I did 1,800-plus grocery orders myself within the first 18 months of starting Buymie. That was pretty tough and required a lot of sacrifice.

What was your biggest business mistake?

I have made countless over the years, and part of being an entrepreneur is the willingness to go out and make them. Most people never take that leap because of the fear of making a mistake. If I was to pick one, it would be that I underestimated how long it would take me to raise investment for a consumer business in Ireland. I thought I’d be able to raise €1 million in 12 months; the reality was it took me two years to raise €850,000.

Gary Wickham, MagGrow

Gary Wickham had a long and varied business career before founding MagGrow, a business that has developed technology to significantly reduce waste associated with pesticide spray applications. Having worked in the pharmaceutical sector, most recently as managing director of Reheis Ireland, he went on to co-found StayCity apartment hotels, a business that has a turnover in excess of €100 million.

While MagGrow was established in 2013, it wasn’t until 2018 that it was launched commercially. Since then it has built up a team of 30 staff and completed more than 100 installations across 14 countries.

The business, which has received designation as an Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up, is moving to make farming more sustainable and profitable by ensuring that farmers have less waste. It now trades in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Europe and Australasia and intends to enter the South African market soon.

The business has raised €12 million to date and it is in the process of raising its series A round to add to its executive and management teams in a move to enable it to collaborate with large agrochemical companies.

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

The original idea came from a gentleman named Ted Lenhardt, an agriculturalist and entrepreneur now in his 80s. Ted is still a shareholder and takes a keen interest in MagGrow's development. He realised that conventional pesticide spraying was deeply compromised. So, he built a simple prototype for air-blast spraying using magnet technology that eliminates this compromise between spray drift and coverage, resulting in dramatically reducing spray waste.

David Moore [MagGrow co-founder] and I saw the fact that the original prototype, although quite different from the current version, gave some interesting results, so we decided to try and commercialise it.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I have worked for multinationals in quite senior roles, and this is the second company that I have co-founded, having previously helped establish StayCity. Without a doubt, I would consider MagGrow as my greatest achievement as David and I are bringing a technology to the world that is playing its part in solving the looming food and water crisis created by excessive population growth combined with the impact of climate change.

What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer or turning point for the company?

It is very difficult to name one, so I will mention two. The first was our scientific research partnership and collaboration with Prof Mike Coey and the team at Amber (the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research facility) in Trinity and the signing of our non-exclusive, worldwide commercial sales and distribution agreement with Trimble Ag giving access to their extensive dealer network. Trimble are a multibillion-dollar revenue company.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

When in StayCity during the Lehman Brothers and 2008 financial collapse, I had to let go people recently hired. Not a nice thing to have to do.

What was your biggest business mistake?

I would say not starting my own company earlier. I had excellent training and experience working in the various multinationals which I loved. Still, I always worked very hard and probably should have employed that energy and embarked on my entrepreneurial journey two or three years earlier than I did.

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

Find a good mentor.

How do you switch off from work? What are your hobbies?

Entrepreneurs do struggle to switch off, especially in the early years, as you do not have the staffing levels or funds of much larger organisations. Thankfully, David and I have very understanding and supportive wives and families. Without that support, MagGrow would simply not have happened.

Ríona Ní Ghriallais and Conor Harkin, ProVerum

Ríona Ní Ghriallais is a biomedical engineer with experience in early-stage medical device concept design, while Conor Harkin is a former medical doctor and subsequently a banker and businessman. ProVerum is a medical device spin-out of Trinity College Dublin which was founded in 2016.

The business has developed ProVee, a unique, minimally-invasive solution for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), an enlargement of the prostate gland which impinges upon the urethra.

The business has secured €6.8 million in equity funding and €3.1 million in non-dilutive funding and its clinical study, which commenced in May 2019, is fully enrolled. The idea initially came from talking to men suffering with BPH, with many saying they couldn’t get relief from medication and others not wanting to go through the often major surgery required to correct the problem.

ProVerum employs 14 staff and over the coming three years expects to have completed its European Union study and gained approval here. Its US clinical study should then be nearing conclusion. If those are successful, the pair say their technology will be a game-changer for the treatment of BPH.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

If I were to pick one thing, it would have to be being present at the very first case when our device was used. Seeing the device perform well, the patient benefit and feeling like ‘we did that’ was a great feeling.

What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer or turning point for the company?

2019 was a great year for us. We were joined by a very experienced MedTech chief executive, which has worked really well for us. Having someone there who has done it all before is so helpful. We commenced and fully enrolled our first clinical study. This was a huge milestone for the company. Seeing the device perform well in both safety and efficacy in the clinical setting was a great moment for us.

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

The best piece of advice was to leverage the great network in Ireland and ask for help. People are genuinely willing to help through offering direct advice or making introductions to others.

As to the worst advice, this came from someone who was over-optimistic and assumed that everything was going to go well. That said, it turned out to be very useful as one of the things we’ve learned is not to assume things will automatically go well but rather to try to think of all the things that can go wrong and mitigate risk wherever possible.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Treatment of BPH is a global issue with an estimated totally addressable market of $30 billion per annum. Our focus right now is on validating the clinical performance of our device, optimising the delivery system for use in the doctor’s office and gaining regulatory approval in Europe and the US.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

We reached a momentous milestone last year with our first clinical trial. Based in Australia, the organisation and management of this trial required navigating timelines and logistics across far-flung time zones and required many long journeys. We’re looking forward to having our next trial in Ireland!

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

It is often forgotten, amongst all of the work and timelines, to stop and reflect on the achievements we make. There will always be something else and more to be done. It is good to take a step back and look at the accomplishments and progress made.

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

Surround yourselves with good, experienced people. Learning from people who have been there before, who understand what needs to be done and who have seen the pitfalls of what happens when things aren’t done well is invaluable.