Enbio blooms after relocation to NovaUCD

Enbio boss found once you got yourself into the right environment you can go forward with great energy and optimism

 At NovaUCD are (from left) Nigel Cobbe, vice-president of business development at Enbio, chief executive John O’Donoghue, and Dr James Carton, industrial surfaces programme manager. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

At NovaUCD are (from left) Nigel Cobbe, vice-president of business development at Enbio, chief executive John O’Donoghue, and Dr James Carton, industrial surfaces programme manager. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

John O’Donoghue, founder of surface technology company Enbio, is candid about the many challenges of getting a tech start-up off the ground.

“I’ve made all the mistakes inherent in such a journey mainly because you don’t know what you don’t know, and all start-ups are subject to the frailty of the human condition,” he says.

“It’s not an easy path and I take comfort from the fact that it’s not easy for anyone. Even Steve Jobs of Apple had his problems. But when you get yourself into the right environment and things really start coming together, you can put the past behind you and go forward with great energy and optimism.”

For Enbio, the “right” environment was the incubation hub at NovaUCD where the company relocated from Cork in 2011.

“To me Enbio is a two-year-old company with a history,” says O’Donoghue. “By that I mean we started in 2006 but things didn’t go to plan. We were in the wrong place – a soul-less industrial estate – and ultimately there was a clash of personalities and objectives. We effectively started over when we moved to Nova and haven’t looked back since.

“The energy within Nova is infectious and enabling and it’s chalk and cheese when compared with where we were in Cork. On top of this I have UCD and its vast knowledge bank at my back and this really counts when you’re pitching for business to an organisation like the European Space Agency (ESA). They come here and see the facilities and the fact that you have the expertise of the university behind you and it makes them confident that you have the bandwidth to deliver what you say you’ll deliver.

“We have been really fortunate to work in an open innovation situation with Prof Michael Gilchrist and his team in mechanical engineering and materials here and there has been a great exchange of ideas around that interaction,” he says.

O’Donoghue is a UCD graduate in mechanical engineering who spent 10 years in the medical devices industry before setting up Enbio. The seed for the company was sown when he was working on his thesis for a master’s degree in bioengineering in Trinity College Dublin in 2001.

O’Donoghue’s expertise is in surface coatings and he has developed a patented process called CoBlast that sprays a mixed media stream of particles on to the surface of a metal to strip off its naturally occurring oxide layer. All modern light metals have this layer, which makes it difficult to join anything to them. Enbio has developed a method to bypass this natural barrier and coat the surface before the oxide layer grows back. In the case of medical devices (which is where O’Donoghue was initially pitching his technology) coatings are applied to orthopaedic implants to help repel infection and promote healing.

However getting buy-in for Enbio’s novel technology from the conservative medical devices sector almost proved the company’s undoing. Despite huge efforts the barriers to entry proved too high and when another opportunity arrived the company decided to turn its attention elsewhere.

O’Donoghue knew Enbio’s technology could be applied in other sectors such as aerospace, automotive, energy, and telecommunications, and with the help of Enterprise Ireland and UCD it began what has since become a fruitful relationship with the ESA. This culminated in December 2012 when Enbio landed a contract to supply the ESA with sunscreen panels for satellites. These panels will be used on the solar orbiter mission to the sun in 2017.

“It might sound strange to say the barriers into space were lower than those into medical devices. The difference is that we had a technology that met a need that no one had ben able to meet before and the ESA was prepared to give us a hearing.”

One of the difficulties for a small company relying on contract funding is that while projects can be lucrative, they don’t come along often enough to provide regular cash flow. To supplement its contract earnings Enbio is now looking to build more regular work in the broader aerospace arena. “As a young engineer you dream of working in aerospace or the automotive industry and to be actually sitting across the table from senior people in these sectors and discussing their needs as an equal is unbelievably compelling and exciting.”

Enbio employs 10 full-time staff with another eight on contract. The company has all but outgrown its space at NovaUCD and is in negotiation to move elsewhere on the campus. “We are very keen to remain an Irish company with close academic links and to grow the business and support Irish jobs. Most of our staff have been recruited from UCD, Trinity and DCU, and I am blown away by the talent available.

We are now two years into our new incarnation and are conducting a root and branch review of our business.

Supplying the solar orbiter has been our “golden ticket” in many respects and we want to make the most of this as we plan our future,” O’Donoghue says.