An abundance of entrepreneurial talent

The Irish Times Innovation Awards have again showcased innovative excellence across a range of products and services

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A pioneering antimicrobial coating that kills 99.99 per cent of harmful bugs such as MRSA, has earned young Dublin company Kastus the overall Innovation of the Year award at The Irish Times Innovation Awards 2017. The coating can be applied to glass and ceramics or added to plastics and paint and has a proven 99.99 per cent kill rate against harmful bacteria, fungi and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Now in their eighth year, the awards aim to showcase and reward excellence in innovation across a range of products and services. Kastus saw off competition from 300 companies which registered for the awards this year in taking the top honour.

Keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, which took place at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham last week, was futurist, writer and entrepreneur Mark Stevenson. In his address Mr Stevenson pointed out that various aspects of modern society including democracy, healthcare, and the financial system are broken and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

That is the true role and value of innovation, he said, to address the great challenges facing humanity.

The Kastus product, which also won the award in the life science and healthcare category, can be applied during or after manufacture and the process involves spray-coating and heat-sealing the layer on to a surface to form a hard surface layer. Among the key advantages of the product is the fact that it achieves these exceptionally high kill rates without toxicity or nasty byproducts. In addition, most industrial coatings currently available to protect surfaces use antibiotics in some form and this only serves to increase the rate of human antibiotic resistance.

The Kastus product is based on core technologies developed by Crest (Centre for Research in Engineering Surface Technology) at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Our patented glass and ceramic coating is unique in being indoor light activated – not requiring UV – and it produces a very thin, durable transparent film with no compromise on visual properties,” said company founder John Browne. “It is also permanent, super hard-wearing, chemically benign and economic to produce. Critically, from an environmental compliance perspective, no silver is used in its manufacture and it produces no harmful byproducts.”

As overall winner of the Innovation of the Year Award Kastus won a high-profile communications package worth in excess of €150,000. In addition, the UCD Smurfit Business School will provide it with a scholarship for all three of its Executive Development short courses commencing in 2018.

The youngest entrepreneurs in the competition by some distance took the award in the new frontiers category. Sisters Kate (17) and Annie (15) Madden are both still at school but have managed to create a business involving eight people with exports to 12 countries in four continents.

Their company, FenuHealth, produces powdered supplements which are added to equine feed to help prevent and solve the problem of gastric ulcers in horses. “Around 90 per cent of race horses and 70 per cent of sport horses suffer from gastric ulcers,” says Kate Madden.

Horse supplements

The sisters discovered that one of the flavours horses love most is fenugreek (hence the name of their business) and they combined with a mix of herbs to help reduce the acidity and quantity of gastric juices.

“We use 100 per cent natural ingredients and our products are fully tested and certified and meet all the standards set down by the Turf Club, the Jockey Club, the FEI (international federation for equestrian sports) and the International Olympic Council, ” Madden adds. “Our products can be used on the day of a competition or a race. Other products have to be stopped at least five days before.”

IT and telecommunications category winner Usheru has developed an app-based cinema booking system which puts the studios in control of the process and has the potential to significantly lower the industry’s market spend. The company creates movie specific websites which are connected into cinemas. These websites allow consumers to purchase cinema tickets in just three clicks.

The app also offers the ability to track from advertising campaigns with a “book now” button, enabling studios to see which marketing campaigns produce the best results.

“What we do is connect to the box offices of all cinemas,” says Usheru co-founder Ollie Fegan. “If you see a post on Facebook or the Universal page or a sponsored page, you click ‘book now’, and you come to a site we manage on behalf of the studio like despicableme.ie or fiftyshades.ie.

“There, you find all the cinemas where it’s on. You select where you want to go and see the film and then you buy all the tickets. Our main customers are big studios like Universal and the British Film Institute. ”

The company is operating in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but there are plans to expand into the United States in 2019. “We have just signed our first solo UK project,” says Fegan. “We’re doing the British Film Institute thriller season across the UK.”

BHSL, winner of the agri-food category, has invented a combined heat and power (CHP) system which generates heat and electricity for use on poultry farms using poultry manure as fuel. Not only does this reduce on-farm energy costs but downstream disposal costs are eliminated as the ash produced by the system can be used as a phosphorus and potassium rich fertiliser.

The unique, patent-protected system has the potential to transform the economics of poultry production by turning the costly business of dealing with waste manure into a fuel source.

Fertiliser

Like many other innovations it was borne out of adversity, in this case an instruction from Limerick County Council to company founder and poultry farmer Jack O’Connor to cease using poultry manure as a fertiliser.

“That meant a big financial hit for the farm but Jack’s innovative mind came into play and he came up with the idea of using the manure as an energy source”, says co-founder Declan O’Connor.

BHSL secured €7 million in a fundraising round earlier this year and sales are growing rapidly. “We did €15 million in sales last year and are targeting €45 million for the next financial year,” O’Connor adds.

Energy and environment category winner NVP Energy has also used a novel technology to transform waste into valuable energy. What makes the NVP technology unique is that it is not temperature dependent and produces three times as much energy as it requires to operate.

“The unique aspect of the technology is that is able to work at temperatures as low as 4 degrees Celsius and upwards,” says NVP managing director Michael Murray. “Other systems only work at 30 to 35 degrees and require energy to drive them. This is a 21st century anaerobic digestion system. It takes mid to low strength wastewater from production lines and turns that into an energy source. That’s the sweet spot we are targeting and it is very poorly served by the wastewater treatment systems industry at the moment.”

Food and drink

NVP is targeting the food and drink and municipal sectors because of the fact that they tend to produce low strength wastewater with lower organic content than the waste streams produced by other sectors such as agriculture. “We haves secured a contract to install a system for one of the largest brewers in the world at one of their UK breweries”, says Murray. “We are also in negotiations with a leading UK water utility to install a full-scale demonstrator plant later this year.”

Dublin-based Docosoft’s new claims management system for the world’s largest insurance companies earned it the award in the fintech category. The company’s highly innovative system addresses many of the drawbacks associated with the quite outdated claims management process which had been in use by the industry and it is now the clear leader in the highly competitive London insurance market.

“We started looking at claims management systems for the London insurance market as far back as 2009,” says Docosoft head of development Anthony Freeman. “The systems in use were quite antiquated in terms of the processes used. They all ran on a centralised system which was using very old technology. Companies used spreadsheets for claims handling and there were lots of inefficiencies. We figured we could do something about that.

“Our solution delivers real competitive advantage,” he adds. “It reduces claims turnaround times by up to 50 per cent. Insurance is a very competitive market and all the companies are effectively selling the same thing so an improvement in claims handling times is very important. We are number one in London and the company is going from strength to strength. We are also looking at expanding into other markets like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.”

Digital microscope

An advanced digital microscope specifically designed to meet the exacting inspection and measurement requirements of a range of industry sectors including electronics, automotive, medical devices, and aerospace won the manufacturing category award for Ash Technologies.

The company has been manufacturing electronic magnifiers for people with visual impairments since 1994 and decided to move into the business to business area in response to changes in its core consumer market.

“We had to pivot from being a B2C company to aiming at a B2B market,” explains chief executive Hugh Maguire. “We were faced with increasing commoditisation of our market. We developed the hardware platform based on our high definition camera technology. It has very powerful communications capabilities with ethernet, USB and other ports enabling it to send live data to other systems. It is a smart detection and measurement system.”

Ireland’s strong base of medical device, pharmaceutical, and electronics companies has proved to be fertile ground for the company. “Business is growing very well. We found ourselves in a very difficult situation six years ago and managed to pivot the company and develop the Omni system completely organically. We are targeting sales of €4 to €4.5 million this year with 90 per cent exported to over 30 different countries around the world.”

All the category award winners received a €10,000 Irish Times media package.

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