Irish women innovators play ever greater part on world stage

Fields from space technology to food waste control have been changed by Irish women

Ireland has been attempting to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship, with mixed success to date. There have been several major breakthroughs over the years. And, in the many cases the greatest disruption and innovations have been led by women. With International Women’s Day in mind we’ve picked just a small handful of the finest Irish female innovators shaping the island’s future.

Dr Nora Khaldi

Founder and chief scientific officer of Nuritas. Khaldi knew from a young age that she wanted to become a scientist. Combining science with technology, Khaldi is a mathematician with a PhD in molecular evolution and bioinformatics from Trinity College Dublin. Nuritas uses AI algorithms to predetermine the effect bioactive peptides in foods can have on fighting disease or what health benefits they can offer. Khaldi has attracted an impressive line-up of investors including Marc Benioff, Bono and the Edge. Last year she won the Woman of the Decade in Business and Leadership award at the Women's Economic Forum.

Prof Emmeline Hill

Winner of the President of Ireland Young Researcher Award in 2004 for her research into performance traits in thoroughbred horses, Hill is co-founder of Equinome and leads the research-and-development team in Plusvital. Using genetic testing to predict the sprinting ability and stamina in thoroughbred racehorses, the information provided helps determine each animal's best distance for optimal performance, also lending itself to breeding purposes. It's quite the feat to bring science in to such a traditional industry.

Dr Sarah Bourke

Co-founder of space technology company Skytek, Bourke is taking big steps in this technology sector. Skytek's technologies are used by Nasa, the European Space Agency and the International Space Station, where they've been using Skytek's international procedure viewer for over a decade. The system assists astronauts on their daily execution of procedures onboard the ISS. An advocate for encouraging young women into Stem fields Bourke was awarded an EU Prize for Women Innovators in 2016.


Dr Áine Behan

Founder and chief executive of Cortechs, Behan has a BSc in neuroscience and a PhD in neuropathology. Her interest in attention deficits in children led her to starting up Cortechs, which develops games to help children with attention issues such as ADD or ADHD. Combining neuroscience and brainwave technologies, Behan aims to improve children's concentration. The games are based on neurofeedback training, retraining of the brain using brainwaves. The game Zip and the Misty Mountain is a download on Android and iOS and works with a headset connected by Bluetooth Low Energy technology.

Ciara Donlon

Chief executive and founder of Theya Healthcare, Donlon, who made the switch from a corporate marketing career to lingerie shop owner, developed a range of post-surgery lingerie for cancer patients. Made from a bamboo mix, the bras and briefs were designed for those who have undergone surgery on their breasts, thoracic, pelvic or abdominal areas and for women who are receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy. In 2017 she was awarded Laureate for Europe in the Cartier Women's Initiative. As well as selling online Theya healthcare products are sold in House of Fraser and the company also supplies the NHS.

Clare Hughes

Founder and managing director of CF Pharma, Hughes is a serial entrepreneur, having previously owned Nutriscience, which she sold in 2009. CF Pharma specialises in the development of niche generics, medical devices and food supplements in both human and animal sectors. Developing Telenostics, a systems farmers can use to diagnose parasite infestations in animals from their faecal samples. The system contains an app which, once the farmer has filtered down the sample, can be used to send a photo and obtain a diagnosis within an hour. Hughes's pitching has won her many funding opportunities including the EU's SmartAgriFood accelerator programme.

Aoife Corcoran

Co-founder, director and chief operating officer of Space Engagers, Corcoran has a PhD in architecture, planning and environmental policy. She and fellow UCD PhD Philip Crowe created the social enterprise which uses iterative mapping to highlight areas and communities that may help solve issues such as homelessness and urban regeneration. The platform is designed to allow locals, who best know their area, to highlight things such as disused buildings or degeneration, using the app to map and upload photos of the sites. So far they have worked with projects including the Peter McVerry Trust to find vacant properties that may be suitable for housing homeless people.

Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward

Co-founders of FoodCloud, O'Brien, who was working in investment banking in London, and Ward, who was doing a business degree at TCD, met at a social enterprise evening, both having had an interest in matching food waste and the scarcity of food. FoodCloud now connects more than 2,000 shops across Ireland and the UK with about 5,000 charities through food waste collection. The social innovators have Tesco, Aldi and Lidl as their retail partners in Ireland, and Tesco and Waitrose in the UK. As well as providing a technology platform to make the connection they also supply a warehouse-level solution for products which are too late to be delivered to stores due to a short shelf life. As well as having numerous accolades to its name, FoodCloud recently won a place on the Blackbox Connect accelerator programme, connecting it with the Silicon Valley network.

Kate Dempsey

Director of Irish Mussel Seed Company, Dempsey, whose company is still at the pre-trading stage and awaiting licensing from Department of Agriculture, is already making an impact as an innovator. Coming from a background in law, she studied aquaculture and is currently doing a H Dip in business management aquabusiness. It's not a complete jump of ship for Dempsey, as she has been immersed in fishing all her life, as both sides of her family come from the fishing industry. Her company is developing a sustainable way to harvest raw material mussel seed in the Irish Sea. The system will involve suspended structures which naturally collects mussel seed which will be grown for five to six months and then sold on to the mussel-growing industry. Dempsey was recently named Wicklow's best young entrepreneur by the Wicklow Enterprise Office and is awaiting the recently postponed IBYE awards to see if she can add more awards to her shelf.

Nikki Lannen

Virtual reality may still be taking hold with consumers, but for Nikki Lannen, founder of War Ducks, embracing the technology is paying off. The former Facebook employee struck out on her own in 2013 after more than four years on the social network's gaming team, setting up WarDucks to design and develop games for virtual-reality devices. The Dublin-based company has been busy in recent months, announcing in September it had raised €1.3 million to help expand its platform and add to its staff numbers.

Katie and Annie Madden

Entrepreneurs don't come much younger or more determined than the founders of FenuHealth, sisters Kate (17) and Annie (16) Madden. They may still be both at school, but the youngsters have caused a stir in the equine world with their powdered supplements, which are added to feed to help prevent and solve the problem of gastric ulcers in horses, a common problem. The horse-mad entrepreneurs, who recently received an Irish Times Innovation Award for their business, converted a BT Young Scientist Exhibition project into a full-blown business that employs eight people and is exporting to 12 countries. Having first been met with bemusement when they started selling the product at trade fairs, the sisters now have orders for their solution pouring in and have received the thumbs up from prominent trainers such as Jim Dreaper.