New Frontiers: Winning early-stage entrepreneurs who took the leap

Overall winners Avatar Academy uses virtual-reality technology to create a simulated world

Geoff Allen, founder of Mersus Technologies in Athlone, has been working on digital training solutions since 1997, the dark ages in terms of digitisation.

With the launch of Avatar Academy two years ago he has taken the experiential and immersive aspects of computer gaming and used them to improve – on so many levels – the traditionally staid and unengaging world of workplace training.

It’s a giant leap for industries such as life sciences, where training is essential for cleanroom personnel in order to comply fully with the standards and requirements demanded within contaminant-free processing environments.

Avatar Academy is a training ground like no other because instead of unleashing new hires into expensive med-tech laboratories and cleanrooms “IRL” it uses virtual-reality technology to create a simulated world. It means personnel get optimal training conditions in a controlled and protected environment.


Such environments are themselves home to a constant stream of updating technologies, which Avatar Academy can accommodate with ease, making it perfect for the upskilling of existing staff too. At a time when competition for talent is intense, and skilled labour in short supply, it’s an innovative solution that has captured the attention of its target markets.

For Allen, taking technologies developed for the gaming industry and developing them for use in the training arena made perfect sense. “We take computer gaming software and give it industrial application so that, instead of learning how to shoot some character in a game set in the Middle East, you’re, say, learning how to make a catheter in Galway,” he says.

The market opportunity is enormous. “The need for this is colossal. In biopharma alone up to 20 per cent of salary can go on training. Effectively, technology is moving so fast that skills can’t keep up. We already know about the existing skills gaps, not just in Ireland but around the world, and that’s being driven by technological advances around the workplace,” says Allen.

But it’s not just training that Avatar Academy provides, it’s the value add that comes from a system that captures data around every aspect of every process being undertaken on a production line. “By capturing the data you can spot bottlenecks,” he explains.


Almost all of its existing clients operate in highly regulated sectors, and are typically subject to strict US FDA approvals. Precision is a prerequisite of everything they do. Because of the strictures under which they operate, it’s an inherently conservative market, he points out. But working with Avatar Academy means that as they execute a culture of continuous improvement, including through lean or six sigma manufacturing techniques, their training can keep pace with ease.

“We’ve been building metaverse labs for years,” adds Allen, who says the process requires a team from Avatar Academy to visit a facility and record every step of every process undertaken at a production line, in detail. This initial sweep takes place using video, on to which is layered Mersus Technology’s software, specially developed to capture all the pinches, pulls, twists and other manipulations required of life sciences operatives in the creation of high tech medical devices.

One of its clients has 68 production sites on one site alone, and three sites in all. But the size of the task only serves to underscore the scale of the savings to be made by using its VR training software.

Internally Mersus Technology has developed its own pipeline of talent to help it keep up with demand for Avatar Academy, including through the creation of a custom-made graduate development programme which takes a deliberately holistic approach to the development of each of its personnel.

“These are young people who love gaming and there is no course that leads them to our door, so we develop them from scratch,” he explains. “The biggest bottleneck right now is the challenge for talent. We nurture talent and we value neurodiversity.”

Innovation is at the heart of everything they do at Mersus Technologies but for Allen, it’s not something you learn by signing up to a course marked ‘innovation’.

“Innovation is made up as you go along. That’s where it thrives,” he explains. “We deal with some of the biggest life sciences companies in the world but they don’t ‘do’ innovation, they buy it. In fact, their culture crushes innovation. Innovation is what you get from men and women looking around a problem rubbing their chin. Innovation comes from anarchy and necessity. That’s where it happens, out of chaos. Not at a bench.”

Runner up: Inspire Mentoring

Inspire Mentoring aims to assist young people between the ages of 18 and 25 to develop their own potential, and to own their future. The concept is simple: to match successful professionals with young people from a similar background and to inspire them to see opportunities in life that may not have been apparent to them previously.

The initiative was launched as a pilot in 2020 as part of of the Innovate Communities social enterprise in Ballymun and since then more than 100 volunteer mentors have signed up and 100 young people have been through the mentoring process.

Inspire is geared towards young people who are part of the Hear (Higher Education Access Route) third-level scheme that offers places to those underrepresented in higher education due to their socioeconomic background. By matching young people with experienced professionals from similar social backgrounds who can act as a life role model, Inspire helps them see how education can change lives. The mentors also open doors to their networks and provide insights into the world of work.

According to programme manager Elaine McGauran, the aim of the programme is to utilise the power of skilled mentoring to reduce the impact of education disadvantage, so that young mentees can acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to change their future.

Identify goals

The online programme is run with weekly or bi-weekly sessions for a year and during that time the mentor helps the mentee to identify goals and areas to work on. “Many young people wishing to stay in education still face profound inequalities,” McGauran says. “It’s the subtle inequality associated with growing up in an environment where there is intergenerational apprehension regarding education and employment. The young person is trying to get on with their life and into further education, but they don’t know how the system works and they don’t have access to professionals to help them. It’s the iceberg analogy. Getting exams and points is what you see. It is what is underneath – networks and career aspirations – that Inspire was set up address.”

Runner Up: Bowsy

Initially piloted in Croatia in 2019, Bowsy is an Irish-run business that was launched in Ireland in 2020 to create a new marketplace that connects third-level students and businesses through remote study-related project work and tasks. The company aims offer university students equal access to work experience opportunities regardless of background or location.

The Bowsy platform enables employers to post projects or tasks with which they need help, along with their likely duration and the rate of pay on offer. Students can browse the tasks and apply for work that’s relevant to their course. If successful, they get paid via the Stripe payments system.

Pool of talent

This allows students to earn money at the same time as burnishing their CVs in advance of graduation. For employers, not only do they get access to a wide pool of valuable talent, but they can also assess students for their potential as graduate recruits later on. There is also a mutual rating system when the task is completed.

“We believe that every student deserves a career they love and that all third-level students should have equal access to relevant work experience, regardless of where they live or study,” says John Brady, who co-founded the company with Richard Bryce and Igor Lorenzo in 2019. “Bowsy provides an alternative to traditional part-time work and can positively impact academic performance and enhance career opportunities while earning the student money at the same time.”

But it is more than just job ad site. “The technology underpinning the platform uses unique algorithms to match students with employers and a key attraction of Bowsy for employers it that it is a one-stop shop offering the ultimate in flexibility,” Brady explains. “They can hire a student for hours, days or months as required.”