Bringing ‘cool’ haptic technology to Asian smartphones

Decades in the tech sector abroad, one Carlow man finds China mind-boggling

Paul Costigan is chief executive of Senseg, a Finnish-headquartered company whose feel-screen "haptic" technology is garnering huge interest among major smartphone producers, recently receiving a $6 million investment from NXP Semiconductors – a group whose partners include Apple, Nokia, Siemens and Samsung.

Costigan works between a shared office in Hong Kong and his office in Shenzhen City alongside two local support people.

Senseg employs approximately 20 people across operations in Finland, the US, Taiwan and Japan.

The company’s technology enhances touch screens with “tactile effects” using patented Tixel technology, which generates a variety of senses and textures using ultra-low electrical currents.


‘Cool vendor’

The company has been named a cool vendor by Gartner and was listed among 50 top best innovations by


magazine in 2011. Senseg is targeting the massive Asian smartphone market with its technology – “because the market is huge: about 670 million smartphones were sold last year”, Costigan explains.

“You can feel the fact that you have unlocked the phone for example. Studies have shown that tactile confirmation engages the senses and other parts of the brain. You are more accurate in your typing and in performing other functions.

Poised for market

“We are probably a year away from being ready to commercialise this technology but we are in pilots with a number of big brand smartphone vendors at the moment,” he says.

Costigan admits it is challenging to do business in China because it's an emerging market and because of wider cultural gaps.

“But at the end of the day what drives us all are interesting challenges. The sheer scale of the market opportunity in China is mind-boggling . . . humbling.”

Working in the tech space since the 1990s, the seasoned semiconductor professional says the challenge in the past for Irish companies was to figure out how to do business in Silicon Valley. Those who did created a slipstream for others.

He says there are fewer examples of this in China but commends Enterprise Ireland for knowing the business landscape there.

The ideal scenario, he says, is to find internationalised Chinese colleagues and he has encountered many who have studied in Ireland. “It’s great to hear their Irish accents when you go to networking events!”

The Carlow native is no stranger to living and working abroad, having spent time in Belgium, the US, Portugal and China. He speaks Dutch, Portuguese and French as well as English.

“I was caught up in the start-up culture in Ireland in the late 1990s when there was a great boom going on there.

"I then had the pleasure of moving to the west coast of the US with Massana [a semiconductor company of which he was co-founder and chief executive from 1994] and experiencing the dotcom boom there. And then, frankly, we experienced the crash.

“We held it together, we hardened into a good execution team and the company was acquired by a US semiconductor company [Agere Systems] and are still successfully knocking out billions of chips. It taught me the ropes of the semiconductor business and I’ve been involved in it ever since.”

Irish roots

Despite having lived abroad for so long, Costigan has maintained his roots with family and business in Ireland: “Although I am not working for an Irish company at the moment, I am part of the scene of Irish business people here. I am in a global business so whether I do my laundry in Ireland or in Hong Kong, I’m on a plane every week anyway.”

He is a member of the Irish Chamber of Hong Kong and an active participant in the annual Asia Pacific Irish Business Forum.

Despite them having never lived in Ireland, he says his two daughters consider themselves Irish and one had arrived home with a hoard of medals and trophies from an Irish dancing feis before we speak.

But it’s not something that he or his wife, who is a nurse and whom he has known since college, have pressed Irishness on their children.

“My two little girls consider themselves Irish despite the fact that they have never lived in Ireland because of the Irish grandparents and cousins and so on,” he says.

The girls attend the international school in Hong Kong and, as English is the official second language there, the family have found it easy to settle in the cosmopolitan city.

Much of Costigan’s time is spent travelling between Finland, the US and within Asia – across various cities in China but also Korea and Japan. “I’ve been travelling for decades. That’s just what it takes.”

Living in a Cantonese-speaking area of China, he is endeavouring to improve his Mandarin which is more widely spoken but finds that English is the “global language of business”.

Telecoms networking

Much of Costigan’s day-to-day business involves networking, meeting clients, building the company profile and raising finance. There’s never a typical working day for the chief executive.

“It’s a customer-facing role and customers are partners so I spend a lot of time trying to network within the telecoms industry here,” he says.

“Networking is not just an Irish thing. For a guy like me, a lot of my value is the networks that I have and the reputation I have with them, so networking is something that I spend a lot of time doing.”