The 2021 Irish Times Innovation Awards will be held later this year. A record number of entries have been received, and some 15 companies across five sectors have been shortlisted for the awards, with the overall prize going to one of the category winners.
This week we profile the shortlisted companies across the New Frontiers and Sustainability sectors. These companies will be given the opportunity to present to our panel of judges, who will then have the difficult choice of choosing a winner.
Bowsy is a Dublin-based start-up on a mission to transform the traditional graduate talent acquisition process for students and employers. With the Bowsy platform employers can post projects they would like help with and students can apply for work that’s relevant to their course of study. This gives employers the opportunity to “test drive” a diverse pool of talent emerging from third-level institutions and to see how a potential graduate recruit performs on the job, while students can use the process to build up relevant experience on their CV.
“Bowsy operates as a one-stop shop for remote working and is 100 per cent dedicated to matching students with study relevant tasks,” says John Brady, who co-founded the company with Richard Bryce and Igor Lorenzo in 2019. “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. 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.”
The Bowsy platform was piloted in Croatia in 2019 and the Irish launch followed towards the end of last year. Employers and students register to use the platform and employers post details of the task, its likely duration and the rate. Students apply for relevant tasks and are paid via the platform using the Stripe payment system. There is a mutual rating system when the task is completed. “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. They can hire a students for hours, days or months as required,” Brady says.
Inspire Mentoring is an online mentoring programme aimed at helping 18-25 year olds to realise their full potential through further education. The initiative was started in 2020 under the umbrella 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 focuses on students who are part of Hear, (Higher Education Access Route) a third-level scheme that offers places to those underrepresented in higher education due to their socioeconomic background. The service matches young people with experienced professionals from similar social backgrounds who can act as a life role model, help them see how education can change their lives, open doors to their networks and provide insights into the world of work.
“The aim of the programme is to utilise the power of skilled mentoring to reduce the impact of education disadvantage, so that our young mentees can acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to change their future,” says programme manager, Elaine McGauran.
The programme is formally run with weekly or biweekly sessions for a year and during that time the mentor will help the young person 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.
Mersus Technologies/Avatar Academy
The availability of skilled operators is critical to the continued success of Ireland’s vibrant life sciences sector. However, keeping up with the demand for trained staff is a major challenge and Athlone-based Mersus Technologies has come up with a novel way to tackle it.
Its expertise is in digitising industrial processes and assemblies for knowledge transfer using computer gaming technology and it has created virtual laboratories for its Avatar Academy platform that allow companies to prepare people for jobs in biotech and medical device assembly before going anywhere near a live production line.
“Avatar Academy not only mirrors real-world working environments but digitises all of the knowledge involved in today’s complex biopharma and medtech manufacturing processes. It also captures any metrics involved detailing how each candidate performs a task,” explains founder Geoff Allen. “By capturing what happens in the digital laboratory, new staff learn what is required step by step, at their own pace and prepare for working in a ‘live’ production environment based on authentic job simulations.”
The Mersus system standardises training, reduces costs and risk while representing a significant opportunity for Ireland to gain a competitive advantage in upskilling for the life sciences sector Allen says. “The return on investment is proving significant to the point of being disruptive, reducing the time to get a new recruit prepared for the live production line by 80 per cent.”
Key to the Avatar Academy’s platform is its innovative hand-tracking technology. “Controlling the inputs with their own hands makes the virtual training incredibly intuitive so the user doesn’t need any previous experience,” Allen says. “It dispenses with the need for the kind of controllers normally used with game consoles as the headset built-in cameras track the motion of the user’s hands. The user can interact directly with any virtual objects in the prescribed sequence within the digital facsimile of the cleanroom.”
Agriculture is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and in Ireland the sector accounts for well over a third of all emissions produced here. Galway-based biotechnology company GlasPort is focused on solving the problem by tackling methane, a highly potent GHG that will have roughly 80 times the global warming impact of CO2 over the next 20 years.
“Reducing emissions is particularly challenging for agriculture because unlike other sectors there is no low or no-emitting replacement technologies available. As things stand there is no effective or cost-effective solution to the problem and this is what we set out to address,” says company co-founder Dr Ruairí Friel.
“Currently, the only solution being offered to tackle the problem is to reduce the livestock population and this is clearly not viable given the impact it would have on the sector and the need for increased food production to feed the world. Reducing methane emissions, however, would effect significant change and have a much larger cooling effect than reducing CO2 emissions by the same amount.”
GlasPort Bio’s technology is called TMI – temporal methane inhibition – and it prevents the microbial production and release of methane. TMI forms the basis of the company’s two launch products, a feed additive that prevents GHG emissions from enteric fermentation – or in layman’s terms prevents cows burping – and an additive for stored slurry that also prevents GHG emissions.
“Together, GHG emissions from stored slurry and enteric fermentation account for approximately 68 per cent of all Irish agricultural emissions,” Friel says. “TMI is an extremely effective means of mitigating methane release and in trials to date we have demonstrated substantial reductions in methane emissions. If TMI was used extensively in Ireland it would bring down national emissions by more than 20 per cent while still allowing the agricultural sector to thrive and prosper.”
Energy company Vivid Edge helps large energy users to deliver net-zero projects with no capital outlay. Its business model is delivering turnkey energy upgrades as a service – an approach company founder Tracy O’Rourke describes as “a simple customer proposition underpinned by an innovative approach to risk, contract structuring and energy efficiency”.
The aim is to make it easier for large organisations to reduce their carbon emissions, but rather than asking them to pay up front for the necessary upgrades, Vivid Edge bears the cost and takes full project and performance risk. “We give customers a hassle-free project and peace of mind as they only pay for projects once they are fully installed and the benefits commence,” O’Rourke says.
“Our customer offering is simple, but behind it is a smart risk model based on our in-depth understanding of energy efficiency as an asset class and our domain expertise in risk, finance and deal structuring. We want to change how net-zero projects are delivered and to make a material impact on SDG 13 Climate Action. Global annual investment in energy efficiency must increase tenfold by 2050 to meet G20 climate goals, but despite its scale it is a highly fragmented market with alternative funding and delivery models only starting to evolve.”
Typical Vivid Edge customers include healthcare facilities, data-processing companies and large pharma and telecoms organisations in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
O’Rourke is interested in how business models can transfer across sectors and how the principles underpinning aircraft leasing – renting rather than buying – could be adapted to stimulate more investment in energy efficiency. She was concerned about the threat of climate change and felt not enough was being done to solve it. “We wanted to develop a business that was commercially innovative but also fulfilled a critical social need,” she says.
For four decades, Birr-based Grant Engineering has been at the forefront of sustainable and innovative product development. In 2019 it began work on one of its most challenging R&D projects to date to develop a biofuel compatible vortex condensing boiler that would help homeowners reduce their carbon footprint.
“Over recent years, our R&D team has worked with third-level institutions, industry partners and renewable fuel producers to focus on more sustainable and carbon-saving fuels and on developing our boilers to be biofuel compatible,” says managing director Stephen Grant.
“During the early stages of our most research project we were able to identify potential bio and synthetic fuels that would both meet greenhouse gas reduction targets and be commercially viable.”
Blending the potential fuels to get the perfect mix proved to be a challenge but eventually a breakthrough came during field testing when boilers were run successfully on 100 per cent HVO – hydrotreated vegetable oil. “All Grant Vortex boilers can now take a biofuel at up to a 30 per cent blend with kerosene or indeed can operate using 100 per cent HVO biofuel,” Grant says. “There are only minimum changes and modifications required and the parts used by the installer are exactly the same as they would normally be. Switching to a Grant boiler with this new innovative technology will allow homeowners to make a significant reduction in their carbon emissions.”
Grant adds that more than 600,000 homes in Ireland will need to be retrofitted to meet 2030 carbon-reduction targets. However, electrification of heating is difficult and expensive so another option, such as using biofuels, is a greener and more cost effective alternative. “Our boiler can reduce carbon emissions immediately without causing the State or the homeowner a lot of money while still guaranteeing the customer comfort in their home,” Grant says.
IT & FINTECH
Danalto As anyone who has mislaid their mobile phone knows, trying to find it can be hugely frustrating. For companies with high value assets, the stakes are much higher if a piece of expensive equipment can't be found. As of now, asset tracking is expensive and can be problematic. However, a highly accurate tracking system from Internet of Things (IoT) start-up Danalto aims to be the gamechanger that will make it easy and cost effective for organisations to track their assets in real time wherever they are in the world. The asset classes covered range from people and equipment to packages and machinery and Danalto's solution works at scale and both indoors and out. "The aim is to make every IoT device reachable and locatable using minimal infrastructure. This is in contrast to existing solutions that require dense infrastructures that are difficult to deploy," explains company co-founder and CEO David McDonald. "To do this we have developed FiLo (fine to long range), a first-generation tracking system which works well at long range while achieving location accuracy of less than five metres. Compared with existing systems, ours is significantly more energy efficient, it can cover diverse environments from healthcare and natural resources to logistics and supply chain and it is economically efficient to use," he says. At the front end of Danalto's solution is the Cardinal platform, which allows customers to visually monitor their tracked assets or personnel. The platform can be remotely accessed and users can create customisable zones, which is useful in hazardous environments where "safe" and "at risk" areas can be identified. "We know that a significant proportion of connected devices that need to be found can't be found and as the IoT grows and more and more devices become connected, that's no longer acceptable. Companies will increasingly need asset location as part of their overall operations control and this is where the Danalto solution fits in," McDonald says.
GreyScout is an Athlone-based technology company focused on helping businesses to protect their brands against online counterfeit and grey market activity across web forums, search engines, websites, social media channels and rogue sites. "Our aim is to give companies control of their brand online because counterfeiting, piracy and grey market activity is a big and growing problem that will have an increasingly detrimental impact on the online economy in the years ahead," says GreyScout founder John Killian. "In 2020, for example, the European Intellectual Property Office estimated the loss of sales as a result of counterfeiting to the industries most affected (pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and personal care, wines and spirits and toys and games) at €19 billion within the European Union. GreyScout deals with the problem by removing unauthorised content from customer view." Killian says most companies only react to infringements when they are brought to their attention and many rely on manual checking of the unauthorised activity, which is too little, too late. "To stop the problem, you need to be able to see it and with GreyScout, the visibility of unauthorised activity is increased. The detection and collection of counterfeit evidence is automated, and offenders are notified and speedily removed," he says. GreyScout is currently trialling its technology with global brands such as Samsung and Yvolution. Its solution covers off areas where unscrupulous actors are most likely to try their luck. This includes IP infringements and counterfeit listings, grey market activity across marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay, fake social media accounts and pricing policy breaches. "Our mission is to democratise intellectual property protection by providing cost-effective solutions that enable brands, at any stage of growth, to redress the balance of power in the online world," Killian says. "Our customers need to protect themselves and their customers and our innovative technology provides them with the essential market intelligence to do so."
Identity verification is key to preventing fraud, but the confirmation process can be time consuming, complex and burdensome. As it stands, the burden of verification under anti-money laundering regulation weighs heavily on businesses and is getting in the way of customer acquisition and the smooth flow of e-commerce. What companies need is a secure and easy method of verification in real-time and this is exactly what regtech start-up ID-Pal has developed. Its SaaS + identity verification solution has been designed to take the pain out of the process by reducing the time, cost and risk associated with regulatory compliance. The system takes a multi-layered approach to verification and uses a combination of document verification and biometric checks such as facial matching and liveness testing to ensure that the compliance process is as robust as possible.