Irish Times Innovation Awards: company profiles

Six entries across the IT and Fintech, and Life Sciences and Healthcare categories

Brian Fitzpatrick, Oriel Marine Extracts

Brian Fitzpatrick, Oriel Marine Extracts

 

The 11th Irish Times Innovation Awards will be held on January 27th. Some 15 leading Irish companies have been shortlisted across five categories for this year’s awards and this week we profile six of those companies across the IT and Fintech, and Life Sciences and Healthcare categories.

IT & Fintech

eCOMM Merchant Solutions

Managing cash flow is a perennial challenge for SMEs and having to wait several days for money from cashless payments to land in company bank accounts exacerbates an already difficult situation.

eCOMM Merchant Solutions is a young fintech company aiming to solve this thorny problem by crediting its customers’ accounts as soon as a card payment is approved and made.

Valerie Moran of eCOMM
Valerie Moran of eCOMM

eCOMM provides its customers (called merchants) with a payment terminal, a business current account and a prepaid corporate debit card and its approach is innovative in a number of ways as company co-founder and head of customer services, Valerie Moran, explains.

“Firstly, because we issue all three elements, we can offer instant settlement and the funds from the consumer are loaded straight into our customer’s business current account. Within a matter of seconds, the funds can be spent by the merchant via their debit card or IBAN transfer. We also offer a rebate of actual money [not points or prizes or shopping discounts] whenever a merchant spends the funds using our debit card.”

Moran notes that with traditional systems the delay in funds reaching an account can be up to three days and even more if transactions happen over a weekend. In addition, businesses must pay card fees that erode already slim margins. “Our system processes transactions individually and in real time and we advance the funds from our own resources in seconds once the transaction has gone through,” she says. “We take a monthly service fee which is clearly identifiable on the merchant’s statement and saves them the headache of reconciling their till reads and bank account.”

eCOMM’s solution has international appeal and the company has customers in the UK, Greece and Cyprus. It is working with regulatory authorities in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Norway with a view to starting operations in these countries during 2021.

NovoGrid

While energy losses are a natural phenomenon, they are not good news for companies in the business of selling power. Every year over 8 per cent of the world’s electricity is wasted and this prompted the founders of NovoGrid to come up with a solution to address the problem. It’s called GridBoost and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it reduces energy losses on electrical grids.

Paul Manning (left) and Andrew Keane of NovoGrid. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Paul Manning (left) and Andrew Keane of NovoGrid. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

“NovoGrid optimises energy delivery and increases revenue by automating and removing inefficiencies in renewable generators integration with the electrical grid using proprietary grid edge intelligence software,” says COO Paul Manning. “Our innovative leap is our ability to calculate in less than a second all of the energy flows on the local electrical grid, just using existing data within the renewable generator’s substation.

“For renewable generators, their associated energy losses are charged back to them as a cost and up to 10 per cent of annual revenue can be wasted as energy losses,” he adds. “For a leveraged asset like a renewable generator, this is can have an enormous impact on the viability of the project.”

NovoGrid’s target market is specifically those involved in wind power generation. “GridBoost is based on advanced patented algorithms that provide an entirely new approach to the real-time visualisation of power flowing on electrical networks,” says company CTO Professor Andrew Keane. “Others working in our field require hardware to obtain the monitoring data that GridBoost obtains remotely using software. This gives us a significant cost advantage by avoiding installation, operating and maintenance costs.”

Since completing its first sale in April 2020 to a wind farm in Wales, NovoGrid has concluded deals with a number of other operators of significant size in the UK with more to come. The company also has plans to expand into the German and Australian markets during 2021.

Planet

Queues at desks processing tourist VAT refunds are a familiar sight at most airports mainly because the refunds system is still largely manual and paper-based. Recognising a gap in the market for a digitised solution that would seamlessly and speedily process the refunds, fintech company Planet has developed what the company’s president for the Middle East Gary Byrne describes as “the world’s first end-to-end digital VAT refunding system”.

Gary Byrne, president Middle East of Planet
Gary Byrne, president Middle East of Planet

The company’s launch customer was the entire United Arab Emirates and Planet’s payments solution has since been rolled out in Bahrain, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faroe Islands. “There is huge potential for our service in over 70 markets and it’s going to become the default solution for our industry with all elements of our service – including the contracts, agreements, onboarding and training – delivered online,” Byrne says.

One of the most innovative aspects of Planet’s solution is its use of a shopper’s ID to check their eligibility for a VAT refund. This is based on a link to the immigration database of the country being visited and it shows in real-time at the point of sale if the shopper is a valid tourist. When a shopper makes a purchase, Planet’s system creates a small code tag (linked to the shopper’s ID) which is attached to their receipt. As the shopper leaves the store, the code is scanned and the goods are electronically validated.

With Planet’s system refunds are processed instantly. “This is in stark contrast to the traditional approach where customers can experience significant delays of between 90 and 150 minutes at their departure point. The point of sale may be fast, but the border validation can be cumbersome in non-digitised countries,” Byrne says.

Byrne adds that providing a ‘green light’ to shop tax-free up front prevents the frustration often experienced by retailers and shoppers alike who fill out the paperwork only to find out later that the purchase may be ineligible.

Life Sciences and Healthcare

Oriel Marine Extracts

Even the smallest burn hurts and serious burns can be excruciatingly painful and slow to heal with a high risk of infection. Cold running water is considered the best way to treat a burn, but in many situations, this is impractical. As an alternative cooling gel is often applied to slow the damage but this has to be removed and replaced within a few hours which again may not be practical – in conflict zones for example. What the market needed was a treatment with the efficacy of water that was much easier to administer and this is exactly what Louth-based company, Oriel Marine Extracts, has developed.

Brian Fitzpatrick, Oriel Marine Extracts
Brian Fitzpatrick, Oriel Marine Extracts

Using a novel marine ingredient, it has created a burns gel that starts the cooling and healing process from the moment it is applied and can be left on for up to 24 hours. The gel also offers faster healing, reduced scarring and less chance of infection than conventional treatments.

Oriel Marine Extracts began life in 2013 as a sea salt harvesting company but its founders had bigger plans. In particular, they wanted to harness the therapeutic properties of naturally occurring magnesium and other trace minerals in seawater. The plan was to sell these ingredients to the cosmetics and skincare industries, which they have done, but by chance they also discovered that their magnesium mineral extract gel (originally developed to help muscle recovery) had a profoundly beneficial effect on burns.

Working in cooperation with Water-Jel Technologies (a leading US emergency burn care company) and DCU, this discovery kicked off the development of a ground-breaking product that can be applied directly to a burn or infused into dressings. “Using our marine minerals in a burns gel improves the heat absorption and ensures that the burn is in an improved condition when a patient arrives in the emergency department,” says company co-founder Brian Fitzpatrick.

HidraMed Solutions

Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) is an incurable skin condition that affects around 4 per cent of the world’s population. It causes painful lesions and abscesses in the armpit, thigh and groin areas that need to be dressed regularly and unfortunately for HS sufferers, the dressings currently available are not up to the job.

Suzanne Moloney, founder of HidraMed Solutions
Suzanne Moloney, founder of HidraMed Solutions

“Existing dressings leak, move, and fall off and constantly applying and removing adhesive backed dressings further damages already extremely painful skin,” explains Suzanne Moloney, founder of HidraMed Solutions, which has developed a more effective dressing system aimed at those coping with the condition.

Moloney suffers from HS and it was sheer frustration that drove her to design her range of user-friendly products. “A HidraWear dressing can be changed in less than 30 seconds and there is no adhesive skin contact. The dressing is secure so no more worries about leaks or ‘lost’ dressings,” she says. “HS has been largely ignored by the healthcare industry and patients self-manage their wound care with great difficulty. The frequent dressing changes are associated with considerable distress, discomfort and pain.”

HidraMed’s first product is an armpit dressing for women. It comes in three parts: a “second skin” that covers the affected area, a soft and highly absorbent pad and a secure fastening tab. With aesthetics in mind the dressing is worn like a fashion crop top.

The company’s second product, a unisex T-shirt, was launched just before Christmas and male and female boxer shorts are next. HidraMed’s technology also has potential applications in the wider chronic wound care market.

“Our big breakthrough in 2020 was getting our products recognised as reimbursable expenses by health insurers in the US and we are hoping to achieve similar status for the UK, Ireland and The Netherlands during 2021,” says Moloney who has set her sights on capturing a slice of the estimated $23 billion global wound care management market.

Valitacell

Valitacell is a Dublin-based biotech company whose innovative analytics technology is helping speed up the development of life-saving drugs. The company’s system is called Quantum ‘At Line’ analytics and it is being used by biopharmaceutical manufacturers to accelerate the process of medicine discovery and development and to make these treatments available to patients faster and at lower cost.

Dr Hannah Byrne, head of biological sciences at Valitacell
Dr Hannah Byrne, head of biological sciences at Valitacell

“Most biopharmaceutical companies today develop and manufacture their drugs in bioreactors, a process which is controlled by ongoing analysis of the quantity and quality of product being produced,” explains the company’s head of biological sciences, Dr Hannah Byrne.

“This involves a process known as ‘sampling off’ which means taking a sample from the bioreactor and analysing it off-line. This process takes time, is labour intensive, adds cost and significantly increases the potential for error. It also prevents companies from making real-time decisions on their processes. By contrast, our system integrates directly into our customers’ bioreactors allowing them to quickly analyse samples in real-time at an extremely low cost with reliability and high throughput.”

Valitacell will also have a role to play in the next big thing in healthcare – the development of personalised medicines. “Governments and pharma companies are spending billions on the development of personalised medicine but this in itself won’t address the imbalance between the high cost of discovery and the number of patients who will benefit sufficiently to make a return on the investment,” says CTO Dr Ben Thompson.

“The biomanufacturing sector needs a paradigm shift in its cost base to translate the pipeline of discoveries into sustainable healthcare interventions and this is what occupies everyone at Valitacell. Speed, cost, sustainability and safety of manufacturing of both blockbuster and non-blockbuster medicines are our drivers and our team of experts across cell biology, cell engineering and data science are working towards being the ‘innovation inside’ the world’s leading analytical platforms.”

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