Irish Times Innovation Awards: Playing to their strengths

Lowden Guitars, Cyc-Lok, RetroKit, Beauty Buddy and VorTech among the finalists

The 11th annual Irish Times Innovation Awards will be held virtually on January 27th. Some 15 leading Irish companies have been shortlisted for this year’s awards across five categories, with the winners chosen by a panel of judges chaired by leading technology entrepreneur Chris Horn.

This week, Olive Keogh profiles the remaining nine finalists in three categories: Sustainability, Manufacturing and Design, and New Frontiers.



While bike usage is on the rise, so too is bike theft, and owners are understandably reluctant to leave their often-expensive hardware out on the street. Recognising the problem, bike user Stephen Murphy came up with Cyc-Lok, an app-based secure bike locker system that operates on a pay-per-use basis and offers cyclists a safe and weatherproof place to store their bike and other possessions.

This short-term parking solution, which is aimed at international markets, is booked and paid for online and accessed via a PIN code. The billing period stops when a user logs out. Each locker is alarmed and if an unauthorised person tries to gain entry the user is immediately notified. The lockers are modular in design and can be assembled in banks of 12, 24 or 36 to fit into the space available.

Cyc-Lok was set up in 2014 and is continuing to evolve. It has recently extended its product offering with a specifically designed storage facility for An Post where the company's eTrikes and cargo bikes, which are due to be rolled out nationwide, can be securely parked and charged.

“Underpinned by changes in public policy and legislation, increasing capital expenditure on cycling infrastructure and ‘bike-to-work’ tax rebate schemes, the growth in daily cycling journeys and proliferation of high-value cycles and equipment is driving up demand for secure individual bike parking and storage,” says Murphy.

“Our competitive advantage lies in the technical specification of our product, our back-end proprietary software and patent pending design. Our products are designed to encourage and enable cyclists to use their bicycles more frequently by providing security and peace of mind, while the units also provide e-Bike users with a convenient recharging point.”

MedScan 3D

3D printed anatomical models produced by the design company MedScan help surgeons to simulate and plan surgeries and research engineers to test model medical devices.

“Current testing models are not as clinically relevant as our customers would like, and our specialisation is in producing highly accurate models that mimic the low-friction properties of target tissues, while our print technology can print multi-colour, multi-texture, multi-material models all in one go,” says company co-founder Jacqueline O’Connor.

The company’s models are pinpoint-precise and patient-specific and are based on CT, MRI and CBCT (cone beam computed tomography) scans which are converted into 3D models. The use of these models by surgeons improves patient outcomes. It also reduces risk as familiarity with the patient’s anatomy means there is less likelihood of complications in theatre. For example, if a cardiac patient needs a new heart valve, MedScan can take the patient’s CT scan and turn it from an image into an actual physical model of their heart. This means the surgeon can see exactly what anatomical challenges might have to be overcome during the surgery.

“With a smoother procedure, the time spent in theatre is reduced and it also has an array of other benefits, from reduced costs and savings to the hospital to reductions in patient waitlists and shorter stays in hospital,” O’Connor says.

“From the medical devices engineering research perspective, our technology streamlines what is normally a complicated process and provides the sort of quick turnaround fast-paced R&D teams typically need,” she adds. “Our models are made in a variety of materials for applications in prototyping and testing and are geometrically designed to withstand rigorous laboratory and field use. We have considerable 3D and design expertise in-house which means we can customise the models, and this helps to optimise the testing procedures at all stages of device development.”

Ward Automation

Sligo-based Ward Automation designs and builds cutting-edge production equipment for manufacturing industry with a particular focus on servicing the international medical devices and pharmaceutical sectors.

In May 2019, the company began developing a system that could increase the speed at which pre-filled syringes could be inspected and packed. The resulting fully automated system, which uses robots to complete the task, can handle 600 syringes per minute.

The system replaces what was a time- intensive and subjective manual inspection process. With robots, there is no subjectivity and they can inspect the syringes, labels and seals involved with consistency and accuracy in seconds.

Three robots are involved and they inspect tubs of syringes for integrity and to ensure the correct number are present and suitably capped. Any tub that doesn’t pass muster is diverted for further inspection. The machine’s human overseer consults a visual display to see which syringe is not compliant and removes it. “Good” tubs are sent for final labelling and finishing with a tamper-proof seal.

"We designed and built this machine to help a client get higher throughput while eliminating manual visual checking, and everything is automatically checked using high-end vision systems," says managing director John Ward. "To get the increased output while maintaining the highest quality standards demanded large-scale automation, while the requirement for production safety and traceability meant our robot cell had to be integrated into the company's SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system. In addition, each step of the process had to be accommodated within in a very compact footprint.

"Our machine is modular and its advanced control system means it can be configured to suit any customer's needs. As pre-filled syringes are standard in the pharmaceutical industry, we are confident our innovation will be of interest to many manufacturers in Ireland and abroad," Ward says.


Beauty Buddy

Beauty Buddy is a data analytics company aiming to bridge the gap between consumers and brands in the €800 billion beauty and cosmetics market.

"Brands are in the dark about who is picking up their products and what is currently trending," says Wendy Slattery, who co-founded the company with her sister Tracy Leavy in 2017. "Market research helps, but findings can be difficult to interpret and the information may be months out of date by the time the brands get it."

Beauty Buddy gives brands immediate access to consumer and product interaction via its app. “This live data is extremely valuable in providing unique insights into consumer behaviours, competitive comparisons and sentiment analysis, while retailers can use it for marketing, product placement and as an efficient buying tool,” Slattery says.

From the consumer’s perspective, the app provides shoppers with what they need to know about thousands of products, from ingredients to directions for use. They access the information by scanning the product’s barcode with their phone. Feeding into the app and creating its community of trusted beauty buddies are “ordinary” consumers who share their views and experiences of different products.

In response to the pandemic, the company has added to its service by creating a community of samplers. Brands send samples to Beauty Buddy which matches them to users based on their app profiles. The products are then home-tested and the sampler leaves a review.

Once a batch of 250 samples has been distributed, Beauty Buddy runs a Zoom meet where samplers meet the brands and ask questions. “This wouldn’t have happened pre-Covid because nobody would have dreamed of doing a video call with 250 people. Now it’s normal,” says Slattery. “Doing this has been a really big turning point because brands get to connect directly with their users and it’s creating great data for both sides.”

Lowden Guitars
Over the last 45 years, Lowden Guitars has developed a formidable international reputation for the quality of its instruments. Singer Ed Sheeran is a big fan and plays on a "wee Lowden" which was designed for him by company founder George Lowden. The pair subsequently collaborated to produce Sheeran by Lowden, a new product line-up aimed at encouraging younger people to take up the instrument. The Sheeran range of eight guitars is designed to be an affordable entry point into the brand with mass appeal but without any compromise on sound quality or style.

Craftsmanship, design and premium materials are critical to the sound of a Lowden guitar, and the challenge for George Lowden was to make an instrument that retained these qualities while hitting the price point for younger players. This involved the unusual step of tapping into the aerospace industry for help to develop bespoke manufacturing methods that would create precision-built guitars at an affordable price on an unprecedented scale.

It took 18 months to develop the prototypes and a production system that dovetailed high-speed precision based on aerospace technology with traditional handcrafting. This new system produces in a day what would take weeks using traditional production methods.

The launch of Sheeran by Lowden has opened up a new global market for the Co Down-based company, and the new product is expected to help triple its turnover over a five-year period.

“It was a considerable undertaking for a small company used to hand-building high-end guitars to bring a volume product to the market,” George Lowden says. “To make such a range of more accessible guitars in Ireland required a significant scaling of our business. We had to create completely new, additional technologies that would remain true to the culture and ethos for which the Lowden guitar is already known.”

Maris International Marine Projects

A perennial problem for the drilling industry worldwide is that approximately 20 per cent of drilling time is non-productive. This is down to what Laurence Ayling, founder of Maris International Marine Projects, calls "typical drilling problems such as having to stop drilling to add or remove a drill pipe".

The ability to drill continuously would be a step-change in drilling innovation as it would eliminate 15 persistent problems associated with the process completely and reduce the impact of seven more. This is what Ayling has achieved with his company’s patented technology which can convert existing drilling rigs to drill continuously.

Ayling, who has spent many years as an advisor to the offshore oil industry, says that “stop-start drilling”, which can slow down drilling for between 30 and 60 minutes after each reconnection, has been causing the industry problems for over 100 years. His solution can result in savings of about 15 per cent on the cost of drilling all wells in the future. This will be worth about €10 billion a year to the drilling industry when most existing rigs are drilling continuously.

“Continuous drilling is achieved through our innovative bottom drive machine which takes over the drilling (rotation of the drill string, circulation of mud and weight on the drilling bit) from the top drive during connections. Continuous drilling was impossible before the invention of the bottom drive,” Ayling says. “Trying to maintain a steady bottom hole pressure to control the well is difficult with stop-start drilling, whereas continuous drilling with a continuously stable annulus (the space between the drill string and the borehole) and steady downhole pressure is significantly safer.”

The Maris International bottom drive is designed to operate without people on the rig floor. It will also facilitate low-cost automated drilling for deep-sea exploration and production in the future while eliminating existing problems and increasing safety.



About 400,000 Irish householders are experiencing fuel poverty, which means they can’t afford to heat their homes adequately. One of the main reasons is because 70 per cent of the Irish housing stock is deemed in need of an energy retrofit. The Government has set ambitious targets for its Climate Action Plan which includes energy retrofits for half a million Irish homes. However, meeting these targets means increasing the pace at which retrofits are being carried out by a factor of 10, and this is a big challenge.

"Improving productivity along the value chain and reducing costs is absolutely essential to upscaling energy retrofits," says Xavier Dubuisson, co-founder of Clonakilty-based company RetroKit, which has developed a platform that can help do both.

“Our software solution accelerates both the decision-making and implementation phases of retrofitting housing at scale. We provide the platform for the whole value chain from planning through procurement to contract management, audit and evaluation. There is no other software tool on the market that does what ours does, and the current process of planning for energy refits is usually either done manually or there is no analysis undertaken.”

Dubuisson says RetroKit's solution will reduce costs by between 70 and 80 per cent and enable housing providers – local authorities, sustainable energy communities, housing associations and energy retrofit professionals both in Ireland and across Europe – to have a detailed retrofit plan in a fraction of the time. Secondly, it will help reinforce the business case for energy retrofits by integrating co-benefits such as CO2 taxation.

In addition to the analysis and planning tools, the company’s platform will ultimately be able to provide housing managers with retrofit tracking.

“This is a useful feature as it can demonstrate progress and prove compliance with carbon reduction targets which are currently being implemented across all Government departments,” Dubuisson says.


Wastewater treatment accounts for up to 3 per cent of the national electricity bill in a developed country and costs billions of euro annually, yet a significant amount of this energy is being wasted due to inefficient technology and processes. What the industry worldwide needs is a hi-tech, low-energy method to treat wastewater and reduce carbon emissions and, following four years of research, this is what the Galway-based water innovation and sustainability company VorTech has developed.

"Aeration is at the heart of wastewater treatment and is the process of supplying oxygen from air into water for the biomass (collections of bacteria) to 'breathe' as they biologically consume and treat incoming pollutants," explains company founder Dr Sean Mulligan. "It is a proven and well-respected process within the industry but its intensive energy use remains largely unaddressed, and over 60 per cent of the costs during treatment equipment's lifetime is due to energy needs."

The company’s solution is the Vortex Powered Aerator (VPA), which comes with two key advantages: it increases efficiency of the aeration process and it can be seamlessly retrofitted to existing wastewater treatment plants to provide a long-term solution to the problem.

“The VPA solves multiple pain points experienced by the wastewater treatment operator,” Mulligan says. “These include a low total cost of ownership, full automation and an easy retrofit with no disruption or down time. All parts are assembled off-site, meaning contractors’ time during construction is significantly reduced.”

The company’s solution is built from high-quality components that can be easily replaced. Mulligan says the system has a lifespan of up to 50 years for the main infrastructure, with simple pump replacement every 15 to 20 years. “The other advantages of our system are low noise compared with other aerators, the elimination of spray and splashing which reduces health risks to personnel, and surface access for ease and safe maintenance.”

Ziggy Tec

ZiggyTec is an energy data software company tackling the problem of monitoring utilities usage in large, commercially managed multi-tenant developments. The company’s IoT-based solution means that data about electricity, gas and water consumption can be fed directly into the cloud, making it much easier for building managers to keep track of consumption. This is key for the type of sustainability reporting increasingly required by property investors worldwide and important in the drive to reduce the carbon footprint of building stock.

"As things stand, building management systems do not tell property managers how much electricity, gas or water is being used and by what tenants," says company co-founder Peter Murphy. "The existing process is also flawed because the tenants don't always comply with the sharing of utility bills, and meter readings are labour-intensive, time-consuming, error-prone and therefore costly.

“With our technology, customers get both the data they need and an analytical platform, and our solution revolutionises data collection from commercial buildings at a fraction of the cost of old technology systems.”

Ziggy Tec’s system is based around IoT-linked readers attached to existing meters in a building. The data received is then displayed on the Ziggy Tec platform, or its clients can access it using an API (application programming interface) gateway. The readers do not need to be installed by electricians or cabling companies and effectively replace existing data loggers which can be expensive to put in and maintain and require disruption of the building’s energy supply to fit.

“With our solution, a customer can have live, accurate, consistent data within an hour,” Murphy says. “Furthermore, there are no capital costs involved, no installation fees and no maintenance charges. Ziggy Tec’s technology can be installed within hours with no impact on existing meters, buildings or tenants.”