Small town firm plays pivotal global role

Interview: Nearform’s success during Covid times continues with its vaccine app

"Born in the future, reared in Tramore. " That's how Nearform chief executive Cian Ó Maidín describes his company.

The Irish company he co-founded has stepped out of the shadows in recent months to become the name behind what has been considered somewhat of a success story in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: contact tracing apps.

“It’s been a mad year. It’s insane, actually, because with everything that has happened, the cycle of a normal business year has changed,” Ó Maidín says. “We were closing all kinds of new deals going into the new year.”

Although the Nearform name has become tied to health apps in 2020, public sector work isn't its usual area. The company, which develops enterprise software and uses cloud computing to build faster, more stable, more versatile business platforms, counts the New York Times, Intel, IBM and Microsoft among its paying customers.


But it was the strength of its private sector work that brought it to the attention of the HSE, with Nearform tasked with quickly building an app that could trace contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases in a way that was effective but stuck to privacy rules.

“We’d never done anything in this domain before; we had never really talked about doing any work for government,” he says. “So we thought we would show them what we can do, prove what we are capable of.”

The rest, as they say, is history. The contact tracing app was built for under €900,000, a bargain when compared with the UK’s £12 million (€13.5 billion) spend.

The Covid-19 app hasn’t been a silver bullet in stopping the spread of Covid-19, but it is an additional tool that the public health authorities have at their disposal. To date, almost 13,000 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have uploaded their random IDs at the request of the HSE; more than 21,300 users of the app have been sent a close contact alert.

Only 34 per cent of those aged over 16 are using the app to track their contacts on a day-to-day basis, with 1.3 million active users out of a total of 2.39 million registrations. The more people who use it, the better, but persuading people to sign has been an ongoing task.

Other countries

By the time the HSE app was launched in Ireland, Nearform was already working with other countries. Gibraltar was an early adopter of Nearform's app and, in somewhat of a coup for the company, it also won the contract for the Northern Ireland app, with Scotland also adopting Covid Green code.

Since then, Nearform has been involved in the rollout of a number of contact tracing apps in the US – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey – and more could follow. It was also the first contact tracing app based on Google and Apple's technology that could interact with other countries' apps, with integration between the apps used in Northern Ireland, Jersey and Scotland.

It's hard to imagine that an Irish company in a small beach town in Waterford could play such a pivotal role globally. But that is what Nearform has done.

There are no plans for a move to a US base to capitalise on its success; Ó Maidín is happy to stay somewhere where the work-life balance is a bit more in check.

The Waterford town was a natural choice for Ó Maidín. He spent his early years there, before heading to University of Limerick for a degree in computer systems, and then back to Waterford for a masters in enterprise management.

By the time he set up Nearform in 2011 with software engineer Richard Roger, he already had one start-up under his belt – Celsus – and was ready for a new challenge.

Leap of faith

It was a bit of a leap of faith. Ó Maidín and his business partner put a bet on that a particular web development technology, Node.js, was worth pursuing. It was a relatively new technology and, like all new developments in the tech world, one year’s success story could quickly be eclipsed and rendered obsolete.

But that wager paid off. A few high-profile adoptions later, Node.js took off in the mainstream in 2013 and, when it did, Nearform was there to establish itself as the expert in Europe and in some parts of the US.

Within a year, it signed up its first major client, NBC Universal, followed by Condé Nast and DPD. It now employs about 150 people in various locations, and looks set to grow further.

Behind it all is a commitment to the open source movement, and the positive impact that it can have on businesses.

“The crush of business that’s coming now is primarily from the work we’ve been doing all along. The past two years, we’ve been going through a transition as a business, and we’ve been developing a bunch of assets that we’ve shared as open source things to the market. We’ve been starting to really push them out there, and so that’s starting to pay off,” says Ó Maidín. “If you add in the profile we’ve got, from all the Covid work over the last while, that’s accelerating some of the other things as well.”

Remote working

Nearform and its chief executive are far removed from the typical Silicon Valley view of what a tech company should be. While the company has offices in the town, many of its staff work remotely and have done long before the pandemic forced us all into new ways of working.

Perhaps the only nod to the tech industry’s influence is the Peloton bike in Ó Maidín’s office – so he can’t ignore it, he says. “That was the idea. I can’t actually be lazy and avoid going into the room.” The tactic seems to have worked. Before Christmas, he was involved in a challenge with a friend: 80 spins in 80 days. The day we spoke he was up to number 79.

He has also been juggling his own family commitments during the pandemic. Ó

Maidín and his wife have three children, including twin five-year-old boys, and this year decided to throw a golden retriever puppy into the mix.

“I think we got the dog because the lads were calming down a bit. We needed a bit more chaos in the house,” he laughs.

“It’s been tough at times, but from a personal perspective this year has been fabulous for me and my family. I haven’t been away one night since January 2020. I can put my kids to bed at night, read them stories. What price can you put on that?”

Although the Nearform business has thrived during the pandemic, Ó Maidín doesn’t dismiss the impact of the pandemic on his workforce, acknowledging that it has been a difficult situation for everyone. Some staff have frontline workers in their families, others are homeschooling. Ó Maidín describes it as a “pressure cooker” for staff.

“We do a lot of check-ins with staff, keeping an eye out on the mental health side of things. I wouldn’t say we’re perfect but we definitely are mindful,” he says. “Mental health for remote workers has always been a thing that you think about.”

Vaccine app

There is one more Covid-related project Nearform has been working on. A vaccine app that will help support the widespread rollout of the process and manage all aspects, from scheduling vaccine doses to acting as a vaccination record and “passport” if needed.

A vaccine app that will help support the widespread rollout of the process and manage all aspects from scheduling vaccine doses to acting as a vaccination record and “passport” if needed.

Although there are no confirmed plans as yet for the HSE to use Nearform’s solution, the company says it is in advanced talks with other interested parties on the use of the app.

It will take a lot of co-ordinating with various authorities to make sure the final app is acceptable to all parties, but the company is confident it can pull it off.

Ó Maidín is also gearing up for a busy year ahead, predicting a surge of activity as companies see vaccines heralding the end of the pandemic.

“People are coming in aggressively wanting us to do business with them and do stuff really fast. It’s like just stuff has been knocked out of phase in the business world. I think it is going to be a surge this year. I think there’s going to be a lot of digital initiatives across the board because, for the most part, it seems like a lot of the big corporates back at the end of April, they really kind of just put a hold on things because they were so uncertain about what’s going to happen.”

With a bit more optimism – Covid-19 mutations notwithstanding – he predicts that more companies will want to ramp up the work they had postponed. Expansion is on the cards for the US and UK, despite the Brexit conundrum facing many companies.

“We have to hire a lot of people next year. A lot. I’d say next year, we could [have] up to 100 people more in the business by the end of the year. We’re going to invest quite a lot into growth in the US,” he says.

“It’s all about the team. Being a lone entrepreneur can be a really lonely place to be; being on that journey with the right people who have different skillsets to you can be really interesting. People are so important. You spend a lot of hours working. If you can work with people you like and get on with, and customers you like, it makes it easier.”