Start-up Nation: Student sees the light on stage in college

Trinity graduate has come up with a new way to reduce the cost of lighting a theatrical production

On graduating from Trinity College Dublin last year, James Clifford had a business idea. While volunteering on St Vincent De Paul's Trinity-based pantomime, he noticed a huge amount of time was dedicated to planning, designing and setting up the show's lighting before any actors set foot on stage.

Having studied electronic and computer engineering, he came up with an idea for a computer-based lighting system to help production companies create lighting designs in professional venues. However, he needed a team to bring the idea to market. Enter the National Digital Research Centre’s Swequity Exchange programme. The programme matches people who have business ideas with experts in technology, marketing and business creation to bring the idea to fruition.

Clifford pitched his idea to a room of graphic designers, software developers, marketing executives and business people. They decided if they wanted to join his company in exchange for equity. Vincent McWilliams and Daniel Loftus joined forces with Clifford and they set about meeting with theatre production companies to get feedback and develop the lighting system.

Tailored lighting
"Production companies would have to hire the theatre anything from a day to a week in advance of the show just to test the lights," says Loftus. "Renting the theatre early costs money as does hiring a lighting technician."


The resulting product was Visilit, software that allows lighting professionals and theatre companies to have better control of their lighting systems. The system has a “virtual space” tool which allows production company members to design and preview lights, staging, set and sound on a virtual 3D stage.

“Core teams can collaborate and edit their show in real time with our online show planner. The Reality Check tool takes these plans and translates them to the real stage. It automatically detects all the lights in the theatre, and tailors them to the show’s design,” he explains. “Instead of having to know how to work the lighting board, the box plugs into the lighting board and operates the show for you.”

The company says the software can reduce lighting costs by up to 75 per cent and can cut the time spent on planning and set up by team members. Users can put the Visilit box in any theatre and the light detection tool will read every light available.

“Visilit opens up theatre for people who don’t have a lot of money to play around with. A small theatre company doesn’t need to hire a lighting technician.”

Video rehearsal
However, the theatre production companies wanted more, according to Loftus. "They thought the idea was great but they wanted the system to have more features. They said they had other issues they would like the system to resolve.

“So many theatre companies still do everything on pen and paper. There is very little software and what is available is complex. As a result, the team developed additional facets for the system including a video rehearsal tool, which allows users to see what their production looks like on a virtual stage.

"This is good for theatre companies that are touring. They may be rehearsing in Ireland but performing the show at London's Palladium theatre. They can record their rehearsal in an empty room. The tool extracts the actors from the room in the video and puts them on the Palladium stage so the company can visualise what their performance will look like on that stage."

Trinity's drama society Dublin University Players was the first to test the product, followed by Irish language theatre company Dagda. The software is in testing but users ultimately will be able to pay a subscription fee to access services. Three entry points are planned, consisting of pay per use, a yearly subscription service and an enterprise licence solution. The latter would have bespoke elements and would be aimed at larger productions such as Broadway shows.

So far, the company, which employs six people, has received €15,000 in funding from Enterprise Ireland. However, Loftus says they are now entering a phase where they will require more money.

“The only game in town is to give equity away but we’re not sure we want to do that. We want to get on the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start-Up programme. We don’t have to spend a huge amount of money as all our work is done in-house.”

As theatre is not a large, cash-rich market, the company hopes to expand its customer base to include commercial events, live music, TV and film productions.