How the funding landscape is driving future growth
Enterprise Ireland’s investments services division is an invaluable weapon when scaling up internationally
Niall Norton, CEO of telecoms technology company Openet
Jimmy Martin, co-founder of Advanced Manufacturing Control Systems (AMCS)
Jimmy Martin knows that where there’s muck there’s not just brass, there’s an opportunity to build a diversified global technology business.
Martin is co-founder with Austin Ryan of Advanced Manufacturing Control Systems (AMCS) in Limerick, a leading supplier of integrated software and vehicle technology for the waste and recycling industry. Look at the back of that lorry collecting your bin – if there’s a green light on it it’s carrying AMCS software.
In the 12 years since the company was established it has built up a blue-chip customer base in Europe, North America and Australasia. As well as a diverse geographic market, it sells its waste management solutions to a diverse range of sectors, including commercial, industrial and municipal waste, brokerage and hazardous waste, plus logistics.
The result is that AMCS software now manages in excess of €4 billion revenue, 14,000 vehicles and more than 3,000 sites. Not bad for two guys who first met on the local minor hurling team.
Both had begun their careers in the multinational sector here. “That gave us a great sense of the importance of having the right systems and processes in place in order to grow a business,” says Martin. “But it also taught us that we wanted to be masters of our own destiny.”
Having worked in the semi-conductor industry for a number of years, gaining knowledge about sensors, and picking up on the earliest whispers about the Internet of Things he decided to apply some of that knowledge “to a real world setting”.
He was agnostic as to where. “We looked at agriculture and food but it was in the environmental sector that we got traction first, so that’s the direction we took.”
Working from Martin’s attic, the pair developed their first product in partnership with their first customer, a waste company that is still on their books. With the help of Enterprise Ireland, the business attracted its first funding round, worth around ¤1.6 million, of which Enterprise Ireland put up a quarter.
That enabled the pair to scale up and enter the UK market. By 2007 they had expanded into Sweden. By 2009 they closed off a second funding round, again with the assistance of Enterprise Ireland, worth €5 million.
In 2014 they raised a further €23.5 million, followed this year by a round worth €43 million. Adequate and timely fundraising all along the way has helped the business achieve scale at a rapid but sustainable pace. Today AMCS employs 360 people and has customers in 22 countries, including the US, its biggest market. It has a turnover of €50 million and it’s just getting started.
“Our ambition is to see a lot more growth. We’re on Year Two of a three-year plan that should see us hit the €100 million turnover mark,” says Martin.
As well as enabling it to expand through acquisition, the business’s funding success has enabled it maintain ongoing significant investment in R&D. It has developed solutions that enable waste management companies do everything from identify who owns what waste to ensure route optimisation for drivers, giving it a competitive advantage.
The result is that it now provides software solutions for everyone from materials processors to landfill managers and oil industry operators, with consistent growth rates of 25 to 30 per cent a year.
Having recently consolidated its shareholder register thanks to its most recent funding round, providing a pay day for early backers, including Enterprise Ireland, the business is on a firm footing for future growth. “Our burning ambition is to be an Irish, international software company of scale,” says Martin.
The funding landscape is buoyant right now, according to John O’Sullivan, senior portfolio manager at Enterprise Ireland.
“In the last two or three years we have seen a lot of interest in client companies from VC and equity funds. That has been a very positive change to the funding environment,” he says.
Enterprise Ireland’s investment services division can assist a business throughout its funding journey, from help with feasibility studies to the €50,000 available to qualifying companies through its Competitive Start Fund, right through to seed and Series A, B and C rounds.
“The key objective for us is to ensure there is an efficient funding environment for clients, enabling them to access the next stage of growth funding they require. In recent years we’ve seen a lot more overseas funds, many of which are US based, chasing the same deals in the UK and so coming into the Irish market to look at Series A, B and C rounds here,” says O’Sullivan.“The uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote could boost this flow as funds look to de-risk in the UK.”
As well as cash, these funds come with the fringe benefit of extensive global networks that Irish companies can leverage. This can help Irish businesses not just by supporting geographic diversification but by opening up new opportunities for product or sectoral diversification too.
And, given the pain currently felt by exporters to Ireland’s largest trading partner, the UK, the ability to sell further afield post-Brexit mitigates risk from a currency perspective too. “Interesting times create challenges, it’s true. But challenges, if properly addressed, can lead to opportunities,” says O’Sullivan.
That’s a fact Niall Norton, CEO of telecoms technology company Openet, can attest to. Founded by chief technology officer Joe Hogan in 1999, Norton joined the company in 2004, at which point the business had a turnover of ¤6 million.
Since then the Enterprise Ireland client company has grown to become one of the world’s largest business support system providers in telecoms.
Today it has revenues of €105 million, employs 900 people and has offices around the world. Here too investor funding, to the tune of around €44 million – in its most recent round in 2012 – helped the company achieve sufficient scale to compete with global giants such as Huawei and Ericsson.
“Achieving scale has always been our biggest challenge. From the start we set ourselves the goal of being a global company. We spend money on people, we’re very strong on innovation and we have a very strong sense of knowing what the technology trends are,” says Norton.
This helped it not just cope with changes in the market, such as the migration to the cloud, but to thrive on the back of them. “We are the upstarts that keep tripping the other guys up. Because we weren’t the biggest, we had to be the smartest. The result is that every time the market has changed, we have gotten bigger.”
There’s no sign of that growth stopping any time soon either. The company is currently diversifying into the wellness sector, with plans for products that match the growth in use of smart devices such as health and fitness trackers.
And, four years after a planned IPO in New York was parked in the aftermath of Facebook’s initially disastrous floatation, it’s a move Norton does not rule out.
Norton, who coaches early stage entrepreneurs, has advice for those looking to follow in Openet’s success. “It’s not enough to be passionate. You’ve got to understand the value proposition you are offering. Once you have that, lean in and go for it, always staying ready for change,” he said.
Not all start ups are alike. “If what you want is to set up a business to sell it within two or three years, that’s straightforward. You just set out your stall and attract a buyer. But if your aim is to grow a substantial business, then you have to do things in a different way in terms of how you structure it.” Take advantage of the help that’s out there.
“Ireland has a great entrepreneurial ecosystem, including Enterprise Ireland and (Dublin Start Up Commissioner) Niamh Bushnell.
“These are all very good at introducing you to people who have been down that track before. So ask for help, leverage that community.”
INVESTMENTS SERVICES DIVISON
Enterprise Ireland’s investments services division is an invaluable weapon in the armoury of any business looking to scale up internationally. Its direct equity investment portfolio currently consists of 2,300 investments in 1,250 companies, with a portfolio cost of around €300 million. It typically makes 300 such investments every year.
Enterprise Ireland invests across almost every sector with the lion’s share, at 42 per cent, currently going into digital technology companies. It takes a collaborative approach to investing which allows client companies leverage Enterprise Ireland backing to pull in funding from private equity funds and venture capital companies.
For more on Enterprise Ireland’s Global Ambition campaign visit ambition.enterprise-ireland.com