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The AIB finalists hit the streets to find out why the Irish dislike umbrellas so much

Week two of the AIB Start Up Academy was all about design thinking and Johnny Ryan’s hands-on approach took the finalists out of the classroom and out of their comfort zone


“Prepare for an emotional rollercoaster” was the message facilitator Dr Johnny Ryan gave to the eleven finalists of the AIB Irish Times Start Up Academy on Monday morning. It’s week two of their accelerator programme and Ryan is back with the “Design Thinking” module – challenging them to design the perfect umbrella.

The Academy, which kicked off last week, is a joint venture between AIB and The Irish Times to help start-up companies develop as the finalists follow an eight-week programme where they have a unique opportunity to network and learn from entrepreneurs, industry experts and each other in an intensive mentoring and training programme.



If last week was sweetness and light as the finalists embarked on the programme, the dynamics certainly changed today as the finalists started to get to know each other as they worked in teams. Ryan said that working together like this was also a purpose of this exercise as it was would help them to bond.

They were split into teams of five and six and sent out into the streets of Dublin to do some real market research before designing their product. Ryan had a “vibe-o-meter” to track the highs and lows of the day as they went through the processes of Empathy, Define, Ideals, Prototype and Feedback.

The teams were specifically asked not to use the word ‘umbrella’ when talking to people as the umbrella was the solution and the purpose was to identify the problem. “Did you get wet this morning?” was what the teams asked the public to gain insights into why, despite Ireland’s high and frequent rainfall, many people don’t actually use, or indeed, even like using umbrella.

One of the key purposes of this exercise was to communicate with the consumer directly and listen to their feedback, something essential for these business owners and the process of design enables the focus on the customer, not assumptions or internal politics.

The teams wrote notes on all their learnings and came back to Irish Times HQ to come up with a solution and design. Personalities began to emerge as all of the business owners discussed their findings and what the solution was before presenting it to their fellow team.



The first team came up with a very fetching collar which extended into a hood if it rained and also became a poncho. The second team wanted to make the umbrella fun and came up with the idea of a “grab, go and return” umbrella as a branding opportunity for a company which you would collect at a vending-style machine and the return was incentivised with a voucher for something like a coffee or muffin.

Isolde Johnson from The Cool Bean Company said she really enjoyed the experience and definitely came away with food for thought. “Although we would have spoken to our consumers a lot at the beginning when our products were developing and evolving, I realised today that you constantly need to be talking to your customer. You might think you know what they’re thinking but you don’t. You can get so caught up in the day-to-day running of the business that you have to step back and look at the bigger picture and keep checking in with your customer.”

The eleven finalists for this year’s competition are The Cool Bean Company, Blackwater Distillery, DropChef, Brendan Joseph, Queezybags, Nasal Medical, Popertee, Leaves, Buska Boxes, Topper and Rebel Chilli.

The finalists are one step closer to the coveted AIB Start-up Academy which includes a €20,000 cash investment from AIB, €30,000 advertising spends with The Irish Times, Irish Times office space for one year, Maximum Media advertising spend to the value of €65,000, Maximum Media Mentorship to the value of €5,000, coaching from AIB, a one-day PR Masterclass with Wilson Hartnell valued at €10,000; Creative strategy and production of print / digital assets from Rothco to the value of €50,000 and Starcom and Radical’s search and social consultancy valued at €10,000.

Next week, Valerie Pierce will facilitate the finalists in the morning with “Critical Thinking for Peak Performance” and in the afternoon Fiona Ashe will be advising them on “Writing for Business Clarity”.