Graduate entrepreneurs: Igniting the spark for future business supremos

Students no longer target traditional graduate careers but are open to a far wider range of career opportunities, including starting their own business writes Eamon Curtin

The doors of our third-level institutions are open far wider than ever before. The total number of students enrolled across our universities and institutes increased by almost 30% over the last 10 years.

And our students are drawn from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

There is greater representation from what were traditionally considered to be socially disadvantaged. There is an increase in students with what were previously considered to be learning disabilities. And more students with family backgrounds in business ownership and entrepreneurship, who might in the past have gone straight into the family business on leaving school.

Graduate entrepreneurs: Igniting the spark for future business supremos

Students are no longer targeting traditional graduate careers in science, engineering and business but are open to a far wider range of career opportunities, including starting their own business.

And today’s students are generally less motivated by financial gain than they are by the ability to positively impact society and to have autonomy in their work.

Along with this, we have come to realise that starting a business is not the same as running an established business. It helps to be flexible, fearless, opportunistic, more driven by achievement than financial gain, and less concerned about what might go wrong; character traits and behaviours that are more often associated with students from non-traditional backgrounds.

So we have greater numbers of young people motivated to have a positive societal impact and equipped with the entrepreneurial traits necessary to get a start-up off the ground.

What are we doing to tap this valuable resource?

The Ignite programme at University College Cork has supported over 120 recent graduate entrepreneurs working on almost 100 start-ups since 2011. And while not all have made it, those that have, have gone on develop products and services, to trade internationally, to raise investment and to create jobs.

Almost 200 people are employed by Ignite supported start-ups in 2019 and this number continues to grow, repaying the faith of the Local Enterprise Offices, Cork City Council and Cork County Council and Bank of Ireland who were early supporters of the programme.

Meanwhile, many of the graduates who didn’t get their start-up off the ground have gone on to apply their knowledge and experience as team members in early stage and emerging companies and in innovation roles in larger organisations.

With over 44,000 new graduates every year, if just 2% were encouraged and supported to start a new business, it could result in tens of thousands of additional jobs in innovative, Irish start-ups, the types of companies that we need to be the bedrock of our future economy.

AnaBio Technologies Ltd, founded by Dr Sinead Bleiel, is a good example of what’s possible with the right support. Sinead received her PhD in Microencapsulation from UCC. Her doctoral studies focused on encapsulation technologies using protein material for enhanced bioactive delivery, functionality and bioavailability in the body.

Since foundation, AnaBio has gone on to develop a number of patented encapsulation technologies that have been licensed to global organisations in the food, feed and pharmaceutical industries. The company now employs 30 staff, many in research roles and occupies a 2,700 sqm premises in IDA Business Park, Carrigtwohill, Co Cork.

Sports media website, PunditArena, is a very different business. The co-founders, Ross O’Dwyer (BComm) and Richard Barrett (BEd) joined forces when they met on the Ignite Programme in 2013.

The business was based on their shared interests in sports and journalism. The company has since secured the support of a number of experienced entrepreneurs and investors.

In 2018, the company developed into digital broadcast media and an early success was a partnership with Allianz and Paralympics Ireland to provide social amplification and digital broadcast of the 2018 World Para Swimming Allianz European Championships from the National Aquatic Centre, Dublin. The company employs a team of 12.

BSc (Business Information Systems) graduate Brendan Finucane, developed a smart phone application to allow politicians to capture data as a final year project. The idea came from personal experience he had canvassing door to door for an election candidate.

He joined Ignite on graduation and founded Vconnecta to develop the idea. The product has since been developed into a sophisticated campaign management tool, ecanvasser, that is used worldwide. Vconnecta employs 14 staff in Cork.

And more recently, Dr Fiona Edwards-Murphy founded ApisProtect to provide technology that enables beekeepers to remotely monitor their hives and so protect against the risk of bee colony loss.

Fiona combined electronics engineering and biology, environment and earth sciences in her PhD uniquely providing her with the technology mix to develop her concept. She raised $1.5M investment in late 2018 and has deployed her technology worldwide in 2019 and is on target to employ 25 staff over the next couple of years.

What these graduate founders, and many others like them, have in common is that they are passionate, energetic and enthusiastic. They have few financial liabilities and are at a stage of life where it is easier to take a risk. They are generally less motivated by financial gain and more motivated to make a difference.

But at the outset, they had little experience engaging with the business world, had poorly established business networks, had limited skills in areas such as business strategy, marketing, finance and sales and had limited ability to raise the few thousand euro seed funds necessary to get started.

Ignite has demonstrated that with the right support recent graduate entrepreneurs can overcome these disadvantages and go on to create sustainable businesses. What can we do now to turn the trickle into a river?

- Eamon Curtin is director of the Ignite programme at UCC.

Boxdry

Ugne Kaskelyte, Boxdry, at the Ignite Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. The company produces high-quality, eco-friendly accessories for water sport enthusiasts Picture: Darragh Kane
Ugne Kaskelyte, Boxdry, at the Ignite Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. The company produces high-quality, eco-friendly accessories for water sport enthusiasts Picture: Darragh Kane

Boxdry produces high-quality, eco-friendly accessories for water sport enthusiasts.

The first product is a wetsuit dryer and water sport equipment storage system specifically for water sport enthusiasts. The rugged box features a unique folding and drainage system for rapid drying and a safe and neat storage system.

Founder Ugne Kaskelyte, who completed a BSc in political science and government and MA in international public policy and diplomacy at UCC, is an accomplished kitesurfer.

Ms Kaskelyte said she long understood the need for rapid drying and safe storage for her wetsuit and other equipment.

The product is aimed at the growing numbers of water sports enthusiasts including kitesurfers, windsurfers, surfers, bodyboarders, wakeboarders, stand-up paddle boarders, and sea swimmers.

“The user will come out of the water, they will place all of their equipment inside the box, then they can sit on the box, take off their wetsuit nice and comfortably, and once everything is placed inside, the drying begins instantly.

Then you put your box in the boot of your car and leave it there until your next session. There’s no more waiting for the sun to come out, or having to deal with the stench of a drying wetsuit at home.

Yooni

Darragh Lucey and Nathan Mayes, of Yooni, at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall.
Darragh Lucey and Nathan Mayes, of Yooni, at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall.

Yooni is a student engagement platform that helps Higher Education institutes increase annual student fee revenue by attracting and retaining students.

Co-founders Darragh Lucey and Nathan Mayes both graduated with first class honours degrees in electrical and electronic engineering from UCC in 2017, and subsequently took a year to travel around the world.

The developed the original concept for Yooni while backpacking in Peru in 2018, pitched it via Skype, and returned to join the Ignite programme later in the year.

The startup successfully launched Carpool College Courses this year, promoting third-level courses to secondary school students, and are working on a range of products for third-level institutions in Ireland and abroad.

Mr Mayes said almost a third of the friends we made in first year did not graduate alongside us.

“This wasn’t just the case for our course. For every four Leaving Cert students that go to college every year, one of them will not complete their course. It is not just students, it also affects colleges.

Worldwide, tens of billions of euro are lost due to college dropouts.

Mr Lucey said getting the right students onto the right course was why Yooni was born.

“We provide colleges with a suite of engagement tools,” he said. “We demonstrate to them with the use of big data and analytics that you can optimise their attraction and retention on a global scale.”

Alex’s Adventure

Nicole Ryan, founder Alex’s Adventure at the Ignite Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. She founded the social enterprise , which aims to change the way young people learn about drugs, after the tragic death of her brother Alex. Picture: Darragh Kane
Nicole Ryan, founder Alex’s Adventure at the Ignite Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. She founded the social enterprise , which aims to change the way young people learn about drugs, after the tragic death of her brother Alex. Picture: Darragh Kane

Alex’s Adventure aims to educate post-primary students on substance misuse and the real-life effects their choices have.

Founder Nicole Ryan started Alex’s Adventure after tragically losing her 18-year-old brother to a synthetic drug overdose at a party.

The tragedy motivated Ms Ryan to change the way young people learn about drugs, to provide unbiased and factual information in an age-appropriate format to better inform young people’s decisions.

Ms Ryan is rolling out a new programme for first to fourth year secondary school students designed with the new Junior SPHE curriculum in mind.

Ms Ryan completed a BEng (Marine and Plant Engineering) at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) in 2015, and is completing a Diploma in Substance Misuse and Addiction Studies in UCC.

To lose a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, and to lose a sibling is of equal and immeasurable pain. As an engineer at heart, I worked out my life to a tee.

“My whole life fell apart when Alex died. Alex’s Adventure is a for-profit social enterprise with impact at its core. I want to give others the opportunity that my brother and I never had.

“Over the last three years, I’ve single-handedly impacted over 6,000 students, but Alex’s Adventure is looking to grow and scale. We want to impact 500,000 students globally over the next five years.”

Bumblebee Flower Farm

Mags Riordan: Bumblebee Flower Farm in Drimoleague, Co Cork, is an ethical sustainable flower farm. Picture: Daragh Kane
Mags Riordan: Bumblebee Flower Farm in Drimoleague, Co Cork, is an ethical sustainable flower farm. Picture: Daragh Kane

Bumblebee Flower Farm is an ethical, sustainable flower farm that promotes and protects biodiversity by cultivating beautiful nectar rich blooms.

Founder Mags Riordan completed a Diploma in Specialty Food Production at UCC in 2018, and developed Bumblebee Flower Farm’s values and proposition over the Ignite programme this year.

Ms Riordan is also qualified in horticulture, a professional florist and the leading expert on edible flowers in Ireland.

Bumblebee Flower Farm is committed to providing a safe holistic alternative to the current cut flower industry by partnering with independent flower shops that promote ethical flowers and empower people to live a more sustainable life through educational workshops.

Ms Riordan said: “About 70% of our oxygen is generated by phytoplankton in our oceans and the other 30% is mainly trees, with shrubs, grasses and flowers playing a supporting role.

Bumblebee Flower Farm is focused on keeping our bees alive and creating the air that we breathe.

My farm is like an orchestra. My insects are my base, my bees are my string and the birds are my sopranos.

“I love my flower farm passionately and I’ve created ways to share it through my market bouquets, educational workshops and unique events.”

EziVein

Winner of Bank of Ireland/IGNITE Best Business Marie Casey, Ezi Vein at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. Picture: Darragh Kane
Winner of Bank of Ireland/IGNITE Best Business Marie Casey, Ezi Vein at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. Picture: Darragh Kane

The winner of the Bank of Ireland/IGNITE Best Business at the recent awards, EziVein is a medical device firm that makes it easier to take patients’ blood.

Marie Casey’s EziVein is a medical aid designed to enhance the visibility of a vein to reduce the time and trauma for a blood draw or IV cannulation in the 35% of patients who suffer from DVA (difficulty vein access).

Ms Casey is a recent graduate of a master’s in public health in UCC, which followed on from a higher diploma in health, safety, and welfare at work. Her medical device will improve the process of identifying veins for insertion of PICC lines, IV cannulas, and blood tests.

The disposable device is affordable and user-friendly, and requires no maintenance or mains power. It allows for procedures to be carried out by a single staff member instead of two.

It is suitable for medical, veterinary, and cosmetic applications. The concept has been proven and the prototype is under development with the support of Technology Gateway CAPPA and funding from Enterprise Ireland. Ms Casey said: “EziVein will save the HSE up to €11.6m every year. EziVein is small, light and fits onto your arm like a large band-aid, minimising patient discomfort.

“It can also be custom-made to suit the veterinary and cosmetic industry, with the latter worth €50bn. We are helping to relieve the burden in our healthcare system and reduce the time, trauma and huge financial costs associated with difficult veins.”

Peckish

Paul O’Shea, Peckish, at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. Peckish won Best Business Plan.Picture: Darragh Kane
Paul O’Shea, Peckish, at the IGNITE Awards and Showcase at UCC’s Devere Hall. Peckish won Best Business Plan.Picture: Darragh Kane

Peckish is an online platform that connects restaurants to consumers with different lifestyles and dietary requirements. This menu and sales optimisation platform allows restaurants to promote their unique dishes, updates, and offers to specific target markets, and is provided with live in-depth consumer analytics.

Peckish allows consumers to find exactly what they want by searching for specific menu items, ingredients, and allergens through its innovative food search engine.

The company was founded by Paul O’Shea during the IGNITE programme, and won Best Business Plan at the recent awards.

Peckish was developed from Mr O’Shea’s extensive experience working in the food and beverage industry in Ireland and the US.

Mr O’Shea, who completed a BSc (computer science) at University College Cork in 2018, said in Ireland, there about 500,000 consumers who are coeliac, have a food allergy, are vegan or vegetarian.

Peckish will allow searches by menu items, ingredient, allergen, diet, price, location, anything you want within seconds. Every customer is different, they have their own tastes and their own preferences.

Peckish is launching imminently, having signed up a range of Cork’s top restaurants for the platform.

SalesSections.com

Thing of the past? The online market is growing at a phenomenal pace. By 2021, 25% of all clothing purchases will be made online, says Colin Curran of SalesSections.com
Thing of the past? The online market is growing at a phenomenal pace. By 2021, 25% of all clothing purchases will be made online, says Colin Curran of SalesSections.com

SalesSections.com is a shopping platform that makes online bargain hunting for clothing items easy. It is a Trivago of sorts for discounts, according to founder Colin Curran.

Products from the sale and clearance sections of online clothing retailers are displayed on SalesSections.com, where customers can easily browse and compare products from many stores.

They can do so without the need to visit each store individually. Smart filtering options and a search bar make it quick and easy for users to find what they want.

Founder Colin Curran, who completed a masters in computer science from UCC in 2018, said he identified the opportunity through personal frustration with the limited selection of items to choose from in the sales section of online stores, and what he said was the hassle of comparing sales items across multiple websites.

You can think of it as the Trivago of discounted clothing items. The online market is growing at a phenomenal pace. By 2021, 25% of all clothing purchases will be made online.

“With the growth of popularity of online shopping, customers need a tool to help find more bargains. SalesSections.com is that tool.

“We’ve so far partnered with 25 different retailers including the likes of French Connection,” he says.

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