Igniting sparks of graduate enterprise

The annual awards of the IGNITE business start-up programme that supports third level graduates take place on Thursday at University College Cork. Pádraig Hoare spoke to director of the programme, Eamon Curtin.

Igniting sparks of graduate enterprise

Since launching in 2010 it has supported 60 start-ups and almost 80 founders, who have gone on to employ more than 150 people.

But Eamon Curtin, director of the IGNITE programme at University College Cork, says the team gets the same buzz every year about the new participants and the possibilities that lie ahead.

IGNITE is a business start-up programme that specialises in supporting recent third-level graduates to develop an innovative idea into a successful, scalable business.

A number of the start-ups have accessed international markets, raising significant private investment, and many have gone on to become Enterprise Ireland client companies. The programme is open to all graduates from institutions across the country.

Mr Curtin said: “The graduate entrepreneurs are recently after completing a course in college and they have an idea. It may have come from a five-year project, maybe it came from a certain experience they had where they spotted an opportunity, maybe they understand a piece of technology from their course and are looking to use it.

They think they may be able to commercialise it and we work with them through the early stages of that.”

This year’s crop of talent, which will be showcased at the awards night on Thursday, include ApisProtect, founded by Fiona Edwards Murphy, which uses the Internet of Things technology that allows the monitoring of beehives.

She has trialled it on a small scale and the next phase is to try it out with international beekeepers.

Past graduates who have gone on to become established employers include Sinead Doherty of AnaBio Technologies, Ross O’Dwyer and Richard Barrett of PunditArena, and Brendan Finucane of Ecanvasser.

Mr Curtin said: “There is huge personal satisfaction in seeing the personal development these guys go through over this period of time. If I was to look at Sinead, Brendan, Ross or Richard, and one or two more, they are employing dozens of people.”

The programme was born during the recession and soon found support from Cork City and County Councils, Local Enterprise Offices, Bank of Ireland, as well as UCC.

Mr Curtin said: “In 2010, Dr Ronán Ó Dubhghaill was director of strategic planning and recognised one of the consequences of the downturn was that we had good graduates coming out but they weren’t finding jobs. It was recognised if we encouraged some in that cohort to stay and develop, it would create jobs for themselves and go on to create jobs for others.

“One of the phrases we sometimes use is ‘they should be looking to create a job as an opportunity rather than take a job as an opportunity’. The timing was right.” Business leaders in Cork also got on board.

“Dick Lehane, who was instrumental in bringing EMC to Cork, got involved. Ronán, with the support of the LEOs, initiated the first programme of 10 start-ups for the first six months of 2011.

That encouraged city and county councils, LEOs and Bank of Ireland through their support of UCC, to commit a fund for three years to bring the programme on to the next level.

We’re now on the second phase of development with a goal of where we double the programme in 2018, so we take on two cohorts of 10 start-ups and look to create a vibrant workspace that’s housing them all, and they learn from each other as well as us,” Mr Curtin said.

The support of the business community has been vital, he added.

“We have a very active advisory board, all voluntary, with a huge depth of experience. There is a huge level of support in people starting a business, but some graduates may not have the skillsets to be able to take full advantage, to reach out to people, to build a network and to use that network when it comes to getting advice.

So a large element is having participants much better prepared when they finish up on the programme.

“Over the course of a programme, they’d engage with 100 business people. It may be a review panel, role play, many different elements.

“Bank of Ireland, EY, venture capitalists, the private investment community, all will provide feedback and support,” he said.

Mr Curtin said the next challenge for IGNITE is to be able to secure small private investment that the intake of graduates can rely on during the programme itself.

While there is some financial support from the programme, Mr Curtin said private investors could make a huge difference by backing the participants during the year.

“There’s a gap in very early seed funding for the guys we work with. The LEOs are very effective but there’s a bit of a step to be taken for someone who comes in to us with an idea and what they might be able to do to access that funding.

“Our ideal would be to be in a position where we can offer an opportunity to access €5,000 to €15,000 to our participants, to help them to get from an idea to a well thought-out business model — market research, product testing, etc.”

This year’s awards and showcase feature six new businesses, some well on the road to success.

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