How in Invest NI's Propel scheme helps propel Northern Ireland's best entrepreneurs forward
Audrey Watson speaks to some companies taking part in Invest NI's Propel scheme, which provides dynamic entrepreneurs with mentoring, financial support and introductions to potential investors
Some of our most innovative, dynamic and talented entrepreneurs have been participating in Invest NI scheme Propel - an intensive 12-month programme to help developing businesses succeed on the international stage.
Now in its fifth year, Propel attracted almost 200 applicants for the 2014/2015 intake, of which 80 made it to stage one and only 35 to stage two.
The scheme provides participants with a series of business development workshops, advice from local and international experts, introductions to potential investors, mentoring, shared working space and financial support.
Niall Casey, Invest NI director of skills and strategy, said: "The quality and diversity of the businesses coming on to the programme is testament to the skills and talent available in Northern Ireland.
"Since its inception, businesses taking part in Propel have gone on to generate more than £10m in funding and we anticipate that after the current scheme has finished, almost 450 jobs will have been created as a result of the programme.
"The number of applications we received this year is a great statement of optimism for Northern Ireland."
For information about Invest Northern Ireland and the Propel programme go to: www.investni.com or call: 0800 181 4422
‘Programme has helped me pick up vital knowledge’
University of Ulster animation student Fiona McLaughlin (21), from Malin Head, Co Donegal, is co-founder of Pingster, a safe online platform which allows children to collaborate on projects and share digital ideas.
Inspired by a love of design, animation and technology, Fiona launched Pingster in 2014 with business partner Patrick Catterall.
“Patrick and I are both students at the University of Ulster — he is studying marketing,” she says.
“Luckily, our tutors are very accommodating and supportive.
“Through my degree and involvement with events in the digital sector, I witnessed first-hand the creativity and enthusiasm children have for coding and design.
“Propel has been excellent. Coming from a design background I already know how to come up with a concept and execute it in a very visual way. What was lacking was the knowledge to take that to the next level and the global market and Propel is enabling me to acquire that knowledge.”
Matching students and employers without the cost
James Donaghy (23) from Cookstown, Co Tyrone is preparing to launch a prototype of Freelance Student, an online marketplace where businesses can hire students and graduates for paid work.
Inspired by his own experience, the former public relations and digital marketing graduate aims to help small businesses source, hire, manage and pay the best student freelancers from universities and academic institutions.
“There has already been a lot of interest from students,” says James.
“And employers will find it attractive because it cuts out a lot of HR and employment agency costs.
“As a single and young founder, I’ve no previous business experience and Propel has been fantastic in providing me with invaluable mentors and feedback.
“It’s been a brilliant learning curve.”
Spreading the word to those who influence audiences
Matthew Large (22) from Dundonald, was inspired to start glistrr — an event check-in and guest analysis platform — while still studying mathematics and computer science at Queen’s University, in Belfast.
“I started glistrr in August 2012 and developed it for eight months while still at university,” he says.
“glistrr deals with events — everything from the sign up of guests, tickets, table bookings guest lists, and marketing. We are able to provide an organiser with a detailed overview of who influences people to attend their events and then when they are holding another, they can target these influencers who through social media and digital platforms will spread the word, saving the organisers money on advertising.
“I launched in a few venues in June 2013 and there are now three of us working on glistrr full-time.”
‘Team helped us capture potentially global market’
Sam Bell (43) from Belfast, has more than 25 years’ experience in design, branding and software development. Along with business partner, Ryan Mitchell, he recently developed Depot, a software application which allows small business owners to keep on top of admin work, track the time spent on client projects and monitor their own financial records.
“I’m a graphic designer by trade and have worked in Belfast and abroad for more than 25 years,” he says. “Depot is a product we designed to monitor business activity in our three graphics studios, however we soon realised that it would be of interest to other small businesses.
“Graphic design is a service industry whereas Depot is a product with a potentially global market, but we had no idea how to maximise its potential and capture that market.
“The Propel team have been great teachers and motivators and the scheme has
introduced us to some wonderful mentors, who we will stay in touch with long after the programme ends.”
‘I’m about to take on staff after launching last year’
Grandmother-of-two Carol Little (50), from Scarva, Co Down, has set up New Found Joy, selling artisan gluten-free baked goods from premises in Queen’s Place in Lurgan. She launched the business at Ireland’s largest food service event Catex in 2014.
With the help of the Propel programme, she plans to take the business forward and make her products available worldwide.
“New Found Joy evolved from another business I have — Alana Interiors in Lurgan. I set up a coffee shop in the store in 2008 and noticed that more and more people were asking for gluten-free choices.
“I love cooking and started making products myself and selling them in the shop. They proved so popular that I decided to set up a separate company so I could supply the products to other coffee shops, retail outlets and online to individuals.
“The new company launched last year and I am about to start taking on staff.
Propel has helped me so much.
“Just being able to be around and meet other entrepreneurs and being able to chat and compare notes with them has been amazing.
“The scheme also forces you to keep focused on the online and export element which I’m very keen to maximise.”
‘Nice to use my skills for something so worthwhile’
Lisburn-based physicist Vincent McCorry (37), set up Photonic Measurements Ltd to develop scientific instruments aimed at identifying water pollution simply and cost-effectively.
“I have worked in analytical measurements my whole career and started the business because I felt that people in the industry weren’t innovating,” he says.
“My business partner Conor Douglas and I knew we had a lot of skills we could bring to the water industry. In a nutshell, we have developed a machine which measures the amount of chemicals in water using light.
“It’s of huge environmental benefit and its nice to be able to use my skills for something so worthwhile.
“Being scientists and engineers, we are very happy designing and developing products, but we are not very experienced in the areas of business and marketing.
“Propel has been invaluable in improving our business focus and I really recommend the programme.”
‘Knowledge transfer within the scheme is amazing’
US-born entrepreneur, Alicia Peyrano (39), from Helen’s Bay, Co Down, set up Little Citizens Boutique to help parents prepare children for later life with toys that develop the imagination, creativity and encourage problem solving.
“I was born in Boston and came to Northern Ireland when I married a Northern Ireland man 12 years ago,” she says. “I used to work in media and television production, but becoming a mum to my daughter, Zulema (5), inspired me to change career.
“I knew there was a market for slightly educational, but still really fun and beautifully designed toys, so I set up Little Citizens Boutique and online store.
“All the toys are sourced from some of the most interesting designers and brands across the world, with details of their origin listed on the website alongside information on the designer, therefore helping other creative small businesses.
“Propel is really helping me to grow internationally and online.
“As well as workshops and mentoring, the peer-to-peer knowledge transfer within the scheme is amazing. I am able to talk to and get tips from people from all backgrounds who are also participating.
“I feel really lucky to be involved.”