Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Start-ups head south to pitch to Republic of Ireland's top investors

Northern Ireland entrepreneurs took the Enterprise to Dublin to pitch their fledgling companies, Clare Weir reports

Clare Weir with Celine Magill (Art on Fashion)
Franz Schlindwein (Quibizm), Kevin and Eoin McGrath (Beacon)

It was a train full of brains – a carriage load of Northern Ireland entrepreneurs who headed to Dublin on the Enterprise train – to pitch for funding from some of the Republic's keenest investors.

Some of the 26 new companies who took part in the Invest Northern Ireland Propel programme – aimed at developing high growth potential, export focused start-ups – attended two pitch events, one at the National College of Ireland and another hosted by Wayra, Telefónica's global start-up accelerator, which opened a Dublin base at O2's headquarters in 2012.

The Business Telegraph was on board the Entrepreneur Express to speak to some of the companies, their mentors and the investors taking part in the scheme.

Last week an awards ceremony, held in W5 Belfast, celebrated their dedication to the growth of their businesses and their commitment to succeed on an international stage.

Plotbox – an online tool that combines cemetery management software and genealogy resources was named winner of the Propel Company of the Year, sponsored by Danske Bank.

The awards brought together the 26 participants who successfully completed the Propel programme, which is delivered by Xcel Partners and is aimed at developing high growth potential, export focused start-ups.

Other businesses recognised at the awards were cycling lighting system See.Sense which won the breakthrough Company of the Year, and digital magazine publisher Beacon, which won the Best Go-to-Market Strategy category.

THE PITCHERS

Leona McAllister – Plotbox

"I was on maternity leave and our local parish near Portglenone wanted to do a survey of the graveyard and produce an accompanying spreadsheet. My husband is a surveyor and I gave him a hand. It was through this work that we discovered a huge gap in the market in terms of death record management.

"Through our companies Discover Ever After and Plotbox we provide cemetery management software and genealogy resources to help pinpoint grave sites fast.

"We are now working with local authorities across the UK and Ireland. A lot of graveyards and councils are still working from huge ledgers and it can take hours to find information.

"Our software can provide names, dates, photos and other information in seconds.

"We've even invested in using aerial drones to map and photograph big cemeteries. Our products are not just providing a record of death but a celebration of life – users can add photos and comments to create a lasting tribute to their loved one or ancestor."

Celine Magill – Art on Fashion

"I've been a designer for around 25 years and the concept is pretty simple, we put Art on Fashion – wearable art.

"We take the work of artists, we license it and we put it onto clothing. The clothing is very good quality and we are using factories in Europe who supply to big names like Burberry.

"Each piece is sold with a picture of the original artwork and a bio of the artist so it is a win win situation for everyone, and provides great exposure for new emerging artists.

"We now have an agent in Europe and we are finalising an agent in LA.

"I've taken on some graduates from the University of Ulster – it's the perfect place to work for an art and design fan.

"As well as investment, what we would really love is some celebrity endorsement – this is a product which belongs on the red carpet."

Nigel Woodside – Varifed

"I have a background in engineering and farming and I was employed in FG Wilson for 30 years until the redundancy announcement in 2012 so I went out on my own and started working hard on my prototype.

"Varifed allows dairy cows in the milking parlour to be fed the right amount of minerals and additives tailored to each animal. The system saves farmers thousands in terms of improved milk outputs, healthier cows and lower vet bills as they are getting the correct amount of vitamins and minerals, and will save wastage on feeding the same amount to every animal whether they need it or not.

"It's fully automated, computerised and cloud based so farmers can check out how each individual cow is doing from their smartphone or tablet computer.

"Varifed is already being trialled on farms in Cork, Larne and Cookstown and all the farms have reported increases in milk output."

Catherine Cunningham

– The Present Tree

"I live on a farm near Ballymena where we grow trees, I am really into the ancient history and meaning of trees and my company provides a luxury, eco-friendly gift that unlike flowers, can grow forever in a pot or in the ground and, again, unlike flowers, can be a gift for men, women, children or whole families and organisations.

"Each tree is beautifully wrapped, comes with a short explanation of the meaning of the tree and a personalised, inscription from the sender.

"We have a really good online shop and we get lots of custom from forward thinking companies with good green credentials like Maxol and Legal Island who want to provide interesting corporate gifts – a common sentiment is 'plant this tree and think of me'.

"As well as trees we also sell gift boxes of seeds.

"Our aim is to become the Interflora of trees and our next step will hopefully be a move into Asia and America."

Paul McMenamin – Spectrum Filament

"3D printers have been in the news a lot recently but people don't think about what has to go into the printers.

"In a traditional computer printer you buy ink and put it in, we make the 'ink' for digital printing.

"We supply the PLA filament which goes into the printers, in a range of colours. While the technology is fairly new, the amount of universities and schools, businesses and hobbyists who will be installing these machines is set to explode. They can make everything from components in aircraft to children's toys and there are even plumbing and electrical applications too.

"It is now possible to buy a 3D printer for less than the cost of an iPhone. We manufacture the product ourselves in Newry and are probably the only firm in the UK making and selling our product directly, most other firms have to import from places like China.

"3D is set to become the next big manufacturing revolution and we want to be ahead of the pack."

David Moorhead – Green Sword

"I've been working on this product for 17 years and come from a background of textile and food science research.

"I discovered a natural culture found in the peatlands of Ireland, from which I developed an environmentally friendly way to decontaminate oil from soil, water, hard surfaces, textiles and carbon fibre.

"As well as being a water-based product which leaves no environmental impact, we can offer 40% savings compared to what current suppliers of detergent cleaning materials can achieve.

"We're working with companies like Wrightbus and Belfast Harbour, with councils in Northern Ireland and we've received interest from companies from Canada and Texas and my current aim is getting the product trialled by Schlumberger, the global oil and gas industry suppliers."

THE MENTORS

Stephen Houston

"I'm an angel investor at Halo, the business angel network for Northern Ireland and I was named Angel Investor of the year in 2013.

"My background is in consumer goods and property and I'm currently a non-executive director at IT firm Sophia.

"I think an important thing for start-ups to learn is that they have to give something away and not be too protective of their idea if they want investment, we don't sell ourselves enough in Northern Ireland. If you look at it, the only fully self-funded billionaire from the UK is Sarah Blakely from Spanx – the rest of us need a lot more help.

"Propel forces you to come out of stealth mode and share your ideas. I'm like Marmite, I tell you what's what whether you want to hear it or not. I feel like I am doing good parenting – love is love and a slap is a slap."

Fiona Flynn

"I provide mentoring and coaching clinics to participants on the Propel Programme offering guidance and direction in marketing and sales.

"I offer advice on building a company profile, networking and preparing sales and marketing plans.

"Emotional intelligence is key when you are trying to sell a product or service. It doesn't matter how good your product is, it could be the best product in the world but you won't get anywhere if you don't have the confidence to sell it in front of an audience of important people.

"Some of the pitches I am seeing now, the pitchers are the polar opposite of how they were when they first got started on the programme – they have to believe in themselves as well as believing in the product."

Alan Mulvey

"I work for Foresight Corporate Development and we bring in our team of coaches to help specifically with the pitches.

"I have in the past developed sales teams across different sectors and have worked with big companies like Bus Eireann and Topaz.

"A big part of the pitch is convincing the investor that you have what they need.

"But it's a fine balance – too much enthusiasm and you can come across as cocky and that just turns people off. It's about confidence and attitude but not too much.

"It's really key that the pitchers know their audience when they are looking for investment and that they explain it simply – too much jargon is also really off-putting. You have to put your product across without blinding people with science."

THE INVESTOR

Will Prendergast

"I am a founding partner at Frontline Ventures and I invest across the UK, Ireland and Europe in seed stage software firms.

"Among the companies I have invested in are Britebill, a consumer engagement and billing firm and epubDirect, which distributes ebooks.

I spend a lot of time in the USA developing investor relations and I use these contacts and networks to help new start-ups. Software start-ups are looking at a fast ramp but a long road.

"We hear from so many firms who say they will make millions in a short space of time and while it's good to be ambitious, it's also good to be realistic."

THE PROGRAMME MANAGERS

Diane Roberts,

Xcel Partners

"A lot of people just came into us with an idea.

"We need a viable product at minimum. What we do is help the entrepreneurs so that people will pay more for that product and we will help them get it out there.

"We build a team, we help them get access to finance and as we hope, if the product has the potential to go global, we steer them in the direction of the right export market.

"I set up Xcel Partners in 2009 after spending seven years in Silicon Valley.

"What I have learned is that there is no secret sauce – start-ups need funding, support and mentoring.

"In Silicon Valley there are plenty of start-ups who don't make it, and people dust themselves off and start again.

"As part of Propel, we share ideas and work together, we swap skills.

"This is a small country and the participants this year come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, someone always has some sort of experience that can help someone else out."

Grainne McCurry,

Business Development Manager,

Invest Northern Ireland

"Propel is a real flagship programme for us and provides an opportunity for new businesses to grow and export.

"Every year there are so many more brilliant creative ideas and what the programme aims to do is help a good idea survive in the real world.

"Some people can love their ideas so much that they struggle to make it commercial.

"We help them take that step, to let their idea go a bit and help it to evolve.

"Export is key also – some of the companies haven't even got as far as thinking about export but it is such an important market for SMES in Northern Ireland that we have to encourage them down that route."

What I have learnt is that there is no secret sauce – start-ups need funding, support and mentoring. As part of Propel we share ideas and work together

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