Belfast Telegraph

Kieran Kelly: ‘Everything that’s happened to me has been a training ground for where I am now in business’

Margaret Canning hears from arc-net founder Kieran Kelly about his journey from butcher’s block to blockchain as he builds his food traceability firm

By Margaret Canning

Many people find that their careers take an unexpected detour at some point — and for some that detour can change the course of their lives.

But few have suffered a random accident of the kind which eventually led Kieran Kelly to set up food traceability and tech company arc-net.

Kieran, now 46, was born in Lurgan, the son of Gerry, a butcher, and his wife May.

He was on course to become a master butcher when an accident at home severely injured his arm.

“It would have stopped me continuing in that trade and holding a knife, which is ironic as it set me along the destination to where I am today,” he says.

Following his injury, he moved to London. After working in a range of roles in technology, and furthering his education through long-distance learning, he set up arc-net in 2014. It uses blockchain technology to trace the authenticity and safety of food.

Now a spinal-cord stimulator inserted in the spinal cavity helps Kieran to use his arm by a specialist doctor.

“He and his team have transformed things so I have almost full function though I have a few limitations,” he says.

His career has brought him around the world. “I love it, and worked in Asia for four years, and India — covering Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.”

He also worked in the US and later began a research project in the food and drink sector. As part of that, he liaised with Professor Christopher Elliott at Queen’s University. Kieran is swift to acknowledge the abilities of those around him. “I would say I continue to be humbled by the people within the business and its leadership, and the responsiveness of the sector in which we operate,” he says.

“Everything I have done has been a training ground for what I have done now. I am passionate, driven and very focused on having the ability to deliver on the vision that I have.”

His work with Professor Elliott was a turning point.

“He developed eight pillars for change in food security, including the issue of trust or lack of trust in the supply chain. I very quickly found I could utilise my skill set to find a new era of trust using blockchain.”

Kieran, who now lives in Co Down with his wife, says food fraud is a major concern, with a 2015 report by PwC putting the cost at $40bn.

Scandals have ranged from the horsemeat controversy of 2013, to the use of slaughterhouse waste in oil in China in 2014. “We want to go back and create a paradigm shift where we put the consumer first, and in order to do so, we have to go back to creation and map the supply chain from birth to death — helping our customers provide access to safe food for current and future generations.”

Blockchain technology has lent itself well to food traceability. “It was the underlying platform behind bitcoin, providing a secure, distributed immutable ledger. It creates trust among ecosystem members, who can validate the information and assets as they transfer,” says Kieran.

So in the case of meat, it can electrically tag an animal at birth, link it to parentage and then map it so that it grows and moves across the supply chain.

“When the customer interacts and scans, they can see not only the farm and farmer but authenticate it,” he says.

Arc-net is working with Cranswick plc — the UK pork giant which last year bought over the pork operations of Northern Ireland meat giant Dunbia.

“We identified the pork sector as a soft target as it had a compelling need and an even greater willingness to change,” says Kieran.

That need came from the dioxins scare around the additional ingredients in pork products in 2011. “If it did not change it would lose export potential and value.”

But providing greater traceability does not lead to higher prices for consumers, he argues. Instead, “the data that is gathered along supply chain helps create efficiencies can deliver affordable efficient products”.

“If you have the vision to promote full traceability and establish the ultimate trust through their ecosystem, you bring the farmer to the consumer and prove their product is superior and value for money,” adds Kieran.

The system he’s working on for Cranswick plc is in testing at the moment. “When you see a major plc investing in Northern Ireland, their whole point is to bolster and grow the economy.”

And it’s joined with Professor Elliott and Queen’s Institute for Global Food Security as technology partner in the €10m, European Horizon 2020-funded EU-China-Safe, a project to reduce food fraud and improve food safety.

China is famous for its taste for so-called ‘fifth quarter’ products from pigs — from ears to feet, intestines, heart and lungs.  And while living in Asia, Kieran tried exotic dishes such as brains and sea urchin. Arc-net now has 20 employees which Kieran hopes will ultimately reach 50.

His employees range from development staff and programmers, and marketing and sales. It’s also received support from the Ulster Bank’s Entrepreneurial Spark programme, in which firms are ‘incubated’ in their early days, benefiting from the support of Ulster Bank advisers and from other firms on a similar journey.

And it’s been a long journey for Kieran from youth and education at Lismore Comprehensive in Craigavon and his early days in the family butcher’s shop, which he went straight into after school.

“I had a natural serviceability in the trade. My grandfather and my father had both been in it. My grandfather was actually a tailor but also had investments in retail and he owned a butcher’s shop where my father served his time.”

He doesn’t hanker after butchery now. “No, absolutely not. But everything that I have done up to this point has been a training ground for what I’m doing now.

“And there is common ground between retail and what I’m doing now. You have to deliver with passion and put the customer first. Without customers, retail is really dead on its feet.”

He believes a system for promoting traceability and sustainability is the next stage of the ‘food revolution’. And the revolution gathered momentum with the acquisition last month of US organic foods chain Whole Foods by online retailer Amazon.

“That move is going to herald an era of even more online shopping, where customers will put even greater premium on information about where their food has come from,” he says.

As a former butcher, he is well aware of the importance of animal husbandry and agriculture, and emphasises that NI’s economy is founded on farming.

He’s also grateful to the support of former employers who supported him in his pursuit of online learning programmes through Stanford University. “I have had a number of very influential people who have always sought to inspire me.”

Now he’s gaining inspiration from Dr Richard Steeves, the founder of Synergy plc and chairman of arc-net since February. Dr Steeves has also made a £2m investment in arc-net in a move to accelerate the company’s growth. 

“As an entrepreneur he has a hunger to help young companies,” Kieran said. And it’s crucial for young companies to get encouragement, he added. “More not only can be done but should be done. The footprint of Entrepreneurial Spark and Ulster Bank is successful and long overdue.

It was onerous to try and establish and innovate in 2014 but Entrepreneurial Spark has helped create their own paradigm shift in what can be established. We need a ‘fail fast and don’t be afraid’ mentality. “We have a heavily public sector-driven economy which supports foreign direct investment but young firms need somewhere to incubate and generate entrepreneurship and vision,” says Kieran.

He cited some of Northern Ireland’s most successful firms — pharma firm Randox, IT giant Kainos plc, Delta Print and Packaging, veterinary pharma firm Norbrook and Chain Reaction Cycles. “Those are five major firms from the last 30 years but we’d really be needing five of those every year.”

While it’s based in Belfast much of the firm’s early development was in Edinburgh. It also has a presence in San Francisco, where it’s been selected for an agri-accelerator programme sponsored by international institution Rabobank.

But while the firm has a global focus, he’s not enthused at the prospect of Brexit and a US trade deal, bringing products such as hormone-injected chicken from the US into the market.

“One thing we’re out to do is to protect local produce and local farmers. We want to promote higher welfare standards and regulations. We’re here to protect what’s ours and showcase it, and present it to the consumer as artisan and traceable,” he says.

Brexit, if not managed properly, could present challenges. “Politicians need to understand that agri-food is our lifeblood, with our own products like the Glenarm Shorthorn Cattle, which are sold at Fortnum and Mason,” he adds.

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