Idir Boudaoud is aiming for £100m turnover within five years at his business making ‘Fitbits for machines’, writes Margaret Canning
Idir Boudaoud is evangelical about exports as co-founder of a Northern Ireland export success story you’ve possibly never heard of.
After 18 years working at Schrader in Antrim and as their fortieth birthdays loomed, Idir and colleague Alan McCall left to set up on their own in 2016.
“It was a leap of faith of course. We started in a little tiny office in Ormeau Business Park, and was just nice to come in the morning and to have a cup of coffee and look at each other’s faces and think, ‘what do we want to do next? Where do we want to go?’
They had expertise in engineering after working at Schrader in the manufacture of tyre pressure monitoring systems but wanted to develop their own sensor which could be used in other industries.
Now its products, which Idir describes as “Fitbits for machines,” are being sold to around 100 customers in 30 countries around the world in sectors like food and beverage, mining, automotive and pharmaceuticals.
Yet here in Northern Ireland, where Idir has lived for 24 years after moving from France, they’ve only got about four customers and a pretty low profile.
It’s partly a deliberate strategy. “I’m excited about export because personally, I love travel,” Idir says. “But people always value things more when they’re coming from the outside, more than their own things. It’s a weird thing but that’s the way it is.
“Doesn’t matter where you go — Chile, North America and even China — while they do like their own products, they like something that comes from the outside. At Sensoteq, we are much more successful in exporting than locally.”
Its list of clients is impressive, with up to 20 global names like Honda, Pfizer, General Motors, Ford and Continental Tyres ordering from the company.
“That by itself is a great achievement. It was coming from nowhere and just us two guys sitting in Ormeau Business Park, to then being in front of Honda in the US and those guys saying to us, ‘this is the best product we’ve ever seen’.
“That’s a great feeling.”
The sensors can be attached to a machine to monitor its vibration and temperature and detect problems in advance, therefore avoiding the time lost to machines breaking down. “You put it on a machine like a magnet and it listens to the vibration and temperature, a bit like listening to the heartbeat of a human being.
“From your heartbeat and temperature you can tell so much, so it’s the same thing for machines.”
The second generation of its sensor has been launched, the Kappa X, with modifications which have come about following conversations with customers all over the world.
Through all the successes of the business, he says he and Alan have implemented what they learned early in their careers at Schrader. “Everything I learnt there is pretty much what I’m trying to repeat at Sensoteq.
“Yes, it’s very different, what we do, but the know-how is the same and what we learned about electronic design and wireless technology.”
But the pair wanted to expand wireless sensor technology beyond the automotive industry.
“Sensors in cars means a lot of investment and you can be doing that for 10 years before you start making money. But our way meant that you were keeping it in the industrial world, like mining and quarrying, all these different markets were you can launch a product and design it quickly.
“When you’re a start-up you have to think, where do I get the money from and when I’m going to make the money to stay sustainable. What I also wanted to repeat from Schrader to Sensoteq is to be a company that can make a product in Northern Ireland and sell it all over the world, grow very fast, be known everywhere, export talent and export the product.”
Idir moved to Paris when he was 15 after growing up in Algeria. He spent up to eight years at university in France studying engineering before he joined Schrader in France and was transferred to Northern Ireland. He was 22, and was immediately impressed with how differently Schrader in Antrim seemed to operate
“I started as a student at Schrader, right at the bottom. And even as a student, it was much nicer being here than in France.
“I found that there was no boundaries between the bottom and the top. I remember we were having a barbecue with the CEO at the time, Stephen McClelland, we had nights out and there was always a feeling that everybody was on the same level.
“That was something I learned from Schrader, all the way from being a student to being an engineer, senior engineer and eventually leading the new product division.
“Schrader was almost a start-up when I joined and ended up being sold at $1bn in 2014. I saw that whole phase in 18 years, from start-up to $1bn. I want the same thing as Schrader had, but shorter.”
He finds Northern Ireland a business-friendly environment, and praises the support he’s received from economic development agency Invest NI. And the company has also benefited from the support of the Department for International Trade, particularly when it came to making inroads into the mining sector.
But relocating from Montpelier in the south of France did bring an obvious downside. “Initially when I came here, I liked the people, the place I lived in, but I didn’t like the rain too much. That was the one thing which depressed me.
“But when you see everything you get from people’s warmth and openness, socially and in my work, that’s made up for it. I came for three months, thinking the maximum I would stay here was six months. But that was 24 years ago.”
He’s very ambitious for Sensoteq. “We’re around £2m roughly turnover now and we’d like to take that to £100m turnover in next five years.
“We’ve doubled turnover between last year and this year, after Covid, which was flat. We haven’t really made any profits just yet but this will be the first year we’ll turn the business from loss-making to profit-making.”
The support the business has received, and the co-founders’ own funds, have helped support them so far. Now a recruitment drive will come, with plans to take 17 on this year, and around 30 the year after that. At present, there are 30 employees.
And the business’s low profile makes recruitment difficult. “That’s something we’re struggling with now, we were lucky at the start with getting great talent through our personal network. But as we grow, it’s hard to recruit, especially software engineers.”
A business like his now has to offer an experienced software engineer £80,000, such is the shortage in the industry. “There’s a guy who left us who was getting the London wages while being based here, and he was in software.”
High salaries can also be commanded by software engineers early in their career. “If a young person is getting double what they should be getting and what someone with the same experience is getting, it just creates an imbalance. But I don’t think that imbalance will last very long and salaries will come down again.”
The company has big growth plans, and has signed up with new partners to help it with sales in the rest of the UK. And in America, where it also works with food giant McKee Foods, it’s also signed up with a partner which will enable them to sell in 50 States and in the Caribbean.
At the minute, the company outsources manufacturing to businesses in Armagh and Enniskillen, though he expects it will have to carry out its own manufacturing in future, if it’s to reach the £100m mark in sales.
He’s a strong believer in Northern Ireland’s manufacturing prowess. “There’s know-how here. People know how to make things here and how to make them well.
“We had a customer in the US who recently came to see us and visited the manufacturing line. What they really liked about it was that the whole supply chain was very close, all within an hour. And of course at this point there are great supply chain issues and challenges globally, so having everything close actually reduces your risk.
“It’s attractive to manufacture here and to buy things from people like us who manufacture locally.
“People ask would it be cheaper for us to go somewhere else but if you have a good quality product, you’re best to make it here locally.
“Our product is designed and manufactured in Northern Ireland. All the research and development, and engineering, all of that is done here with our team.”
Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit position is also a selling point. “I think in Northern Ireland it’s probably the best of both worlds. Whatever happens in near future, so long as it doesn’t change what we have today, then it’s ok for us.
“We export to over 30 countries and you can look at the agreements between either the UK and those countries or the EU and those countries, and being in NI gives us a bit of both.”
He has a strong ethos of giving back, which is fuelling his ambition for the company. “I want to see myself growing and giving something back to the people round me and the place I live. If not, I feel like I’m wasting my time and wasting my talent.”