SmartAgriHubs connecting European agricultural and IT innovation

“The SmartAgriHubs project has been invaluable not just to Walton but to Ireland, as it’s allowed us to build a network of contacts and strong strategic relations with similar partners across Europe.”

Hazel Peavoy, Walton Institute, SmartAgriHubs Horizon 2020 project

Key Takeouts:

  • Walton Institute, part of the Waterford Institute of Technology, is involved in a major project that is driving the digitisation of the agricultural sector in Europe.
  • The SmartAgriHubs project has received €20m in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
  • With 164 partners, the ambitious project aims to build a network of over 2000 Competence Centres supported by 250 Digital Innovation Hubs and deliver 80 new digital solutions to the market.

H2020 Case Study: SmartAgriHubs

     

    Increasing the competitiveness, resilience and sustainability of Europe’s agri-food sector is a prime focus for the European Union as it looks ahead to the challenges of climate change and feeding a growing population. Central to the future success of the sector will be the widespread adoption of innovation and smart-farming techniques but this will rely heavily on interconnectivity and knowledge-sharing across a multitude of stakeholders.

    This is the focus of the ambitious €20m SmartAgriHubs Horizon 2020 project. Involving a consortium of 164 partners, including start-ups, SMEs, service providers, technology experts and end-users spread over nine Regional Clusters, the project aims to build a network of over 2000 Competence Centres supported by some 250 Digital Innovation Hubs and deliver 80 new digital solutions to the market.

    Walton Institute, a centre for information and communication systems science and part of the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), is leading the Ireland & UK Regional Cluster, with Hazel Peavoy at the helm.

    “Part of our role is to identify the Digital Innovation Hubs and Competency Centres across Ireland to build our local network. Digital Innovation Hubs are larger centres that bring together research, funding, business models and services, while the smaller Competency Centres tend to have a single technical service,” she explains.

    “The aim is to create a network that will work together on ground-breaking research and innovation. We want to be able to give farmers a clear view of the technologies that may be coming down the line and to ensure they get assistance to apply whatever technology they need to support their activities.”

    SmartAgriHubs is also funding a number of Flagship Innovation Experiments through which technology solutions are tested with a view to eventually bringing them to market. The experiments are conducted with the help of the Digital Innovation Hubs and Competence Centres.

    The Ireland & UK Regional Cluster is currently running two Flagship Innovation Experiments. The Farm Sustainability Audit is measuring a range of metrics in the dairy industry related to energy and water use, nutrient use efficiency, animal welfare and greenhouse gas emissions, while STREAM is applying digital technologies to simplify the production of farmland habitat reports.

    “These experiments are helping to bring innovation to the fore. Currently there are three more open calls under SmartAgriHubs that are offering funding for experiments that will drive digital innovation,” says Peavoy.

     

    Connecting the dots

    SmartAgriHubs’s full project title is ‘Connecting the dots to unleash the innovation potential for digital transformation of the European agri-food sector’, which highlights the importance of excellent communication and dissemination of information across project partners and stakeholders.

    “The project has been very successful with regards to communication. The Regional Cluster leads attend monthly meetings and then we disseminate the information down to other elements of the project. And there are also monthly meetings with the Flagship Innovation Experiments. So we can quite clearly see what’s happening across Europe with the other partners and with agriculture and we can learn from each other,” says Peavoy.

    “Having such a large number of partners meant, at an early stage, it took some time to mobilise the consortium but once that was achieved the network has become invaluable to all involved in this sector globally.”

     

    The value to Walton Institute and Ireland

    Peavoy believes that taking part in SmartAgriHubs has positioned Ireland and the UK as key drivers for the agri-tech sector across Europe.

    “This project has been invaluable not just to Walton but to Ireland, as it’s allowed us to build a network of contacts and strong strategic relations with similar partners across Europe.”

    “From a personal perspective, it’s very interesting to see how other countries approach particular problems and to get an insight into what research is required by the sector to meet its future needs,” says Peavoy.

    “Likewise, we can see that our partners in SmartAgriHubs are learning from us. For example, the Competency Centres we’ve identified through SmartAgriHubs are often start-ups and SMEs and through WIT’s Technology Gateway they’ve been able to benefit from Enterprise Ireland funding. Our partners in Germany were very interested in how our Technology Gateways function because they don’t have anything like that.

    “The SmartAgriHubs partners are also looking at how we’ve created a culture of multi-disciplinary collaboration in Ireland. What was once a landscape of competition has become a landscape of collaboration; A perfect example of that is the VistaMilk Research Centre which has brought together a number of RPO’s to develop new technologies for the dairy sector. I believe that in many ways Ireland is leading the charge in this space and is well-positioned to lead on future Horizon Europe projects linked to agriculture” says Peavoy.

    For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact HorizonSupport@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizoneurope.ie

    NIVA – simplifying the Common Agricultural Policy claims process

    Horizon 2020 is an ideal funding stream as it enables cross-border collaboration and ensures that technology developed will be fit for purpose on a pan European basis.

    David Hearne, Walton Institute, NIVA Horizon 2020 project

    Key Takeouts:

    • Walton Institute (formerly TSSG), part of the Waterford Institute of Technology, is involved in a project that aims to develop and implement a range of digital innovations to improve the administration of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
    • The NIVA project has received €10.5m in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
    • Walton Institute is focused on developing a geo-tagged photo app to help simplify the CAP claims process for farmers and paying agencies.

    H2020 Case Study: NIVA

      The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) supports farmers, safeguards agri-food supplies and encourages sustainable management of land resources. Administering and controlling payments to farmers under CAP is done through the integrated administration and control system (IACS), which is the subject of the Horizon 2020 project, NIVA (New IACS Vision in Action).

      The three-year project, led by The Netherlands’ Wageningen University & Research and involving 27 partners, aims to modernise IACS by delivering a suite of digital solutions, e-tools and good practices for e-governance. These will ultimately produce more transparent, simpler processes that will reduce the administrative burden on farmers, paying agencies and other stakeholders.

      In Ireland, a multi-disciplinary team made up of The Walton Institute (formerly TSSG) – a centre of excellence for ICT research and innovation – the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Teagasc – the Agriculture and Food Development Authority – and led by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is tasked with developing a geo-tagged photo app.

      The app will be used to resolve claim queries by enabling farmers to send digital photos of their land parcels directly to the paying agency, which will reduce the need for inspections and accelerate claim processing.

      “Our app is one of nine innovations in this project with different countries working on each,” explains David Hearne of Walton Institute’s Creative Design Unit. “Other areas include decision support systems, machine data and a solution for simplifying payments, but in the end they will all come together in one ecosystem, which will be used by paying agencies across Europe.”

      Although it won’t be the first geo-tagged photo app on the market, Hearne explains that what sets this one apart is the user-centric, multi-actor design.

      “We take the approach that we don’t know what the users want; we can’t decide what’s best for a farmer in the west of Ireland who needs to send a photo to the Dept of Agriculture. So the project started by gathering data about the needs of all stakeholders, not just in Ireland but across Europe. It’s an iterative process, so when we’d developed the first version of the app, it was tested by users across Europe and their feedback informed the next iteration and so on.

      “The fact that farmers and other stakeholders have been involved from the beginning gives them a sense of ownership, and that should result in a higher adoption rate at the end,” adds Hearne.

       

      Horizon benefits  

      Horizon 2020 has provided €10.5m in funding for the project, but beyond the financial investment the programme offers multiple other benefits.

      Horizon 2020 is an ideal funding stream as it enables cross-border collaboration and ensures that technology developed will be fit for purpose on a pan European basis,” says Hearne

      “Currently, our app is being tested across nine EU countries with over 200 users, and other solutions being developed under NIVA will likewise be tested across different countries, so there’s a lot of interaction, integration and learning across the project.”

      Monthly work package meetings and bi-monthly project meetings, all virtual at the minute, keep the project on course and ensure that innovation is shared across the partners.

      On a personal and professional level, Hearne believes his involvement in Horizon 2020 projects has been highly advantageous.

      “It’s great to focus on these large projects with so many moving parts. You learn so much, for example, the various technologies used in different countries, how they are implemented and what the issues are.

      Hearne confirms “The opportunity to collaborate with researchers in other countries is also invaluable. You build up a huge contact base, which gives you the opportunity to collaborate on more projects.”

      To others who have not yet dipped their toe in the Horizon water, Hearne simply says “Do it”.

      “It’s a great opportunity to be involved in projects that can actually change people’s lives. With NIVA we’re reducing the burden on farmers, so we’re making a difference. My advice would be to focus on something that you’re really passionate about.”

      His other advice is to seek out the right partners at the start and use the supports that are available to help with putting the proposal together.

      “I was involved in writing sections of the NIVA proposal. It was a new experience for me because I come from a very technical background, but I had the support of people in WIT to guide me in how to approach it. And the more you do it the easier it gets.

      “We’re also in close contact with Enterprise Ireland, who have a real interest in the project, and we know that they’re there to help us if we need it.”

      For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact HorizonSupport@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizoneurope.ie

       

      AgROBOfood – stimulating the uptake of robotics in the agri-food sector

      “The Horizon 2020 & Horizon Europe funding streams give participants exposure to a large European network of relevant research organisations, business advisory services, investors and companies.”

       

      Christine O’Meara, Walton Institute, AgROBOfood, Horizon 2020 project

      Key Takeouts:

      • Walton Institute, formerly TSSG, part of the Waterford Institute of Technology, is involved in a major project to encourage and facilitate the uptake of robotics in the agri-food sector.
      • The AgROBOfood project is being funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
      • Acting as a Digital Innovation Hub, The Walton Institute, is a one-stop-shop, supporting those in the Agri-food sector in locating and accessing robotics services or expertise and is mapping out the robotics ecosystem in Ireland.

      Case Study: AgROBOfood

      By 2050, our planet will be home to almost 10 billion people and the pressure on food production will be immense. There is now an urgent need to find and develop smart ways to farm and process food, and this underlies the European Union’s huge investment in agri-food-related innovation projects.

      AgROBOfood is one such project. Focused on helping the Agri-food sector become more efficient through the use of robotics, the four-year, €16.3m Horizon 2020 project involves 39 partners and is led by Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands.

      The project team is broken into seven territorial clusters enabling more agile and effective group sizes. Ireland, represented by The Walton Institute (formerly TSSG) – an internationally recognised centre of excellence for ICT research and innovation and part of the Waterford Institute of Technology is in the North West cluster. This cluster comprises the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, United Kingdom and Ireland.

      AgROBOfood has three aims: to build a network of digital innovation hubs and competency centres; to load this network with a catalogue of services; and to showcase what robotics can do for the sector.

      “Walton Institute is the Digital Innovation Hub for Ireland. We can signpost stakeholders to competency or research centres or other hubs in Ireland or across Europe that can provide the services or expertise they need. And as an R&D centre itself, Walton can also provide services directly,” explains Christine O’Meara, Walton Institute project lead.

      “There’s definitely an appetite for digitization and automation, and Ireland has strong national players in, for example, the dairy sector where smart technologies are well advanced.” says O’Meara

      “There are a lot of exciting start-ups in Ireland working in robotics in diverse areas from pasture management to sustainable poultry production. Across Europe, great progress has been made across agri-food with areas like robotic weeding and harvesting set to advance quickly.”

      A key driver in the growth of the robotics ecosystem will be the results of three funding open calls. Two of these (Open Calls for Innovation Experiments) will involve a technology provider and a technology user coming together to advance and demonstrate their solution. The third open call will be targeted at a range of specific industrial challenges, for example, asking if robots can improve working conditions in the food industry.

      “From a TSSG perspective, the opportunity to reach out to, and build relationships with, start-ups and SMEs in the agri-food space through these open calls is really important,” says O’Meara.

       

      The Horizon advantage

      One of the advantages of the Horizon 2020 approach, says O’Meara, is that it presents a means of looking at broader impacts, beyond the local and across disciplines.

      “The Horizon 2020 funding stream gives participants exposure to a large European network of relevant research organisations, business advisory services, investors, technology companies, agri-food start-ups and large enterprises,” says O’Meara.

      “Although in this project each cluster is working somewhat independently, we’re collaborating through a shared technology platform to ensure best practices are replicated and everyone has full visibility of progress and developments.”

      O’Meara is involved in several Horizon 2020-funded projects, including Demeter and NIVA, and is keen to encourage others to explore the opportunities such projects present.

      “As well as giving access to a breadth of expertise, Horizon projects provide a way of broadening your network and extending your skills,” confirms O’Meara

       

      Don’t be daunted

      For some, however, the Horizon process remains an intimidating prospect.

      “Don’t be daunted by the proposal process. It’s quite structured and it’s clear what the EU wants to see. But you need to give yourself plenty of time. As soon as a call comes out you need to start thinking about what topics you’re interested in, what partners you’ll need and get the right team on board. Remember that there’s a lot of support available,” O’Meara advises.

      Most research institutes have in-house support for Horizon 2020 applicants but another excellent source of support is Enterprise Ireland’s National Contact Points These provide information and guidance on all aspects of Horizon 2020 from signposting to webinars about areas of interest, to helping identify partners and reviewing proposals.

      “Begin by identifying what supports are available to you and speak to someone who’s been involved in the process before. If you or your organization need help in writing the proposal, Enterprise Ireland can also provide consultancy support,” adds O’Meara.

      “If you’re successful in getting Horizon 2020 funding, you will have a  very well defined plan of action set out in your implementation description and detailed work packages and you’ll have specific deliverables. So you’ll know exactly what to do from day one.”

      For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact HorizonSupport@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizoneurope.ie

       

      SpeakingNGI – Shaping the internet of the future

      “We are delighted and proud to have contributed to the successful building of the EU’s flagship Next Generation Internet – An Open Internet Initiative (NGI)”.

      TSSG’s Strategic EU Liaison Manager and coordinator of the SpeakNGI.eu project, James Clarke

      Key Takeouts:

      • TSSG (Telecommunications Software & Systems Group), an internationally recognised centre of excellence for ICT research and innovation at the Waterford Institute of Technology, led the influential SpeakNGI.eu project, which was a Pathfinder Project for the European Commission’s large-scale, flagship Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative.
      • The project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation ICT work programme 2018-2020 (WP2018-20).
      • SpeakNGI.eu’s NGI Consultation Platform and Knowledge Base were among numerous contributing projects helping to shape the internet of the future into an Internet of humans that responds to people’s fundamental needs, including trust, security and inclusion, and reflects the values and the norms that we enjoy in Europe.

      Case Study: SpeakingNGI

      Evolving the internet from its current problem-strewn form into a human-centric, secure, inclusive space that supports people’s needs and addresses global sustainability challenges is a European Commission (EC) priority.  It’s an ambitious goal, now embodied in the EC’s flagship Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative.

      SpeakNGI.eu, a partnership between TSSG and Trust-IT Services Ltd, was one of three Horizon 2020-funded Pathfinder Projects that aimed to identify research topics, enable dynamic consultation, and shape the programme for the NGI initiative. For more information on the initiative, please consult the NGI Brochure.

      Begun in 2017 and running for just 18 months, SpeakNGI.eu addressed the dynamic consultation aspect of the pathfinder programme, by building a platform with mechanisms for engagement with the NGI stakeholder communities, creating a knowledge base and establishing a 16-strong European Champions Panel of thought-leaders.

      “These pathfinder projects were important cogs in a bigger wheel and a very important step towards the establishment of the EU’s flagship NGI initiative and directly contributing to the selection of priority NGI topics for the open calls being funded by the larger scaled NGI Research and Innovation Action projects,” explains James Clarke, SpeakNGI.eu project coordinator.

      “We were considering what the Internet will look like 10 years from now, dealing with mounting concerns about security and privacy, and anticipating radically new functionalities. Our platform enabled organisations and individuals to share their ideas and we collated the information and published it in a readable format, essentially building the topics that would eventually be funded through cascade funded open calls by the NGI RIAs.”

       

      From data gathering to experimentation

      Following the successful conclusion of the Pathfinder Projects, the EC launched Research and Innovation Actions (RIA) as the next step towards its vision of creating the ‘internet of humans’.

      In the first tranche of the NGI RIAs, they funded open-call NGI projects based on the topics the pathfinders identified, such as privacy and trust technologies, decentralized data governance, and better search and discovery technologies.

      On the back of SpeakNGI.eu’s success, Clarke led a five-partner team that secured an NGI RIA project covering EU – US cooperation. The project, NGIAtlantic.eu, which runs until June 2022, is funding EU-based researchers and innovators to carry out NGI-related experiments in collaboration with US research teams.

      “We have a 3.5 million budget, 80% of which is dedicated for open calls funding third-party projects. We select, fund and monitor the projects, which are building on research results and moving to the experimentation stage on EU and US experimental platforms,” says Clarke.

      “The vision of a new initiative, launched by the EC in 2016, is now at the stage of funding innovators through RIAs with an overall budget of €75 million over a three-year period. We are delighted and proud to have been part of this long-term strategic action and to have contributed to the successful building of the EU’s flagship NGI initiative.”

      Building on experience

      The two NGI projects are not Clarke’s first foray into the world of EU funding and he has a wealth of experience to call upon.

      “I’ve been involved in EU-funded projects back to the early-nineties so this wasn’t a first for me. For the most part, the experience has been good and challenging. Where it hasn’t been so good, it can be down to teaming up with the wrong partners, perhaps with not enough foresight into the strategy and team building experiences when working in the proposal stages. With experience, I’ve learned how to pick the right partners every time, which is very important,” says Clarke.

      Clarke says “There is certainly a lot of work involved in putting a proposal together for projects. I found the Enterprise Ireland Coordinator Grant to be a huge support in helping prepare a successful Horizon proposal.”

      It has enabled me to bring in great mentors to help with not just the reviewing process, but also to generate content, where needed. And if I couldn’t find someone suitable, who was also available, in Ireland, I could go further into Europe to get the right person.

      “Before Covid-19, I would meet the mentor and spend a couple of days working with them on the proposal and I found that much more effective than relying on feedback from written drafts. Since I started taking that approach, I’ve been winning more projects.”

      Although he admits that being a coordinator on a Horizon 2020 project can be sometimes difficult, Clarke firmly believes the experience has many rewards.

      “Working with like-minded researchers and innovators from around Europe has been a big thrill for me. Coordinating a Horizon 2020 project also frequently offers the opportunity to be invited to participate in more projects, events and follow-up activities. The more you succeed, the more invites you get. Overall, it’s very fulfilling and enjoyable.”

      For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact HorizonSupport@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizoneurope.ie

      FlowPhotoChem helping to green the chemical industry

      “Innovation activities in the area of solar energy conversion technology, including solar chemicals, are key to achieving the decarbonisation targets set by the EU.”

      Dr Pau Farràs, coordinator of the FlowPhotoChem project

      Key Takeouts:

      • NUI Galway is leading a major project that is developing innovative, sustainable ways to manufacture ethylene using artificial photosynthesis.
      • The four-year project has received €6.99m from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
      • The FlowPhotoChem project will pave the way for a range of other green chemicals to be produced solely from sunlight, water and CO2.

      Case Study: FlowPhotoChem

      If the European Union is to achieve its target of a climate neutral economy by 2050, which will involve reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80–95%, new and disruptive approaches and technologies is needed across all sectors. Reducing emissions is a challenge, in particular, for the chemical industry, one of Europe’s largest manufacturing sectors but also one of the most polluting, emitting over 145 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents each year.

      The Horizon 2020-funded FlowPhotoChem project is one of many innovative projects currently developing technology that will help to reduce the chemical sector’s CO2 emissions. The project aims to develop an integrated system of modular reactors that consumes CO2 and uses concentrated sunlight to form ethylene.

      Involving 14 partners from eight countries, €6.99 million in EU funding and led by Dr Pau Farràs from the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway, FlowPhotoChem will produce ethylene as a proof-of-concept and will pave the way for a range of other green chemicals to be produced solely from sunlight, water and CO2.

      Innovation activities in the area of solar energy conversion technology, including solar chemicals, are key to achieving the decarbonisation targets set by the EU,” says Dr Farràs.

      Combining the expertise of research teams from Ireland, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Uganda and the UK, FlowPhotoChem’s technology is innovative and so too is the overall aim of the project. “Our new technologies will enable the production of chemicals using solar energy to be carried out in small-scale installations and not just in large-scale infrastructures as at present,” says Dr Farràs. For example, this technology can be used to create small devices that could produce hydrogen peroxide to purify water, responding to the needs of rural, isolated areas in sun-rich countries.”

       

      Unique platform for collaboration

      Alongside FlowPhotoChem, Dr Farràs is involved in a number of other EU-funded projects related to green energy and chemicals, including Solar2C­­­­­­hem, SeaFuel and HUGE, and recognises that funding mechanisms such as Horizon 2020 offer a unique platform.

      “A wide range of skills is needed on an ambitious project like this, beyond what an individual organisation would have, so collaboration with different partners is compulsory to achieving our goals,” says Dr Farràs

      As coordinator of the project, Dr Farràs is tasked not only with keeping on top of the development of the technology but also with managing the integration of academics and industry with different skills.

      “Our approach is to manage the individual work packages through monthly conference calls to keep everyone engaged and make sure we are on track with the work. This means that when we have larger meetings with all partners, we can talk about the bigger picture because the technical details have already been covered. This kind of management structure is working well. I feel it’s important to have face-to-face interactions; at the moment it’s all virtual meetings but we’re planning for physical workshops next year.”

       

      Advice for Horizon 2020 applicants

      Horizon 2020 had a budget of over €80 billion over seven years and its successor, Horizon Europe, will have a significantly bigger budget offering immense opportunities for individuals and consortia to secure funding for cutting-edge research.

      However, some potential applicants are wary of the paperwork involved in securing funding.

      “It’s true that there is a lot of work involved in putting together projects like this,” admits Dr Farràs. “But my advice would be to use the help that’s available. The support from Enterprise Ireland is fantastic. For both the FlowPhotoChem and the Solar2Chem projects, I applied for and received the Enterprise Ireland Coordinator Grant.

      “I needed someone not only to review the proposals but also to help write them. Thanks to the Coordinator Grant I was able to work with a consultant who had a lot of experience in this area, and who also helped with the administrative side of things,” says Dr Farràs

      “It was also good that FlowPhotoChem was a two-stage call so the shorter document that we had written for the first stage helped with the longer second stage proposal.”

       

      Personal and professional benefits

      Helping to create world-changing technologies brings its own rewards but beyond that the Horizon experience offers personal and professional benefits.

      “First of all, when you undertake research with other groups the impact of your research is improved. We’re also seeing that the Horizon proposals increasingly ask for information on the social aspects of the project as well as technical content, so it’s a great way to meet people from both your own discipline and from others,” says Dr Farràs.

      “No matter what stage you are at in your career there are benefits to being involved in these projects. For example, there are eight PhD students involved in the FlowPhotoChem research. It’s a great opportunity for them as they will see their individual tasks converge at the end into the final system contributing to a specific and significant application.”

      For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact h2020support@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizon2020.ie

       

      PIXAPP – Shedding light on PIC packaging

      “PIXAPP is more than just a project; like all Horizon support I look at it as seed funding to grow your activity.”

      Professor Peter O’Brien, Director of PIXAPP Photonics Packaging Pilot Line Horizon 2020 open call project

      Overview:

      • Tyndall National Institute in Cork is leading an international consortium that is establishing ‘best in class’ photonic integrated circuit (PIC) packaging technologies
      • The PIXAPP project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme
      • The European Commission has recognised PIXAPP as a flagship pilot manufacturing capability in Europe.

      Photonics is the future. In devices ranging from hand-held cardiovascular monitors to self-drive cars, photonic integrated circuits (PICs) are revolutionising technology, enabling significantly higher capacity and speed of data transmission.

      Its huge potential to address socio-economic challenges in areas such as communications, healthcare and security, has led the European Commission to invest heavily in programmes to advance PIC technologies. But with most developments focusing on the PIC chips, the challenge now relates to packaging, that is, connecting the chips to the real world though optical fibres, micro-optics and electronic control devices.

      To address the challenge, a €15.5m project, involving 18 partners and led by the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, has established the world’s first open access PIC assembly and packaging manufacturing line, PIXAPP.

      “The assembly and packaging challenges are considerable and it’s hugely expensive for manufacturers. PIXAPP provides a single point of contact, the Gateway, at Tyndall, through which businesses can access expertise in industrial and research organisations across Europe to translate their requirements into the best packaging solution. It’s a major step forward to enable the conversion of R&D results into innovative products,” explains Professor Peter O’Brien, co-ordinator of the Horizon 2020-funded PIXAPP pilot line.

      The importance of sustainability 

      When PIXAPP started in 2016, the ability to package PICs was dispersed across several European companies and institutions, each of which could only do a few steps in the process.

      “Our aim was to make a diversified, distributed pilot line, which meant coming up with a common language of design, materials and equipment standards that could seamlessly move across different countries.” says O’Brien.

      With PIXAPP due to end in October 2021, the issue of sustainability is key to ensuring progress in the area of PIC packaging continues.

      “One of the key things we had to show in our Horizon 2020 proposal was a sustainability plan. We can’t just walk away after four years. We’re now engaged with over 120 companies around the world and many of them are gearing up to do the whole packaging process themselves, working with the technology standards we’ve developed.

      “Ultimately, that’s what success looks like for us, where we can step back and industry takes on the high volume packaging work. There are still risks involved for companies but we can help reduce those by sharing or advising on equipment and we can train their engineers, which is an important part of what we’re doing.”

      O’Brien’s team has also secured funding from the Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund, which will help with regional sustainability.

      “When we got the DTIF funding the Commission was delighted because that’s the kind of regional investment they want to see,” says O’Brien.

      Insights for Horizon 2020 success 

      Applying for Horizon 2020 support can be daunting but O’Brien has extensive experience and offers some insights.

      The key to a successful proposal is addressing the call requirements, in terms of scientific excellence, impact from project results including dissemination and structure of the workplan. It is also important to ensure the proposal reads as one document, rather than a large number of small documents complied by partners into a single proposal. Ideally, the coordinator should write the full proposal, taking input from all partners. This will ensure the proposal has one voice, making it easy for reviewers to read, understand and enjoy.

       “Enterprise Ireland gave us support to write the proposal and it’s important to use their expertise as well,” says O’Brien.

      The right partners are also central to success.

      “You need to have partners that you trust and who trust you, so you have a shared vision, and you need to work with them well in advance; don’t form consortia based on a call. Our funding success is is high, and we like to work with the familiar partners but it’s also exciting to work with new partners who can bring new technologies and insights. Spending time out of the lab meeting partners, including new partners is important. Visits to Brussels to are also important to stay ahead of upcoming calls and as a central location or HQ to meet partners and future collaborators.”

      Tyndall’ photonics packaging group is currently involved in 15 European projects and has recently participated in €19m project for a new Photonics Innovation Hub called Photon Hub Europe.

      O’Brien also feels strongly that projects should not be seen in isolation.

      “All our projects are strategically aligned so we’re leveraging capabilities from one project to another. A focus on your core technical capabilities is important. And it’s a continuous thing. You have to keep working on proposals, stay up to speed, don’t dip in and out.

      “The big benefit of being involved in Horizon projects is the contacts networks and the relationships that you make. You should think of the funding as seed funding to grow your activity. I don’t like the word project, because that suggests it’s done when it’s done. I think the Commission likes to think that every project is seeding something else much bigger.”

      For advice or further information about applying for Horizon 2020 support please contact HorizonSupport@enterprise-ireland.com or consult www.horizoneurope.ie

       

      How the Sustaining Enterprise Fund helped Oishii Foods reimagine their business

      “Enterprise Ireland offers advice to businesses, as well as hard data. They help build roadmaps that allow you to plan ahead. They are a very valuable partner to have.”


      Ciara Troy, Founder, Oishii Foods

       

      Key Takeouts

        • Oishii Foods is an Irish producer of healthy and convenient Asian-inspired cuisine. Their retail business was hard-hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
        • As a result of interrupted business, Oishii began to reimagine their business strategy. During this time, they were informed of Enterprise Ireland’s Sustaining Enterprise Fund.
        • Oishii Foods, with the help of their finance mentor and business advisor, were able to qualify for SEF, giving them the ability not only to survive this crisis, but to plan for an even bigger future.

        Case Study: Oishii Foods

        Ciara Troy is the founder of Oishii Foods, a Dublin-based producer of Japanese and Asian-inspired cuisine. Until 2020, they specialised selling large quantities of sushi directly to retail outlets. In March, when COVID-19 reached Ireland, everything changed.

        “Suddenly, stores were closed and the demand for fresh sushi just wasn’t there anymore,” says Troy. “Consumer needs were changing, so we had to shift our focus.”

        When the country first went into lockdown, food production at Oishii Foods was reduced to one main nationwide account which was the only constant during this challenging time. The company applied all the Covid guidelines & remained operating from their approved food premises in Smithfield. With lockdown restrictions and new social distancing measures in place, the business was forced to reevaluate operations. Instead of gathering all of their employees in the factory together, the staff began to work in shifts, through the night as well as during the day. The Oishii team also looked for new ways to distribute their product. Since consumers were not visiting food shops for sushi, they decided to bring the sushi directly to consumers. Using Deliveroo, Oishii kept their brand on consumers’ radar. However, Troy says the team always knew this would not be their long term solution.

        Change of Plans

        Once it became apparent that the global pandemic would transform business as they knew it—for much longer than just the initial lockdown—Troy says her team began to brainstorm more permanent solutions to their immediate problems.

        “We knew it would be important to pivot the business in a meaningful way—a way that would see us into the future.” Troy said.

        Unlike some businesses, transferring the business to an online retailer wasn’t an option for Oishii. Their Japanese food products are fresh and perishable, which means they need to go from production to consumer in rapid succession. Door-to-door sales was not a viable strategy for growth, either, especially because of the extra waste it incurs. Oishii is working toward Origin Green membership, which centres on environmental sustainability and green practices. This commitment to reduced waste is at the heart of the business and was, of course, taken into consideration as the team looked to future plans. The most pressing question: How would the business survive this transition with sales suffering as they were?

         

        Outside Help

        Troy says that, thanks to an ongoing relationship with Enterprise Ireland, Oishii Foods was appointed a Business Advisor, who was a strong support for the company.

        “Our advisor explained the various support mechanisms that were available to us,” says Troy. “This person-to-person contact was crucial.” Troy said.

        Enterprise Ireland assigned Oishii Foods a strategic & finance mentor. Working closely with the Oishii team, reports and forecasting were executed and advice was given on everything from operations to marketing. The goal was to ensure stability. During this time, the finance mentor and business advisor passed along details about the Sustaining Enterprise Fund. They recommended that Troy consider the benefits of such a generous grant and how it might enable Oishii Foods to bridge the gap as they worked to reposition the business.

        “Troy recalled, “We went over the details of the SEF and, although it did involve some work on our part, it was very much worth it. This grant will be a game changer for our business.”

         

        The Future of Oishii Foods

        Oishii Foods was approved as an SEF recipient. Troy says they plan to use the funding to strengthen the backbone of the business. She hopes to evaluate and improve processes, fill gaps in their management team, and, most importantly, expand the business by securing high-spec premises that will allow major growth over the next five years. She expects most of the grant money will go towards fit-out and capital expenditure for their new location.

        “This is really exciting,” says Troy. “This business was my first baby! We have been inching our way forward. COVID forced us to stop and consider what our strategy would be and where we would go next.”

        “This is really exciting,” says Troy. “This business was my first baby! We have been inching our way forward. COVID forced us to stop and consider what our strategy would be and where we would go next.”

        As a result of the global crisis, the Oishii team was able to pause and solidify their vision. They also began to identify and reach out to new customers, discovering possibilities for new retail accounts. In the past, Oishii has been strong in the “food-to-go” space. Troy says they hope to extend the brand into the wider chilled convenience category. If they can achieve fresh, longer-life options suitable for central distribution, she believes they will have opportunities for export, too. Most importantly, Troy wants Oishii Foods to stay true to its roots as a local business focussed on making fresh, quality products for consumers to enjoy.

         

        The Benefits of Support

        Looking back, Troy says this year was full of challenges, but she has found so much support in her industry, the wider business community, and from Enterprise Ireland.

        “I have an entrepreneurial spirit and am very resilient, but I was relieved when we were approved for funding from Enterprise Ireland,” she says. “They believed in our business, which gave us new confidence in ourselves.”

        Troy says she and her team have felt reinvigorated by Enterprise Ireland’s support, pointing out that running a small business can often feel like being out at sea. She and the whole Oishii team found comfort in having a larger enterprise to rely on for advice, support, and funding. As a result, she says they are ready to bring their business to the next level.

        Click here to learn more about applying for the SEF. Contact your Development Advisor or our Business Response Unit to find out more.

        Gannon Eco: If not for the Sustaining Enterprise Fund we would have been in dire straits

        Circular economy pioneer Gannon Eco availed of the Sustaining Enterprise Fund to rebuild working capital and work its way through the worst of the Covid-19 slowdown. The company has invested heavily in R&D and increased capacity, but the pandemic-induced downturn put a brake on the return from that outlay.

        “We spend an awful lot on R&D,” says company founder and managing director Niall Gannon. “We had new products ready for market and others in development when Covid-19 hit. We had also built a new plant here in Kilbeggan and we had the people in place to run it. The drop in demand was very substantial. If not for the support from the Sustaining Enterprise Fund we would have been in dire straits. It gave us the backing to continue to seek new markets and helped keep people in jobs. The funding received was quite significant and very helpful.”

        The company traces its history back to the last downturn when the near-collapse of the construction industry in 2007 led John Gannon Concrete to seek an alternative line of business. “We had a family business supplying concrete blocks, readymix concrete, gravel and aggregates to the building industry,” Gannon recalls. “When the recession impacted that market died, and we had to diversify. We inadvertently stumbled on a problem with end-of-life car windscreens. They were being landfilled or exported and there was no sustainable solution for their end-of-use  disposal.”

        That led to the creation of an entirely new business. “After quite a lot of research, we set up under the new trading name of Gannon Eco,” he adds. “We started taking in car windscreens, cleaning them off, grinding them down and repurposing them to sell on for uses such as filtration media for wastewater treatment plants and sandblasting materials. We were reducing the need for virgin material for these purposes and diverting waste from landfill, generating two environmental gains.”

        Today, Gannon Eco is an award-winning company and one of Ireland’s leading environmental solution providers offering total reuse for industrial waste stream products.

        “We moved on from windscreens to other glass types – window glass, pharma glass, light bulbs, TVs and so on,” Gannon continues. “After several years, companies started coming to us asking us to look at other waste streams and we developed into specialist repurposers over time. We now take a variety of waste from many industries which include, surgical implants, microchips, construction, pharma and a variety of other sources. We use construction and other waste to make low-carbon concrete and we take waste from the semiconductor manufacturing process to produce an additive for the steel smelting process which enables the process to run at lower temperatures, thereby reducing emissions.”

        At its most basic, the company takes in waste from one set of customers, reprocesses it and sells it on as end products to another set of customers. “The whole business is based on the circular economy,” Gannon explains. “We won’t take anything that can’t be reused. Everything that comes in must be sold back out as a product. We will not send anything to landfill or incineration.”

        “The drop in demand was very substantial. If not for the support from the Sustaining Enterprise Fund we would have been in dire straits”

        The concrete products side of the business hasn’t completely disappeared. “We manufacture a small number of concrete blocks and precast concrete products. We are able to produce some of those products using 85% recycled materials.”

        Innovation is at the heart of the business. “It’s not that simple,” he notes. “There was no plant for the process that we could buy off the shelf back in 2007, so we had to develop all our processes in-house. The process starts with a customer who wants to stop waste from going to landfill. We will do intensive testing in our lab and figure out what we can do with it. We design processes to produce an end product. After that, we must find a customer who will buy it from us. It takes a minimum of two years to test, build a process for the waste and market for the new product. Our longest project took seven years. Once you send out a product you are not finished. You must be 100 per cent sure it’s not harmful and won’t damage the environment in any way. There is an unbelievable amount of R&D and testing involved. We have about five projects in the works at any one time.”

        The company was gaining a foothold in export markets when Covid-19 hit. “We had started exporting to Germany and the Netherlands and we are looking at the US, France and Spain now. We had been looking at the UK, but the uncertainty caused by Brexit made us look at other markets. We are looking at the possibility of setting up operations in the US at the moment. It’s a balancing act. You can’t import waste materials if the carbon emissions of the transport would be greater than the gain you are making. We are looking at establishing facilities in Europe as well.”

        The impact of Covid-19 was severe.

        “March was our worst month in nine years but it’s slowly picking up again. We have an agreement with a distributor for Germany, the Netherlands and northern France. The first shipment to them was due to go out in August but that was delayed, and we are now expecting shipments to commence in the first week in January.”

        That’s where the Sustaining Enterprise Fund support came into play. “It helped us deal with that interruption to our business,” says Gannon.

        Looking ahead, he says the biggest barrier to growth for the company now is delays to the End of Waste certification process. The company needs a certificate for each new process before it can sell the product to an end-user. “The EPA doesn’t have sufficient resources to deal with the demand for certification. It can take anything up to five years to get it at the moment.” And to quote the EPA

        “There is no statutory timeframe for the assessment of end-of-waste applications and decisions to be made. The time taken to process an end-of-waste application to reach an end-of-waste decision is variable. It depends on the quality of the application, the availability of inspector resources, the complexity of the application, the efficiency of response to requests for further information and the workload of the inspector assigned”

        That said, new product and process development will continue at the company. “Westmeath County Council and Enterprise Ireland have been unbelievably supportive of what we do,” he notes. “Enterprise Ireland has supported us with our R&D projects over the years. We will be the first company in the world to reuse the material we are working on in our latest project. The way things are looking, next year should be relatively positive. We are going to keep doing what we are doing.”

        Enterprise Ireland has a comprehensive suite of supports available for companies at all stages of development, under Sustaining Enterprise Fund and Innovative Start-Up funding, as well as other funding offers.

        Find out more about the SEF supports here

        How the Sustaining Enterprise Fund enabled Wisetek to innovate for future success

        “Enterprise Ireland offers advice to businesses, as well as hard data. They help build roadmaps that allow you to plan ahead. They are a very valuable partner to have.”

         

        Tom Delahunty, Global Operations Director, Wisetek

        Key Takeouts

          • Wisetek, a global leader in IT asset disposition, reuse, and manufacturing services was deemed an essential business during the global pandemic of 2020. In some ways, this was positive, but it also made it hard to cut costs in a time of financial insecurity. Like many businesses, they were facing new challenges.
          • As long-term Enterprise Ireland partners, Wisetek reached out to express interest in the Sustaining Enterprise Fund. They worked together with Enterprise Ireland to organise documentation and successfully applied for funding.
          • Wisetek was able to use this additional capital to maintain important R&D programmes, enabling them to innovate for future success. Rather than falling behind or simply treading water, Wisetek is adapting and evolving.

          Case Study: Wisetek

          Tom Delahunty is the Global Operations Director for Wisetek, a global leader in IT asset disposition, reuse, and manufacturing services. They offer a circular economy approach to IT by managing the supply, distribution, destruction, and recycling of data and equipment. With customers and facilities dotted around the globe, Delahunty says news of business disruptions due to Covid-19 started to reach their team in February.

          “Every day, you would make a plan for what was next,” says Delahunty. “And then the next day, everything would change.

          He says the team scrambled in those early weeks of the pandemic to figure out where they stood and plan for an uncertain future. Wisetek was deemed an essential business. Delahunty says this was both a blessing and a curse. To keep things running, the business maintained some physical presence in all of their facilities, which meant it was hard to keep costs down. Much of their focus shifted from business operations to keeping customers and staff safe. Following health guidelines of local governments also meant a large portion of their staff began to work from home.

          “As an IT company, our culture suited the shift,” Delahunty says. “The transfer was seamless from a technological perspective, but we had to overcome the same communication challenges as every other business.

           

          Looking for Solutions

          Once Wisetek reconfigured operations to suit lockdowns and Covid safety guidelines, management began to work on a financial review. At the beginning of the crisis, the company’s new business pipeline was essentially put on hold. They did not lose many existing customers, but projects were delayed. Still, some customers remained active and Delahunty says the team felt fortunate to have even a reduced level of business coming in. Despite Wisetek’s “glass half full” perspective, it became clear that revenue was down and, in order to future-proof their operation, they would need to start looking for alternative sources of capital.

          “Initially,” says Delahunty, “asking for help wasn’t our first port of call. Before anything else, we had to stabilize our business and make tough decisions about reducing costs.

          Around this time, Enterprise Ireland announced the Sustaining Enterprise Fund, which Delahunty says drew attention immediately. Wisetek has a longstanding relationship with Enterprise Ireland, starting with their days as a High-Potential Start-Up. The two entities have maintained open lines of communication and Wisetek did not hesitate to reach out to their DA for information and advice during a difficult time. They began to work closely with Enterprise Ireland to make the SEF application. They had their cash projections ready to go, so Delahunty says it was merely a case of collating existing information into the correct format.

          “Delahunty says, “I’ll admit, there’s a bit of work in the process, but we couldn’t have spent our time more productively. SEF has awarded us significant and important funding.”

           

          A Positive Relationship Pays Off

          Being granted the SEF gave Wisetek the working capital to not only maintain operations, but also to invest in the company’s future. Delahunty says that without this assistance from Enterprise Ireland, the business might have faced further reductions, including the halt of internal development programmes. Thanks to this funding, they were able to keep their Research & Development arm up and running.

          “Enterprise Ireland gave us confidence in our existing balances to support the business and, as a result, we have continued to develop and grow,” says Delahunty.

          The  funding from Enterprise Ireland enabled Wisetek to launch new programmes that would otherwise have been considered discretionary. Now, these initiatives are paying dividends. Delahunty says that, over the years, the relationship between Wisetek and Enterprise Ireland has afforded their company not just capital, but also education, confidence, and networking capabilities.

          “Enterprise Ireland offers advice to businesses, as well as hard data,” says Delahunty. “They help build roadmaps that allow you to plan ahead. They are a very valuable partner to have.

           

          Focusing on the Future

          Delahunty says he believes the events of 2020 will ultimately afford Wisetek with new business. His team has learned a lot about the importance of adaptability. He says the most important take-aways have been to keep strategies agile, reach out for help when you need it, and do your best to find opportunity amidst crisis. In business, he says, it’s important to innovate and provide solutions, even in a challenging climate.

          “What happened in 2020 is unfortunate, but Ireland has weathered worse storms. We will make the best of it and keep evolving. If you’re not growing, you’re going backwards.

          Click here to learn more about applying for the SEF. Contact your Development Advisor or our Business Response Unit to find out more.

           

          P3 hotels: Utilising Sustaining Enterprise Fund to deepen financial fund and improve cashflow

           

          With all eyes focused on Brexit, businesses around the country were caught unawares with the onset of Covid-19 earlier this year. But while industries across every sector, both in this country and around the globe, were negatively impacted, some found that their product or service was suddenly very much in demand.

          This is true of the software produced by the team at P3 Hotels, headed up by Phelim Pekaar. Established in 2000 as a web design company, in 2009, it focused its attention on hotels and then in 2015, began devoting all its energies to integrating with the Opera reservation system. And last year, had begun rolling out an online check-in system, which, once the pandemic hit, was exactly what every hotel in the industry was looking for.

          “After going through many guises and developments, about five years ago, we started working with the Oracle Opera reservation system, which is used by all the largest hotels around the world,” says the company founder. “We built a booking engine on top of that software so guests can book, cancel, modify and manage online. It also facilitates corporate bookings and has a loyalty tool – all of which we brought to the web.

          “Thinking about how to further develop our product, I realised that I hate queueing and could never understand why hotels still have this system of standing in line to check-in and check out – guests should be able to just grab a key and go.

          “So we developed an online check-in system, trialled it and had it up and running for most of last year, when Covid hit. Then all of a sudden, online check-ins became a buzz word and everyone wanted to be able to check-in and out of their hotel online and wanted to have the hotel experience without touching anything outside of their room.”

          Since April of this year, the entrepreneur has been run off his feet, setting up new customers with the system which has made life easier for guests both in this country and in the UK.

          “Before the pandemic, we had 14 customers and since then, we have gained 14 more – which is fantastic,” he says. “We hadn’t developed the online checkout last year, but we were about to start it, so we rushed it through very quickly and thanks to an Enterprise Ireland Agile Innovation Fund, we were able to develop it and get it out there. Now we are trying to move forward from a sales and marketing perspective and get more people on board to help us with our new customers.

          “We realised a few months ago that things were not going to get back to normal until some time next year so decided to apply for the Sustaining Enterprise Fund (SEF) to give us a deeper financial fund which would help carry us through to April or May of next year. This will be a fantastic help and applying for it is very straightforward, once you get your head around it.”

          “Over the years, we have had a lot of support from Enterprise Ireland, all which have been hugely beneficial, but the SEF is really brilliant because we can forward plan as it allows access to the funds now rather than reclaiming it at the end as is the case with some of the other grants. So when we get the funding we can cashflow better, take on more people to help with onboarding new customers and put a buffer fund aside which we can draw on over the next couple of years and I can get back to creating new sales.”

          Along with financial aid, Pekaar has also taken part in several programmes which have also been very beneficial.

          “I have done a number of programmes with Enterprise Ireland over the years and found them to be very helpful,” he says. “In fact, I was on holiday when I received an email asking if I wanted to take part in the Eurozone For Growth programme and instantly I said ‘I’m in’ as I knew how good it would be.”

          The company CEO believes that some of the strategies learned during these courses will be beneficial over the coming months as the effects of Brexit begin to unfold.

          “Apart from the negative impact the pandemic has had on my customers, many of whom were looking for a reduction in fees, P3 Hotels has managed well over the past year,” he says. “However, when Covid hit, we put Brexit out of our minds, even though we had spent the past two years worrying about it.

          “I hadn’t been focusing on it in recent months and have won a lot of business in the UK recently and nothing ever arose about Brexit as our product is too important to customers because there as no-one over there is doing it. But I do worry as many of our customers have a lot of properties in the UK, so it is something we need to think about.

          “I don’t believe our customers in the UK will stop working with us, but they could begin to suffer financially due to Brexit, which will impact us, so we need to take steps towards the Eurozone market – and we will start with Germany as this is something we had been working on before Covid hit.”

          So while the future still remains somewhat uncertain, Pekaar believes there is still light on the horizon.

          “Before Covid, our plan was to keep developing alongside Oracle Opera who are rolling out a new solution vision, on the back of which would get more work,” he says. “We are continuing to work closely with them – they are recommending us too and that’s starting to take momentum now.

          “So for now, our five-year plan is to keep the head down and keep going with that process. Covid is not likely to throw us off track as it’s more like a bump in the road, but once we come out the other side, I worry that everyone will be like dogs out of a trap and sometimes my fear is that I will look back and say that I haven’t done enough to stay ahead.

          “I am trying to figure out what I should be doing when the trap door opens – it’s hard to tell but I hope I am prepared enough for the future – and feel that I’m as ready as I can be.”

          Enterprise Ireland has a comprehensive suite of supports available for companies at all stages of development, under Sustaining Enterprise Fund and Innovative Start-Up funding, as well as other funding offers.

          Find out more about the SEF supports here

          How Rennicks are looking to the future with support from the Sustaining Enterprise Fund

          Covid-19 was an obstacle, but, thanks to Enterprise Ireland, it hasn’t thrown us completely off our desired path. The Sustaining Enterprise Fund has given us peace of mind and the stability to pursue the future we had planned for our business.”

          Dolores Cantwell, Director of Finance & Operations, Rennicks Group Ltd.

          Key Takeouts

          • Established more than 40 years ago, Rennicks Group Ltd. is an Irish company specialising in retro reflective products for the licence plate and traffic sign markets. The global pandemic halted factory operations, drastically impacting the company’s revenue stream.
          • Director of Finance & Operations, Dolores Cantwell, contacted Enterprise Ireland about applying for the Sustaining Enterprise Fund, who partnered with them to prepare documents for the financial assessment.
          • Funding from Enterprise Ireland has allowed Rennicks to meet its existing financial commitments and continue administrative operations, supporting the business as it plans for recovery and beyond.

          Case Study: Rennicks

          Rennicks is a Dublin-based company servicing the vehicle licence plate and road infrastructure markets in the United Kingdom and South Africa. The business has existed since 1976, but was the subject of a management buy-out in 2017. Director of Finance & Operations, Dolores Cantwell, says they were on an upward trajectory at the start of 2020, with solid numbers reported for the first quarter of the year, before the global lockdown landed.

          “When Covid-19 hit we were worried,” says Cantwell. “Initially, it looked like there would be a complete shutdown with no revenue stream for at least four months. It was an extremely concerning prospect.”

          Rennicks’ primary business involves a light manufacturing process, which means the business relies on its factory operations. The lockdown in Ireland prevented employees from working. The factory closed and all staff were sent home. Cantwell says their administrative team was forced to quickly adapt to a remote work style. The company was also forced to immediately assess its cost outlays, resulting in a combination of lay-offs and pay reductions across the organisation.

           

          Searching for solutions

          Thankfully, Rennicks has always maintained good relationships with its supply chain partners, which gave them some time, but they still had commitments to fulfill. After the initial shock of a global pandemic and a total halt in production, the team took stock and realized they would need to look outside of their existing resources for financial support if they were going to successfully ride out the storm.

          “We saw the information about the Sustaining Enterprise Fund and contacted Enterprise Ireland,” says Cantwell. “The two team members they sent us were superb.”

          She says Enterprise Ireland worked with Rennicks to gather and reformat its financial information for the SEF assessment. The team calmly worked through the numbers, showing an enthusiasm for the business that bolstered Rennicks and gave the team the confidence to move forward. Admittedly, Cantwell says, she expected red tape and political hurdles when applying for funding, but this wasn’t the case at all. Instead, she says they found a group of engaged, forward-thinking people at Enterprise Ireland, eager to support their business.

          “The team at Enterprise Ireland couldn’t have been more responsive, open, and encouraging,” Cantwell says. “It was a breath of fresh air.”

           

          Looking toward the future

          Despite the global pandemic, Rennicks was able to continue a small portion of its distribution business. The supply chain was disrupted by lockdown and the company’s revenues still dropped 60%, but funding allowed them to meet their commitments and work toward recovery. Thanks to the Sustaining Enterprise Fund, Rennicks had the working capital to continue administrative operations during lockdown, allowing it to focus on its future. Currently, the business is working on a push into new markets, and is developing value-added propositions for its existing market in the UK. Cantwell says they did everything they could to support their customers during a difficult time.

           

          “Our business has been built on providing quality products and excellent customer service,” she says. “During lockdown, it was our key priority to maintain contact with our customers.”

          Cantwell’s advice for other companies impacted by Covid-19; Focus on the fundamentals, but be prepared to be flexible and to adapt to the changing situation. She believes if you continue to give excellent customer service, keep your eye on your goal, and are adaptable in your approach, you’ll eventually make it through.

          “Business will come back,” Cantwell says. “In the interim, it’s important to stay customer-focused. Try not to get side-tracked. And do make use of the supports that are available.

           

          Click here to learn more about applying for the SEF. Contact your Development Advisor or our Business Response Unit to find out more.

          National Women’s Enterprise Day 2020 a virtual, and real, success

           

          Covid couldn’t stop Ireland’s most successful female entrepreneurs from stepping up to inspire more

          National Women’s Enterprise Day 2020, organised by the Local Enterprise Offices, was like no other in that, because of Covid, for the first time in its 14-year history, it took place entirely online.

          In all other ways, it was exactly the same – providing women with the inspiration, support and confidence to start and grow a business.

          Sheelagh Daly, Entrepreneurship Manager at Enterprise Ireland, has been involved in this flagship event for women in business right from the start.

          National Women’s Enterprise Day was an initiative set up by the Local Enterprise Offices in 2007, supported by Enterprise Ireland.

          “Back then the landscape was quite different in that there was a dearth of female entrepreneurial role models. If you went back and looked at the newspapers, for example, there weren’t many women being profiled in a business or entrepreneurial setting,” says Daly.

          Providing role models 

          “Research shows that role models are an important way to inspire women and give them the confidence to start a business.  So we knew we needed to profile women who had done it successfully already. It was that whole concept of ‘to be it you have to see it’,” she says.

          But a lack of role models wasn’t the only challenge.

          “At the time there was also a real lack of access to business networks for women. While the Chambers of Commerce were, of course, important, they tended to be for more established businesses. More informal networks, such as rugby clubs and golf clubs, didn’t provide the same level of access to women.”

          There was a need for “a mechanism to provide women with access to networks in order to inspire, demonstrate and build confidence in female entrepreneurship,” she says.

          National Women’s Enterprise Day was just the mechanism.

          Showcasing success – and support

          “It was also a means to disseminate the huge range of supports available from lots of different government agencies, not just from Local Enterprise Offices and Enterprise Ireland, but from Intreo, Failte Ireland and the Credit Review Office,” she explains.

          “The idea was to bring all these things under one roof, on one day, with one big bang that would put female entrepreneurship on the map.”

          It did just that.  “The first event was held in Mullingar and was fantastic, and overbooked, so we carried on.”

          Indeed, the event grew so much that in recent years the Local Enterprise Offices have run regional versions too, to enable even more women to attend.

          All followed the same proven format of enabling participants to listen to successful women at different stages of their business journey, to gain an understanding of the supports available to them, and to have an opportunity for networking.

          “Then, in 2020, we had Covid,” she says.

          Covid can’t stop it

          Having supported so many businesses to ‘pivot’ to online to cope with the pandemic, the network of Local Enterprise Offices were quick to do the same with National Women’s Enterprise Day. It took place on Wednesday 14th October, entirely remotely, and was a huge success.

          “We saw an enormous attendance of 1641 people which was amazing and well reflected this year’s theme of ‘Stronger Together’,” says Daly.

          Speakers included Olympian turned businesswoman Derval O’Rourke, who talked about the strength, discipline and resilience required to deliver peak performance in one sector before pivoting to another.

          Sonia Deasy, founder of international beauty brand Mortar & Pestle, spoke about her journey taking a brand from “local to global”.

          A series of ‘leading lights’ included successful female entrepreneurs across a range of sectors, from Clare Hughes of CF Pharma in Kilkenny to Mary Walsh of Ire-Wel Pallets in Wexford and Odilon Hunt of AVA Audio Visual in Sligo.

          Exploring overseas markets

          Sheelagh Daly hosted a panel discussion entitled “Exploring Overseas Markets”, featuring expert commentary from Anne Lanigan, Enterprise Ireland’s Regional Director Eurozone, and Marina Donohoe, Enterprise Ireland’s Director for UK and Northern Europe.

          As well as exhorting female entrepreneurs to explore Eurozone markets, they pointed out that the UK will always be hugely important to Irish businesses too.

          Marcella Rudden, Head of Enterprise with Local Enterprise Office Cavan explained the questions to address when starting your export journey.

          “She spoke about how to choose a market to target and how the Local Enterprise Office should be your first port of call because it has the supports to help you, both financial and otherwise,” says Daly.

          One of the main threads running through the day was not to be afraid of exporting, she says. “The message was that it isn’t something that should be seen as intimidating and that there is help available.”

          That help is not just from Local Enterprise Offices but from all sorts of sources, including networks for women in business in countries such as France and Spain, delegates heard.

          “Before you commit to a market do the research, make sure that it’s the right market for you and that you can compete in it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Daly.

          Information is crucial. Both men and women have similar business ambitions but research indicates that women take a more cautious approach, including in areas such as borrowing for business. They typically “prefer more information before they take a risk”, says Daly.

          “The ambition is very much there but the approach is different.”

          Women’s success is Ireland’s success

          National Women’s Enterprise Day 2020 took place in a year which also saw the launch of Enterprise Ireland 2020 Action Plan for Women in Business. This important six-year strategy to support female entrepreneurship was launched in February, just before Covid.

          “The reason such emphasis is being put on women is because we are still looking at a much higher proportion of men in leadership and entrepreneurship,” explains Daly.

          This needs addressing because, both as an economy and a society, we “need the skills and talents of all our population to be realised,” she says.

          We also need those businesses that are started to be the best they can. “All the research demonstrates that the greater the diversity the stronger, more profitable and faster-growing the business,” says Daly.

          “That leads to wider economic benefits, so it’s a real economic imperative that everybody, regardless of gender or other diversities, does not face barriers when it comes to starting or growing a business.”

           

          Watch the ‘National Women’s Enterprise Day Virtual Event’ sessions on-demand here