Minister Breen & Brian O'Driscoll

Brian O’Driscoll talks business lessons from the rugby pitch

With Irish ambition focused on the Rugby World Cup in Japan, we look back at insights legend Brian O’Driscoll shared on the need to seek out new markets at Enterprise Ireland’s Ambition Asia Pacific event earlier this year.

Holding the Rugby World Cup in Japan marked a decisive change for international rugby but one which holds lessons for Irish businesses, according to rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll.

The former Ireland and Leinster captain was speaking at Ambition Asia Pacific, a major conference organised by Enterprise Ireland.  Drawing parallels between the world of sport and the world of business, he provided insights into how success on the playing field can be translated to business.


Be brave and discover new markets

Among these was the need to be brave and seek out new markets. “The Rugby World Cup in Japan is a new departure and it’s really important. World rugby has obviously realised there’s no point going back to the same markets that are synonymous with rugby, where we’ve had a host of World Cups already. If you want to grow the game, you’ve got to grow into new markets,” he said.

Given that the monies raised during a World Cup are used to fund the game over the following four years, it’s vital that the tournament goes where the revenues are, and “Japan is an untapped market,” he said.


Team performance matters most

O’Driscoll spoke about his memories of taking up the captaincy of the national team at the age of 23 and being daunted by his relative youth. He realised he needed help.

“There are very few successful teams that are about one person, or one leader. I realised very quickly that I had shortcomings as a leader and that I needed to bring some ideas from elsewhere, from experienced players who had been at the coalface for a number of years, and in particular from the guys that maybe had missed out in the captaincy challenge.” said O’Driscoll

The right culture is enormously important for the success of any team, he suggested. In his case, success came from being in teams where members were encouraged to see their own personal performance as secondary. And a successful team cannot have a blame culture, O’Driscoll added. It must have people who take responsibility for their own actions.

In the digital age, bringing people together as a team can be hard. At Leinster they introduced a rule which helped. “You can walk into a dressing room and have 50 people on their phone, not talking to one another. So we introduced a rule that everyone going in every morning must shake hands with everyone in the organisation. It came from France, where everyone does the two kisses, so we went with a handshake or a fist bump,” he said.

“That five seconds of conversations every day gave you an opportunity to have this commonality with the other person and understand them a little more. In rugby, you’ve got to feel you have each other’s back and it has been an integral part of the success,” he said.


Focus to win

Bouncing back from knockbacks and disappointments is important too, as is learning how to do that.

One intervention that was hugely beneficial to him occurred when a sports psychologist suggested that, instead of concentrating on improving seven or eight facets of his game, as O’Driscoll worried he needed to, he should concentrate on the two which he felt could be world class. O’Driscoll did so, to enormous success.

Focusing on what sets you apart from the crowd, your USP, is good business advice too. Not only will it differentiate you but, as in O’Driscoll’s case, it gives you confidence.

Confidence can also be built on constructive feedback, from customers as well as team members. When he gave up rugby and began a new career in TV punditry, what O’Driscoll missed most was the honest feedback that athletes get. He could find no one to give it to him, so he didn’t improve as fast as he wanted to.

“The only way I was going to improve, to understand where my timing was awful, was through feedback. They all said I was doing great and I said that’s no good to me, I needed to know where I was going wrong. It’s the only way to grow and get better.”

Similarly, in business, feedback from your least contented customers most often deliver the competitive insights that help you win in markets around the world.


Enterprise Ireland’s Ambition events feature speakers with experience in developing business in new markets.  View upcoming Ambition events and register today.

Red tape and how to navigate it when exporting to Spain and Portugal

Ireland’s open economy is relatively easy for small and medium-sized businesses to navigate. As a result, it can be surprising for Irish firms aiming to expand into the Iberian markets of Spain and Portugal when they encounter more red tape and business administrative costs than they are used to.

While exporters planning to use agents or distributors to set-up in the market must be aware of requirements, they are manageable. At Enterprise Ireland’s Ambition Spain & Portugal conference, attendees received advice from experts with first-hand knowledge of what to expect.


Essentials for setting up in Spain

‘’Forget about a shelf company,” said Mr. Rocco Caira, Ireland’s Honorary Consul to Spain, “It’s not going to be straightforward. You need to know what you are dealing with and how long it’s going to take.” Everything takes time, he added. Shareholders setting up a limited company require a Spanish tax number and the appointment for that can be up to a month, he said. All company documents must be signed in person in Spain – or by someone appointed with the power of attorney. Companies can be sole member shareholdings, making them ideal as wholly-owned Irish subsidiaries, and the minimum shareholding capital requirement lodged in a Spanish bank is €3,000.


Get your paperwork right for Portugal

While Portugal requires a similar amount of paperwork, the system is highly streamlined. A limited company could be up and running within a day, according to Aoife Healy, chair of the Ireland Portugal Business Network. Simply registering your company, acquiring a company number and bank account will smooth the way to a Certidao Permanente or tax cert, allowing the company to begin trading almost immediately.


Dealing with distributors

The route to market for Spain may see companies start with a commercial agent or distributor, rather than setting up a wholly-owned subsidiary. Caira advised exporters to be familiar with the rights and indemnities agents are entitled to.

“It’s tempting to enter a market with a commercial agent due to low start-up costs and big commissions. But you can be hit with big indemnities if you cancel your arrangement and it’s no fault of the agent,” said Caira. Spanish law requires one month’s notice per year of contract. Commission is payable on deals whether a company is paid or not, with compensation reaching a year’s salary or more in some cases.

“You really have to choose the right agent, so give it serious consideration,” Caira advised. Other tips included:

  • Make an agent contract subject to Irish Law, in the first instance.
  • Clearly define the product territory, customer base and whether or not exclusivity applies.
  • Make sure a sales objective is defined.

Whichever route to market you choose, it’s worth remembering that payroll will factor costs in direct employer tax liabilities and administrative burden.


How Zartis fared in Spain and Portugal

Specialised recruitment firm Zartis established its office in Madrid in 2015. “As Irish people we had to adjust our mindset to the level of bureaucracy. Everything is codified, particularly outsourcing.’’

One payroll quirk to be mindful of is that there are 14 payments in a payroll year as standard in Portugal, something that should be considered when salary expectations are presented as monthly when hiring.

Both markets offer a highly skilled pool of talent from which to draw. Spain is particularly blessed with high quality talent in coding and software development, with high internal mobility in the market.

Padraig Coffey, CEO of Zartis, advised: “We found that the management style in Spain is quite ‘old school’, which means that Irish companies with a progressive company culture and style have great opportunities for not only recruitment but retention.”

If you’re interested in taking the step into the Eurozone read how Enterprise Ireland can support your growth.

Case Studies


Case study details


World class Irish companies have rising ambition levels for Japan

World class Irish companies have rising ambition levels for Japan

Pat O’Riordan, Overseas Manager for Japan and Korea at Enterprise Ireland, describes what Irish companies need to succeed in one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated markets.

Irish exporters are waking up to fresh opportunities in the Land of the Rising Sun. While the country may not have regained the stellar growth rates it enjoyed in the 1980s, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy. Japan’s corporates, driven by the stellar performance of the export sector, are cash rich with strong balance sheets.

It’s also highly attractive, as a “rich, advanced and sophisticated market. It is respectful of intellectual property and open to world class innovation,” O’Riordan adds.

Growing our ambition in Japan

If we have in the past “lost concentration” on Japan, it may be because of the considerable barriers to entry. We are now fortunate to have an increasingly sophisticated and globally ambitious base of client companies, and a market which is more open to external trade.

“Companies best positioned to win in Japan share particular attributes,” O’Riordan says. These are world-class technology, products or services; high levels of innovation, and management that is committed to – and able to handle – the lengthy sales cycles and demanding customer services levels common in the market.

“Companies really need to be strategically interested in the market to engage. For those who do, the prize is a market of scale and sustainability.”

A ‘hard sell’ rarely works. “Companies coming in here sometimes don’t appreciate how serious the Japanese are about detail. They will want to know who is funding you, how long you have been around for and how long you’re likely to be around for. Your first presentation slide should not be about your technology, or your value proposition, it’s about your heritage and sustainability as a long-term partner,” says O’Riordan.

Be ready for Japan’s most pressing questions

Expect demanding technology and customer service requirements. “Japanese people will ask multiple questions before they buy. They are data-driven, technology-driven, and very service driven. Take the questions as a compliment, they are investing their time in you,” he adds.

While there is potential across a variety of sectors, from fintech to travel tech and medtech, opportunities often emerge as a result of policy and regulatory changes. That has occurred in relation to eldercare, as the country’s aging population generates demand for both assisted living solutions and medtech innovations. In relation to renewable energy, opportunities can be found in Japan’s search for ways to reduce its dependency on nuclear power.

Changes in its visa rules have opened it up to unprecedented levels of tourism, with numbers on track to reach 40 million visitors per annum by 2020, driven also by the arrival of low-cost carriers into the country.

Plan your market entry strategy for Japan

Between 2014 and 2018, companies backed by Enterprise Ireland saw year-on-year growth of 14.5%.

“Companies that get it right can and need to scale up in Japan. To succeed you need to be resilient on the way in and have an ambition and scale agenda to realise a return on investment.”

Read how Connolly’s Red Mills became the largest importer of premium horse feeds in Japan

Irish companies considering a market entry strategy for Japan should undertake high level-research and then carefully verify and validate it. Once you have established a good product/market fit, look for partners – Enterprise Ireland can assist with both.

In Japan it’s not just the language that creates an additional barrier, but the business culture, which must be appreciated and understood. As such, we advise companies to expend shoe leather in market.  There is no substitute for visiting repeatedly to understand the nuances of the market. Ultimately it makes the decision to invest in an on the ground presence a much easier one.

The recent EU Japan Economic Partnership Agreement provides for a much-improved free trade environment between EU and Japan across several categories, which “will add significant momentum to Ireland and Japan trade relations, not least in the food sector,” he says.

Taking the time required to win your first customer will pay dividends. “If you can point to a satisfied Japanese customer, there is no more powerful reference customer across Asia,” says O’Riordan.

The overarching message on Japan is that it very open to and welcoming of world class Irish companies with good product market fit and an ambition to scale. It is proving to be a very rewarding market for committed Irish companies, as is evidenced by the export performance of our clients in recent years and rising levels of ambition for the market.”

Kitman Labs wins with Leinster Rugby, Everton FC, and now Japan

Kitman Labs wins in Europe, US and now Japan

Supporting the Irish team driving some of Japan’s biggest sports teams.

Kitman Labs is the leading performance and health analytics provider to the global sports industry.

The Irish sportstech company was established in 2012 by Stephen Smith, former injury rehabilitation and conditioning coach for Leinster Rugby. Its software has fundamentally changed how the industry uses data to increase its chances of sporting success.

When Smith began working with Leinster Rugby, he inherited a system in which training information, game information and medical information were all managed separately.

Developments in data science inspired Smith to build a performance and data analytics system that combined all three, with a view to increasing athlete availability and boosting team performance.


Focus on innovation enabled Kitman Labs to scale around the world

Until Kitman Labs launched in 2014, no other system merged performance data with medical information, in order to unlock fresh insights. “We’re very focused on innovation,” he explains.

The system’s success has enabled the company to grow and scale internationally. In 2014, it signed its first customer, UK football club Everton.

Success there saw Smith move to the US to raise investment to fund further growth. It signed its first US contract the following year. “Today we have 250 teams across all sports, from Mixed Martial Arts to soccer, rugby and baseball,” says Smith.

Kitman Labs’ product is translated into 29 languages and sells across all five continents. “Our marketplace is still fragmented, insofar as a number of companies collect athletes’ data, and some provide either performance analytics or medical information, but no one combines all three. We see huge opportunities in front of us across the insurance, corporate health and digital health sectors too,” says Smith.

The company has offices in Dublin, Silicon Valley and Sydney and is active in 41 global sporting leagues. These include the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, Premiership Rugby and National Football League.


How Kitman Labs got big in Japan

It also has a presence in Japanese rugby’s Top League. One of its newest client acquisitions on this front is elite Japanese rugby team NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes, based in Osaka. It selected the Kitman Labs Athlete Optimisation System to enhance its performance and medical programmes.

Kitman has a number of clients in the Asia Pacific region, including Australia, New Zealand and China.

“We entered Japan via initial interest from Toyota Verblitz, a professional rugby team in Japan’s Top League, who had seen Kitman Labs coverage in the media and made contact with us.”

In 2018, Smith travelled to Japan to speak at the Sports Tech Tokyo conference. “We used it as a test bed for the market and began an outreach programme on the back of it, to get some initial conversations started. Out of that we got two new deals, with NTT DoCoMo, and the Yokohama BayStars, a professional baseball team.”


Learning to do business in Japan

The business culture in Japan is different to that in other markets. “There are a lot of formalities and structure to meetings, for example, and the hierarchy in organisations is very different,” says Smith.

Enterprise Ireland’s Japan team is on hand to support Irish companies interested in stepping into the market and emulating Kitman Labs’ success.

Smith describes his experience: “Enterprise Ireland has been of even more help to us because Japan is so different. Their team has helped us with translation services and organised for us to have translators present at meetings. They have helped us by, not just setting up events, but getting the right people in the room.”

Support also helped Kitman Labs to gain a deep understanding of the business culture. “We could probably have set up meetings ourselves but if you don’t understand the nuances, you could burn those opportunities just as quickly as you make them,” he says.

“They also helped us to understand what kind of follow-up is required after a meeting, by explaining what level of detail is required in that follow up. That has been a game changer for us and one of the reasons we have managed to grow quite quickly there.”

Japan will be an extremely significant market for Kitman Labs in the future, Smith says.

“For a start, it has some of the largest corporate names in the world, and corporate health is a growing area of opportunity for us. Japan is unique, in that all its major teams are owned by corporates, so no other country offers that same level of opportunity in terms of corporate health for us.”


Using edtech to prepare businesses and students for impacts of AI and more

Jason Dineen, educational technologist at the UCD Innovation Academy, shared his insights at Enterprise Ireland and The Learning Forum’s conference: Impacts and Future Trends in the EdTech and Corporate Learning Landscapes.

Due to the increasing pace of technological change, a sense of what the work environment will look like in five years is mostly unclear to students now entering higher education. To help build that picture, educators from the UCD Innovation Academy collaborate with businesses to explore evolving trends and to use leading edge technologies to ensure students are as prepared as possible.


Role of AI and automation

The impact of trends such as AI, automation and other new technologies, means that workplaces and roles around the world are changing quickly, creating challenges for students, educators, employees, and employers.

Jason described how The Innovation Academy helps businesses to adapt within this environment: “We mostly meet small and medium enterprises – companies that aren’t sure how to define a role that they will need in two years’ time. It’s difficult to create a job description when you don’t know what you will need. Our students and staff at the Innovation Academy consult businesses on what they should be looking for and to understand their concerns and views about the future.”

He highlighted that graduates must develop a range of soft skills, such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, and team work. Having one core skill that you are highly competent at is no longer enough.

Among students, Jason indicated there can be a fear of AI. The task for businesses and educators is to demonstrate how AI will improve the workplace of the future: “That’s why we show students the technology as they study with us, allowing them to see how it helps to minimise repetitive tasks we don’t need to do anymore.”

The Innovation Academy’s social humanoid robot, Pepper (by SoftBank Robotics), was on display at the conference. Students are given the opportunity to programme Pepper “to give them the chance to see how they can use AI to undertake tasks”, Jason explained.


How businesses can attract and retain talent in the new world of work

In order to attract and retain talent, businesses will be required to become more flexible with practices such as remote working, Jason predicted. What attracts candidates to jobs is no longer just a salary. With many applicants prioritising their ability to enjoy their job, companies should allow work to complement employee interests: “If your employees have a genuine interest in something, they will do very good things for your business, and they will be loyal to you.”

The task for employees in this new landscape is to ensure they are upskilling to adopt technologies with confidence.

Jason advised that career-long learning is vital to employee fulfilment: “Employees are not going to come into a job after doing a four-year college degree and think that’s it for the next 40 years. They now want to upskill constantly – to learn new skills and see how they can adapt for what’s coming down the tracks in terms of technology.”

How success at home helped Connolly’s Red Mills win in Japan

Kilkenny-based Connolly’s Red Mills makes scientifically advanced nutrition and healthcare solutions for animal health, well-being and performance.

The fifth-generation family-owned business was set up in 1908. It is led by chief executive Joe Connolly, chief operating officer Bill, and business development manager for exports Michael. The brothers work with the next generation of Gareth, William and John Connolly, and a dynamic management team, to drive the business forward. The company employs 320, working on three main strands: a vertically integrated domestic feed and grain business; the manufacture and sale of pet foods in 40 countries; and the manufacture and sale of premium horse feed into 80 countries worldwide.


How Connolly’s Red Mills became a global leader

Its premium horse feed is used by some of the world’s most successful race horses, show jumpers and dressage performers.

“In the field, we are considered a global leader, selling right across the northern hemisphere, and beyond that, as far away as Australia. Enterprise Ireland has supported us significantly with research and development, which was the key to our success, especially in Japan,” says Michael Connolly.

“We received funding from Enterprise Ireland for market research and product development for specific markets, including customisation and localisation.”

Connolly’s Red Mills’ success at home helped it succeed abroad. “Race horses are the best paid athletes in the world. We were able to piggy back on the success of our Irish breeders and trainers, to follow our customers, and their customers, around the world,” says Michael.

The UK was the company’s first export market, which it entered in 1985. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it grew sales across Europe. In 2004 it entered Japan.

Connolly’s Red Mills initially sought to sell pet foods into Japan but found there was greater opportunity for horse feed. “Japan has a very wealthy racing industry. It has prize money of around 10 times the average amount you’d see in Ireland,” he says.


Prepare to do business in Japan

Success wasn’t assured. Connolly found Harvard Business professor Geert Hofstede’s view of Japan, that it is the most ‘foreign’ country from a business point of view, to be true.

“The biggest difficulty is communications. That is not translation, it’s the fact that what is not said in a meeting is what often counts most. But if you don’t know what should have been said, you won’t know what that means,” says Connolly.

If you have the right product and are prepared to put in the time building relationships, you can succeed. “Your business has to hit all the markers they want to see, which is sustainability, profitability and growth, which thankfully align exactly with our own values at Connolly’s Red Mills,” he says.

Customer acquisition takes Connolly’s up to four times longer in Japan than it does elsewhere.

“Where it might take three months in France, it will take 18 months to two years in Japan,” he says.

Business meetings are highly structured and formal. Irish people’s traditional bonhomie can work against us, he cautions. Not handling business cards with due deference is a case in point.

Japan has a very hierarchical business culture, to the point that business teams meeting across a table must sit opposite one another in order of rank.

“Often it is in the après meeting, when things relax a bit over a meal, that deals are really done and compromises are made. Decisions are very much done on the basis of consensus. Trust is hugely important and has to be built up.”


Japan rewards right product and right approach

If you have the right product, and approach the market in the right way, you can reap the reward. Today Connolly’s Red Mills is the largest importer of premium horse feeds in Japan, with 30% market share of premium horse food.

Enterprise Ireland’s Japan team provided practical on the ground assistance in relation to introductions, itineraries, and local expertise, including setting up meetings and providing information about how to set up a company in Japan.

“It helped us interpret business culture and ensure business and tax compliance. It was also a keyhole into the Irish business community in Tokyo, which was invaluable.”

Japan is not for the fainthearted, he cautions. “It is an exacting market. It has to be a strategic move and you have to have your research done.”

But get it right and it will pay dividends. “Japan is a homogenous market which means that if you can win a small part of it, you can win a large part of it.”


Read more on doing business in Japan and the support available from Enterprise Ireland.

How undertaking an agile project helped create a culture of innovation at two Irish companies

Innovation is crucial for companies to grow their business and maintain competitiveness. An increasing number of SMEs in Ireland must undertake research and development projects to develop innovative products and services.

Identifying need and opportunity by talking to customers is at the heart of all good R&D. However, many companies are discovering that undertaking the process also allows them to identify further opportunities for growth and innovation.


Two strong approaches to launching an agile project

That has certainly been the case for TEAM Accessories and LaserTec, since they availed of Enterprise Ireland’s Agile Innovation Fund to support R&D projects.

Aerospace company TEAM Accessories specialises in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of commercial jet engines at their purpose-built facility in Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin. At the start of 2018, the company decided to target expansion into new sectors.

Speaking at an Enterprise Ireland Agile Innovation Support event in Dublin, Co-owner and Director Pat McEvoy talked about the opportunity they identified: “There was a fairly buoyant market in aviation, so the core business was okay, but we needed to do something new or different. We looked at where a commercial engine is used in different industrial applications – such as in the oil and gas sector, in the use of power generation, on ferries and ships all over the world.

“We set about developing capability in sectors that would give us substantial growth. That was a big challenge because, although it’s the same technology, it’s completely different systems and components. We would have to figure out how to design and manufacture new parts, how to train people, how to develop our capability as a project.”

Basil Cooney, Managing Director of Dublin-based electronics engineering manufacturer LaserTec, spoke at the event about his company’s plan to add 3D capability to their automated testing and validation solutions for the medical devices sector.

He said: “Using 2D vision technology to inspect and measure products was very cumbersome to use and very expensive. The limitations of 2D means that the solutions were application specific – if you want to look at a different product or solve a different problem, you’re almost starting from scratch nearly every time.

“We decided that we needed to come up with something really different; something that was easy to use, easy to communicate with, which could integrate into existing systems, and was affordable. Our idea was to develop a 3D sensor vision system that could scan a product and be able to read depth as well as length and width. You don’t get that with 2D.”


How Enterprise Ireland’s Agile Innovation Fund supports agile projects

Both LaserTec and TEAM Accessories applied for support from the Agile Innovation Fund. Designed to make undertaking R&D as easy as possible, it provides up to 50% funding for agile projects with a value of up to €300,000. The main feature of the Agile Innovation Fund is its fast turnaround time, and the applications for both LaserTec and TEAM Accessories were processed in weeks rather than months.

Pat McEvoy said: “At first, we thought that agile wasn’t a good fit for us because we were thinking about design and manufacturing, but we talked to our DA (Development Advisor at Enterprise Ireland) and she reassured us that our project was innovation and would qualify.

“I was so impressed by how quick the whole approval process was. It was very efficient, and we had really good input from our DA all the way through.” Pat McEvoy, Co-owner & Director, TEAM Accessories

Basil Cooney: “Our experience was also very positive. I think engaging as early as possible with our DA was important, and not just a one-off thing but engaging on a continuous basis initially until we were up and running.

“Initially we had a particular set of ideas for the project, but they changed as the project developed. With the Agile Fund that’s okay – it allows that flexibility to really go after what is required to make the project achieve its goals. Without it, we wouldn’t have achieved what we did.”

Perhaps the most enduring impact the agile project will have on TEAM Accessories and LaserTec is the culture of innovation it has helped nurture.

Pat said: “We have a couple of other things we’re looking at now that happened kind of by accident as a result of this project. We set out to develop capabilities in different sectors, now we’re also moving into an area – and this has come from customers and their feedback – which involves improving some of the existing designs of the engines. So agile has opened up different avenues for us.”

Basil Cooney: “We’ve identified a number of products that we can develop from the core technology of a 3D sensor and software platform. The idea is to customise them for a bigger range of applications that use the same technology, such as scanning and checking boxes on an assembly line or verifying a manufacturing assembly as it’s happening.”

Get more information about the Agile Innovation Fund.

Why patents will help Neurent Medical crack the US market

Innovation runs through Irish medtech firms like writing in a stick of rock. It’s in their DNA.

Innovation creates disruption, market advantage and growth – but unless firms take steps to protect the fruits of their R&D, their intellectual property (IP) is vulnerable – and so, too, the advantages it creates.

If you are a small, VC funded, medical device company with disruptive technology that will unlock a US $2 billion market opportunity, an IP strategy from the get-go is almost as important as the product itself.


Neurent Medical recognised need for IP strategy from the start

Neurent Medical, a Galway-based medtech start-up, is developing a novel office-based device solution for the acute allergic and chronic conditions of rhinitis. It is a market currently served by vested pharmaceutical solutions or lengthy and costly surgical intervention.

“With the size of the market that we have and how disruptive our technology is, we’re anticipating fast followers will emerge and try to move into our space,” says David Townley, Neurent Medical’s co-founder and CTO.

“In our case, It isn’t just traditional medical devices that we’re disrupting; there is also a disruptive pharma interest. So, because of that we’ve gone a little deeper into IP strategy and IP establishment than other medical device companies at the same stage of development, because we have a pretty significant market to address.”

The firm is aiming to address the tension that arises between its IP strategy and its market strategy, while at the same time working on what to patent – and when. Not only that but it also has to determine how long to keep its R&D protected internally as a trade secret and when to roll it out to file patents.

Maintaining a trade secret may give a technological competitive edge but a firm risks having its future market landscape inhibited by a rival showing up who patents in the area first, said Townley.


The race for first to file

It is particularly relevant for Neurent Medical because their target launch market, the US, has changed its patent designation from first to invent to first to file, effectively creating a race.

“Historically we were all religious about our lab notebooks and documenting our ideas and our inventions. Signing, dating, countersigning, and so forth. It showed we had a definitive point of proof of origin and date of establishment,” said Townley.

“So when filing a patent, this record keeping was useful in demonstrating inventive origin; It was all about who was first to invent and first to invent used to win.

“But in the last couple of years, the US PTO has converted their approach and transitioned to a first-to-file provision – so now it’s a race to the patent office and whoever gets there first wins, even if you came up with an idea first.”

This has spawned a culture of patent trolling as firms attempt to file and fill areas with patents, many without merit, but costly to unpick for an SME with a genuine innovation.

“It can be double edged because what the first-to-file provision has done is provide absolute clarity on what the disclosures are and simultaneously has established a sense of urgency to file because previously, if you were first to invent you could log and continue developing your innovation internally until it was robust. Then once it’s at a point of readiness you go to the USPTO. Now, because of the first-to-file provision, there’s a higher sense of urgency in getting your content into the USPTO, which creates genuine pressure, particularly for SMEs to file quickly” said Townley.


Aligning market strategy with IP strategy

This creates an even greater necessity to correctly align a firm’s market strategy with its IP strategy, he added.

This is why Townley and the senior management team at Neurent spent a serious amount of time and money at the very start of the company’s journey sourcing the best patent attorney advice for their firm. It led them to California and to one of the world’s leading medical device incubators, The Foundry, where they asked them the simple question: Who do YOU use?

“We knew we were novel and had created a world-leading technology and wanted the best attorneys reviewing our IP strategy and working with us on our positioning. When one of the biggest incubators in the world says this is their go-to guy, then it makes sense. An early robust review is important; there are a lot of dangers out there,” said Townley.

Getting the advice and using Enterprise Ireland’s IP Start programme has seen the firm develop a patent strategy that deals in multiple patent clusters that weave together to establish a robust portfolio, according to Townley, which offers greater protection in the market area.

“Our IP strategy is of fundamental strategic importance to us because it enables us to knit and grow our core technologies, R&D, and marketing with our commercial strategy and informs how we develop, deepen and expand our target markets,” he added.

It has helped Neurent Medical grow and develop its roadmap and its latest round of funding raised €9.3 million, led by Fountain Healthcare Partners; including funds from Enterprise Ireland, which Townley in part attributes to having a sound IP strategy in place.

“It’s absolutely fundamental. In fact, what you’ll see from the medtech investment community is that a poor IP strategy or a poor IP position; is simply a hard stop. Although it’s difficult to raise investment exclusively off the back of IP; it’s almost impossible to raise anything without it. That’s how critical this is.”


Read how Enterprise Ireland can support your R&D ambitions with our range of Innovation supports.

Webio puts IP at the heart of the design process

“Every day as a start-up, there is something out there that can kill you.” Paul Sweeney, EVP Product at Webio.

It’s clear that Sweeney does not take the success of his firm Webio for granted. He’s under no illusion that every day is a competition – and every day to come will be a competition. It’s pretty much the life of the start-up.

In the fast-paced world of software development, where product cycles are increasingly shorter and market disruption is a given, a business with a bright idea needs all the support it can get to future-proof growth.


How Webio protects its big ideas

The Irish software firm Webio, which specialises in automating messaging, chatbot and voice interactions between companies and their customers, relies on very smart AI and machine learning at the heart of its product. Organisations use its ‘conversational middleware’ solution to process the host of customer enquiries that have migrated to messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Messenger. Companies that have adopted it have seen costly contact centre phone calls decrease and payment and collection rates increase, so it’s no surprise that Webio’s code is in demand.

It’s a big idea – and one that’s worth protecting. The automated SMS market alone is worth €60 billion annually and the market for chatbots and automated voice command CRM such as Alexa is “silly numbers”, says Sweeney. As a result, the firm placed the utmost value on the protection of its code – its intellectual property – at the heart of its design and business process.

Sweeney, Webio’s EVP Product, said the company started early with protecting its intangible assets starting early on with its branding, the first and most visible part of a company’s intangible value.

“As part of your Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) strategy, having a really tight brand strategy is underrated. And when you’ve got a tight brand you can push through some of the noise,” he said.

It helped the company to frame what to trademark and copyright. To further push their visibility and brand strategy they started their sector-specific ConverCon – the Conversational Interface Conference strand, even though the company was in its infancy.

But with one of the core goals to make their software ‘white label’ for use at scale, they had to carefully think about protecting the core part of their IPR.

Webio turned to Enterprise Ireland which has several supports in place to encourage SMEs to address IPR culture within their organisation such as the IP Start Grant and IP Plus Grant.

“When you look at many of the technologies today getting to market you can build on many other different softwares. What the IP Start programme helped us do was focus very specifically on the key aspects of our software that were going to make a difference in the long run and that were going to be IPR defensible positions,” said Sweeney.

“So we used that programme to identify one core thing that we did that was important and once we had that focus, we concentrated on how that bit impacted the rest of our platform and concentrated on being really good at that bit.”

This would allow the firm to make the right call on whether to move from retaining the piece of IP as a trade secret or moving into registration of a patent, he added.


IP underpins company growth

It’s a move which, according to new research, is likely to aid the firm’s growth. A new joint study from the European Patent Office (EPO) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), found that SMEs that applied for patents, trademarks or designs early on were more likely to experience high growth compared to those that did not.

The study showed that SMEs with at least one IP right are 21% more likely to experience a growth period and 10% more likely to become a high-growth firm (HGF), compared to those without IP rights. Furthermore, firms with EU-level IP rights, as opposed to national level, are even more likely (17%) to become an HGF.

Sweeney added ‘‘What this programme has helped us to do is focus in on one particular area and understand that on that vector lies IPR potential. And if you concentrate on it, it could turn into either a trade secret – which you’re happy to keep under the hood – or be something that you’re willing to describe and put into a patent.

“As a result, we’ve identified that we can go down either path – and we know now how to cascade that to other parts of the software to make our company more valuable.”

It’s a path that has required management team buy-in from the get-go.

“Make no mistake. Management time is the most expensive time to spend. This is a non-trivial process that requires a lot of knowledge. But at the end of it, we, as a company, had a very clear understanding of our IPR.

“And its value”, added Sweeney.


Learn more about the innovation supports available from Enterprise Ireland.

Pestle & Mortar CEO Sonia Deasy

Read how Irish skincare company Pestle & Mortar is perfecting sales around the world

Kildare woman Sonia Deasy and her husband Padraic have always had global ambition in business. Unfortunately, their first enterprise, a highly successful photographic studio, couldn’t deliver it.

“No matter how much we did, we knew we couldn’t scale it,” says Sonia.

Photography did, however, provide the inspiration for a business that could scale. In 2010, while attending a trade conference in the US, Sonia watched other photographers at work.

“We were always photographing normal people but at these events, other photographers were photographing models and they’d bring along make-up artists. I’d see them prepping their skin before the shoot. I noticed that a lot of models don’t have good skin. They’re up late and work really long hours.”

The make-up artists were using a product that seemed to have a transformative effect.  On further investigation, she discovered it contained a super ingredient, hyaluronic acid.

Though HA is common now, at the time it was almost unknown in Ireland. Where it was available, it cost hundreds of euro.

Deasy reckoned there was enough of a gap in the market to make it worth her while to develop her own product, initially working with a laboratory in Taiwan, a contact she got through her brother.Pestle & Mortar product range

After three years in development, in 2014 she had a product ready to bring to market. She called the brand Pestle & Mortar, a nod to her heritage. Deasy’s parents are Indian and a family member was a ‘medicine man’, whose work crushing herbs inspired the name. It also captured both the best of what is natural with the innovation of science.

She and Padraic built an e-commerce website for what would be, she fully expected, an online only business.


Pestle & Mortar goes global

An early slot on a TV magazine show resulted in immediate sales however and calls from Brown Thomas and Arnotts followed. A subsequent stand taken at a cosmetics trade show at the RDS sold out and attracted 120 more retail stockists nationwide.

But it was an appearance on US shopping channel QVC that provided the business with its biggest fillip. It was the channel’s first Irish skincare brand and Pestle & Mortar sold out in just seven minutes. “It was monumental,” she says.

That led to its first international retail order, to supply Bloomingdale’s throughout the US. Today, Deasy regularly appears on QVC in London, helping to grow UK sales too.

Pestle & Mortar HQ in KildareWith the help of Local Enterprise Office Kildare, the business took on new staff and, in 2017, the couple closed the photography studio completely to concentrate on Pestle & Mortar.

Within 18 months, it had launched a second product. Today, it has an entire range, some of which were developed and manufactured in Germany but most of which are made in Ireland. “Because we are Irish-based, we felt we should have products that are made in Ireland and which use Irish ingredients. We are very proud of that,” she says.

Pestle & Mortar was the overall winner of the LEO National Enterprise Awards in 2019 but by the time it received the award it had already attained Enterprise Ireland High Performance Start-Up status.

In 2018, the company had revenues of €3 million, which Deasy predicts will double by the end of 2019. Some 30% of its revenues are generated online, with the rest coming via distributors and wholesale customers worldwide.

With Enterprise Ireland’s help, Deasy spent much of 2018 and 2019 developing its international distributor networks. “My commercial team was out in Indonesia, Dubai and China,” says Deasy, who today employs 27 staff.

The business moved from its original base, a 1500 sq ft converted photographic studio, into a new 10,000 sq ft facility in Kildare, giving it space to grow. She invested €500,000 in the fit out alone, to create a showroom fit for a worldwide brand.


Get support for market discovery

“Ireland has just 4.5 million people, our ambition is to think global,” says Deasy, who retains public relations agencies in London and New York to support the brand in those markets. Every three months she travels to both to meet with bloggers and influencers. “It’s all personal, it’s all hands on,” she says.

Enterprise Ireland facilitates this. “We wanted to transition from the LEO to Enterprise Ireland as soon as possible because we knew we could really use Enterprise Ireland’s resources. Thanks to its Market Discovery Fund, my commercial team has been out to its China office six times, which provides us with both contacts and office space,” she says.

“Distribution is key for us and Enterprise Ireland’s team helps us with contacts. If you choose the wrong distributor it can ruin your business in a country and even worldwide. Enterprise Ireland’s offices became our eyes and ears on the ground.”

When Pestle & Mortar recently won a global beauty product award in Dubai, at a ceremony she couldn’t attend, “Enterprise Ireland staff collected our award for us”.

All of the support Enterprise Ireland provides helped to reinforce Deasy’s belief that she was doing the right things. “It confirms the fact that this is what you should be doing, you should be going global, and ‘we can help you do that’. That is the message you get from Enterprise Ireland.”

Today Pestle & Mortar retails in the US, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, Hong Kong and China, as well as the UAE. What’s more, “We’re only starting,” says Deasy, whose medium term plan is to grow turnover to €40 million.

From there, the sky’s the limit. That’s the beauty of a scalable business. “If you can get to €40 million you can get to €100 million. After that it’s just numbers.”

Learn how the Market Discovery Fund can support your diversification plans.