Posted on Wednesday 16 November 2011 by Ulster Business

Concept to commercialisation: Some stories of success

Pictured Left to Right:
NISP CONNECT Director, Steve Orr with Neil Buchanon from Flish and Clare Guinness, Regional Business Manager, Bank of Ireland UK

Steve Orr, director of NISP CONNECT, tracks the progress of some of the past competitors in the programme’s 25K Awards and shows how taking part helped kick start their companies.

This year has been another successful year for NISP CONNECT’s £25K Awards as the call for innovators from Northern Ireland’s publicly funded research base to embark on the journey of commercialisation continues to uncover local ideas with global potential.

The awards aim to prepare and guide entrants to become successful future business ventures that will contribute to the growth of the Northern Ireland economy.
Sponsored by Bank of Ireland UK, QUB, University of Ulster and AFBI (Agri Food and Biosciences Institute), the £25K process provides applicants with a unique opportunity to engage with science and technology corporations, entrepreneurs, service providers and investors who can provide valuable support for teams to develop their concepts and business acumen, all with the aim of becoming ‘the next big thing’ to come out of Northern Ireland’s research base.

Flish, a team from Queen’s University Belfast who have developed a low cost, low power antenna capable of picking up satellite signals automatically, were announced as the winners of this year’s awards and have once again reminded us of the innovative talent that lies in our research community. But while this year’s awards identified revolutionary ideas that have the potential to become real game changers, it’s vital to remember and learn from those who have already been through the process and are currently reaping the benefits. In other words the success stories – those who asked the right questions, made the right moves and are now providing the right answers to global challenges. I want to focus on a few of them.

One such success is last year’s winner LenisAer, a team from the University of Ulster who developed a cost-effective method for manufacturing airline engine covers which improve efficiency and reduce emissions. Since being crowned winners of the £25Ks last year the team has set up a company and gone on to win the InterTradeIreland Seedcorn Business Award for the Best University Spinout. Through support from Invest NI LenisAer has collaborated with local company Crossen Engineering to showcase its prototype part at this year’s Paris Airshow and is already generating revenue, all within an impressive 12 months.

And it’s not just the winners of the £25K Awards that benefit from the process. Last year’s finalists TaskMaestro, a touch screen device providing hospitality and catering staff with an electronic ‘to do list’, have gone on to enjoy success. The system alerts staff with instructions and holds them accountable through biometric finger print recognition technology.

Following subsequent participation in Invest Northern Ireland’s Propel programme and with an international patent pending, Gabriel Bradley, founder of TaskMaestro, ventured into the ‘dragon’s den’ at a HALO, Northern Ireland’s Business Angel Network. After pitching to a number of investors he secured the second largest funding round ever of £500,000 which has since been reinvested in the company for business development.

The largest ever investment made in Northern Ireland by Halo business angels went to the 2007 £25K Award winners Sophia Search, who developed a sophisticated search engine for organisations with vast reserves of unstructured data. Sophia automatically trawls through documents, identifies key themes that they contain and then groups them into themes to which they are topically most similar. After pitching to the business angels the University of Ulster spinout received $1.2m of funding enabling the company to accelerate its expansion into the US market.

With the addition of former Iona Technologies CEO Chris Horn as its new chairman in 2010, the company went on to hire R&D staff in Russia, software engineers in Belfast and opened an office in San Jose while recruiting a new VP of sales in Silicon Valley. Sophia now has US customers in the government research, pharmaceuticals and publishing domains and is currently focusing on growing sales and revenue in the US. With plans to employ new sales and field engineers in US and new engineers set to join the Belfast team, Sophia Search are a shining example of innovation in action.

For LenisAer, TaskMaestro and Sophia Search it all started with an idea that was developed through hard work and refined through the £25K Awards process. Their success to date has been remarkable and they are not stopping there. They should be an inspiration to the next generation to consider starting on the road to commercialisation.

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