Posted on Monday 9 September 2013 by Ulster Business
So it makes sense that Invest NI this year opened The HUB, a shared space in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter for the export-focused, high growth potential start-ups taking part in this year's Propel programme.
The HUB offers hot desks and meeting areas as well as open space for events and networking, with ongoing support from the Propel programme team. Diane Roberts from that delivery teams believes the space will really benefit the business owners.
"I've been involved in a lot of programmes in Dublin and Cork and one of the main things that adds value is that they're in a shared space. They're in the same place every day, they're interacting with one another, sharing stories, sharing information on grants, on how to complete forms," she said.
Propel received 119 applications this year, of which 62 were interviewed, 44 came through to the market validation programme and 26 then won £20,000 in phased equity funding to help get their business off the ground.
"What I think we've proved with Propel is that there are enough people out there who want to start their own business. We shouldn't knock ourselves because entrepreneurship is alive and well in Northern Ireland and what we have here is as good as what I see in Dublin or Cork or other parts of the world," said Diane.
Here, we profile some of the entrepreneurs trying to establish innovative companies that will make a real splash in the future economy of Northern Ireland.
With her husband's background in forestry, and a business qualification from DARD, Catherine Cunningham was intrigued by the idea of creating an eco-friendly online business.
The mother of four - a former Marie Curie nurse and a mosaic artist - lives on a farm with her husband Andrew, whose business is growing and planting trees.
It makes sense that her e-commerce business, The Present Tree, would draw on that background. The company sells beautifully gift-wrapped young trees online to customers anywhere in the EU.
Having researched her market and developed her own packaging and symbolic gift cards, Catherine decided she could do better than the competition both in terms of service, presentation and green credentials. She says trees are suitable gifts for many occasions, from weddings and birthdays to corporate gifts or even bereavements.
"Trees used to be incredibly important and sacred. We've lost that connection and I'd love to get people more in tune with trees," she says.
"Each tree has particular significance – whether for a wedding or moving into a new home. They are also a great unisex gift because if you think about it you don't often send a man flowers but you could send him a tree."
Catherine is hoping to establish the business and will then look to expand the idea overseas, to the US and even China, where people "are still into the meaning of trees".
"My vision is to work with tree nurseries in America. I could supply them with the seeds or they could use their own if people want native trees. The nurseries there would have my packaging, the trees would be bought from my website, have my card. Everything that goes with the integrity of the Present Tree stays the same. They would become an agent, like Interflora."
She knows she has a long way to go before then, but is confident the business will be a success.
"I am not experienced in business but I have decided to say yes to everything and go for it. I've always known I wanted to do something that didn't feel like working and this doesn't. There are highs and lows but I feel like I am really living my life," she says.
Web designer Kevin McGrath was intrigued by the new reading experiences that the latest tablet devices offered and was curious about the design and development process behind them.
It was this curiosity that led him to create 'Beacon' - a solution for publishing and selling digital magazines. He decided that with the low overheads of micropublishing, a small distribution can still be profitable and so a writer with an existing following from social networks like Twitter should be able to sell directly to readers at a reduced cost, with greater profits.
"Every week you hear another story about the publishing industry struggling. What we've come to realise is that it's not that people don't want to read magazines, it's that they are not being given to them in a format that suits them. So, writers can still write and readers can still read but there's often a gap in the delivery of these great stories," he says.
"We're hoping that our product will help the little guy to join the micro-publishing revolution. There's no reason why independent journalists and writers can't sell directly to their readers now. With social media they can reach them already, but what they can't do is put together the mechanics of selling and publishing digitally. We take care of that and let them focus on the writing."
Beacon has 600 interested customers – some as far away as Canada - waiting to use the product. Kevin believes it is a growth industry, noting that Ed Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, has recently launched a new product to make long form content easily available.
"I don't think we are in direct competition to the traditional media. But it is an industry that is ripe for disruption. When you think the tools used to create a digital magazine are the same tools used to create a print magazine it doesn't make sense," he says.
"We want to create an ecosystem of user generated content similar to the way YouTube has. It has created this great platform with amateur and professional content sitting side by side. If you want to watch a video you will go to YouTube before you even know what you want to search for. We hope to do the same for digital magazines."
Diarmuid Moloney is the man behind 'Rotor', an online music tool designed to create quick and customised music videos.
He built the first 'Rotor' prototype as an application that scans a user submitted audio file and analyses its features, such as tempo and rhythm. This data can then be used to create and edit a video from user submitted images.
"There is a huge surge in up and coming musicians at the moment what with it being so inexpensive to acquire music software and the ready availability of YouTube. But to stand out over the noise and to raise your status and get gigs musicians now need good videos, which take time and money they don't have. Rotor is a solution that lets's them quickly, easily and inexpensively create music videos for themselves," he says.
A graphic designer for the music industry, Diarmuid retrained in creative technologies and with the help of friends built the first version of Rotor as a university process. Rather than the displays used by DJs he wanted visuals to be created from the sound, to give an emotional connection to those listening and watching. With the core application now developed the full product and website will launch soon.
"Obviously our initial market is the upcoming musician who doesn't have access to video but there's also potential for it to be used as a marketing tool. We've been approached by a number of marketing agencies who are interested in using it in their promotional campaigns," he says.
Coming from a creative background he says Propel has been hugely beneficial for him and his co-creators.
"We have the skills and expertise to develop the product but we didn't understand fully how to operate it as a business. We learnt a bit ourselves and thought we had it sussed out until we came to Propel. They have really drilled into it and highlighted the key areas we need to work on and how to fill those gaps," he adds.
A graveyard may seem an unlikely place to develop a business idea, however online start-up Discover Everafter has proved that inspiration can come from the most unusual places. The brainchild of Leona McAllister, the online tool aims to modernise how the death of our loved ones is recorded through the use of its cemetery management software and genealogy resource.
Using interactive cemetery maps to identify the geographical location of a headstone combined with photography and transcriptions, the software offers a new depth of genealogy access to interested parties both at home and abroad.
Portglenone based Leona McAllister and husband Sean realised the value of this innovative idea when she was commissioned to do a survey of her local parish graveyard, including transcribing the inscriptions and capturing images of the headstones.
"It was a simple spreadsheet with hyper-links to photos which we thought was pretty basic, but the priest thought it was a fantastic resource," explains Leona.
"When we thought about it we realised we might be on to something. A lot of parishes still keep records in burial books which are subject to fires and hard to search."
The business is now developing a software package that can go head to head with existing cemetery software companies, as well as exploring the growing interest in genealogy. So far it has 94,000 burial records on the site and 3,000 monthly users.
"Unlike other websites out there for genealogy we have real good quality data when it comes to the burial records because there is a geographical location to each of the plots and a memorial headstone photograph and full search facilities," she says.
"We have a product, we have a website. But we're turning that into a robust system that incorporates everything that comes with managing a cemetery. In particular the mapping side of things is where our expertise lies. Most cemeteries have big paper maps, we're changing that with GPS surveys and incorporating online maps," she adds.
"We want to be the software of choice for cemetery managers throughout the UK, Ireland and beyond. But we're starting closer to home."
Uproar Comics was launched in 2011 by Derry locals and lifelong comic book fans Kevin Logue and Danny McLaughlin. Having gained recognition for its flagship publication, the award winning 'Zombies HI', Uproar is now exploring new possibilities and using the latest technologies to create truly interactive comic books.
"We're creating a multimedia publishing platform that will allow the user to develop once but distribute their work on multiple platforms without the need for redesigning because we use responsive codes. To maximise your market you want to be putting it out onto as many devices as possible," says Kevin.
"Our goal is to create an experience for new age digital comic readers. Market intelligence shows this is a viable market that has expanded every quarter since 2010. It is a great market to be tapping into."
Kevin, who started out as a comic book artist before becoming Uproar's MD, found customers felt they were paying too much for the same content and wanted a new experience for a new medium.
"When we were young myself an Daniel McLaughlin, the creative director, were always writing new Star Wars and Star Trek stories. We were very much true born geeks, through and through. Then as we got older we did the Comic Art and Digital Illustration course from Marvel over 30 weeks and when the course stopped we realised there was nowhere to take these skills in the UK. So Uproar Comics was born," he says.
Uproar has a contact list of 40 artists and writers and runs an open submission policy for its current publications. Kevin says its main point of differentiation is its local tone.
"We made a point of making sure everything we did was identifiably Irish. People were starting to get bored of everything happening in Manhattan. You pick up a Mavel or DC book and that's what you see. People loved the freshness and the fact they were set in Belfast and Derry, and Dublin and Galway – people liked our turn of phrase. We've started getting a bit of American traction and the response from overseas people is it is really refreshing, it has authenticity," he enthuses.
"Propel has given me enough direction and new knowledge that I already feel that the business is geared in the right direction. With their help I can now see that by 2014 we will be globally scalable business."