A software platform designed to streamline basketball scholarships in the US; an environmentally friendly biofilm for slurry pits on farms; and a ‘modular’ capital markets platform.
On the face of it, these three business ideas have little in common. What unites them is their creators’ involvement in a highly successful start-up incubation programme run by University College Cork, but open to recent graduates from all third level institutions in Ireland.
Just this week, Ignite alumni Marion Cantillon won the Cruickshank High Achieving Merit Award at the 2021 Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur Awards, a national award with a €5,000 prize fund.
Cantillon is the young entrepreneur behind PitSeal, a environmentally friendly alternative to the weighted PVC sheeting and tyres farmers often use to cover silage pits.
Eamon Curtin sees Cantillon, and her Ignite colleagues Patrick O’Regan and Niall Crowley, as “ones to watch” on Ireland’s start-up scene in the years ahead.
O’Regan is the founder of Reach The Top, the basketball scholarship platform bound for the US, and Crowley has established Basevault, a modular capital markets platform that makes it easier for wealth management firms, brokers and banks to automate internal processes.
As recent graduates of Ignite, the trio is joining an elite community of business starters, which already has in its ranks ApisProtect founder Fiona Edwards, recognised recently in Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2021, and Sinéad Bleiel, founder of Anabio Technologies and a finalist in last year’s EY Entrepreneur Of The Year awards.
Since its launch in 2011, Ignite has worked with 140 start-ups in total, and more than 175 founders, who have launched companies such as Ecanvasser, LegitFit, Quickminutes and UrAbility.
The unique business ecosystem in Cork offers start-ups like these invaluable access to multinationals with global clout, according to Curtin.
“Cork is big enough to have everything that’s needed while also being small enough to navigate,” he said.
Although not immune to the effects of the pandemic, many start-ups had been in a better position to navigate the upheaval it had brought, simply by virtue of their size, Curtin said.
Often more agile, and with fewer long term commitments, some start-ups have even benefited from the impact of Covid-19.
One such start-up is Trustap, founded by Conor Lyden, another past participle of the Ignite programme, who has plans to raise up to €8 million this year to help finance the expansion of his secure online payment platform.
“Being an online payments platform, TrustAp benefits as more people are buying more online and they’re more cautious about it – and, therefore, more open to services like that,” Curtin said.
A common trait among Ignite’s most successful graduates was, Curtin said, a laser focus on the needs of their customer.
“For many start-ups, the biggest pitfall they face starting off is that they’ll tend to come to us with an idea for a product and then try to find a customer and a problem to align with it,” Curtin said.
This approach was “a bit like having a square peg and trying to find a square hole”, he said.
“A key part of what we do early on is to set aside the product idea and instead focus on the customers.
“We look at who they are, the problems they face and if there are enough of them with a big enough problem to make it a viable opportunity. Then we shape the product to meet the market need.”
Another big focus for Ignite is helping participants to establish support networks. “People won’t succeed in business on their own,” Curtin said.
“It’s important to know how to reach out to people, to make connections, and to establish and manage those relationships well. While the individuals and the products might all be different, the process is similar across all businesses.”
Although the Ignite programme has continued to operate effectively online throughout the pandemic, Curtin is keen to return to UCC’s Western Gateway Building in the autumn.
The Ignite programme is structured around workshops, seminars, guest speakers and mentoring. Its aim is to help participants develop the skills and know-how they need to start a successful business.
According to Curtin, however, it’s the additional benefit of having that also can really reap dividends for participants.
“There is a lot of collaboration and sharing of skills and ideas,” said Curtin, who sees enormous benefit in having “so many creative minds in one space”.
“We think the people who will succeed are the people who see the value in collaboration over competition. That’s why we nurture that approach, recognise its importance and encourage it,” Curtin said.
Ignite is a joint initiative of Cork City Council, Cork County Council, the Local Enterprise Offices of Cork City, South Cork and North & West Cork and University College Cork.
The programme is currently open to expressions of interest from recent graduates with strong start-up ideas and the ambition to build a scalable business.