Tuesday June 2, 2020

Making It Work: VR headsets helping firms to get round coronavirus restrictions

Dublin start-up UtilityAR reports a jump in demand for its headsets from large-scale manufacturers

3rd May, 2020
Patrick Liddy, founder of UtilityAR which has seen a surge in demand for its headsets with remote video function. Picture: Fergal Phillips

Dublin start-up UtilityAR is experiencing rising demand for its augmented reality (AR) headsets from large-scale manufacturers looking for ways to work around Covid-19 restrictions.

The headsets give engineers and technicians access to step-by-step procedures when carrying out complex hands-free procedures in manufacturing plants.

An in-built camera means the workers can activate a remote video call with supervisors, who can then provide help and assistance in real-time.

“It is the remote video function that’s really driving demand for us now, because of Covid-19,” said Patrick Liddy, the company‘s co-founder and customer success manager.

“More than a dozen companies have signed up for our service over the past month for business continuity purposes. They’re concerned about key staff being unable to come to site because of the lockdown. We offer a solution whereby those key staff can stay at home and still support their colleagues on site.”

UtilityAR has signed new contracts with Gilead Sciences, a US biopharmaceutical company, and Randox, a diagnostics business in the North.

“Gilead and Randox are both using our technology to interface with vendors who are selling them equipment remotely or, in some cases, from other countries,” Liddy said.

“They want to make sure that the equipment is as described and they can use the camera function in our headsets to do that remotely.”

Liddy said UtilityAR would open a funding round later this year to help the business scale up in response to rising demand.

It closed its seed round late last year, raising €600,000 from Business Venture Partner Investments, the Halo Business Angels Network and Enterprise Ireland. The company is a high potential start-up client of Enterprise Ireland, the state agency.

“Right now we are experiencing a crisis, but after this industry will have to make the investments needed to ensure that they are covered should there be another Covid-19 resurgence in the future,” Liddy said.

“We will be looking to raise in excess of €1 million. That funding round was already in our plans, but Covid-19 has accelerated the need for it.”

Liddy runs UtilityAR with Aidan McDonnell, the company’s co-founder, and they employ six people in Dublin.

Before starting UtilityAR in 2018, the pair set up and ran the energy-efficiency company Activation Energy, which they sold to EnerNOC, the American multinational.

“When we set up UtilityAR, we thought we would be selling to utilities like ESB or Enervia, hence the name of the company,” Liddy said.

“In practice, we sell predominantly to the high-value manufacturing industry. The product we got right, the market we got wrong. The demand for what we’re doing has been more industry than utility-focused.”

UtilityAR recently won a big contract to supply its headsets to Ardagh Group, the metal and glass containers group headquartered in Luxembourg.

“We sold to 12 of their factories in six countries in Europe and now they’re going to roll the product out in South America,” Liddy said.

“That contract is very significant for us, because it demonstrates the nature of our product and our innovation. My experience of working with industry is that they understand completely how different innovations could benefit their business.

“The challenge is that they’ve got so many innovations that they could be using, they just can’t absorb them all in one go. They must prioritise one over another at any one given in time, be it 3D printing, artificial intelligence or energy efficiency. What we’re doing has now moved up the pecking order of importance, because of Covid-19.”

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