From hi-tech thermometers of today to the brain cooling hats of tomorrow
The medtec world pulled Tom Mears from Rolls Royce to his own innovative medical business
One of the most fascinating aspects of writing this weekly profile of indigenous Irish businesses is that I get to discover some really interesting and often little known businesses. And this week I came across one such gem.
Tucked away in a small factory unit at the rear of a housing estate in Dundalk, Co Louth is Eurolec Instrumentation. Set up in 1998 by former Roll Royce HR manager Tom Mears, the company specialises in the design, manufacture and distribution of a range of electronic temperature and pressure instruments.
Interestingly too, over 70pc of everything the company sells is exported. On a large map of the world on the wall in his office, Tom's son, Chris (he looks after the sales and marketing function for the businesses), shows me a set of coloured pins that highlight the location of their 25 international distributors across countries that include France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, Croatia and Lithuania.
Most of their customers are companies involved in the food and drink, pharmaceutical and engineering sectors - but they also have public sector customers in universities, hospitals, environmental health, and a wide range of laboratories.
As he shows me around the workshop area, Kieran Gaskin - one of the company's most experienced engineers - shows me a variety of portable and benchtop thermometers that customers use primarily to check if food has been fully cooked through.
"For health and safety reasons, it's important to ensure that food has reached the correct temperature during the cooking process," explains Tom. "For example, in the case of beef burgers, these must be cooked at a level that ensures a minimum core temperature of at least 70°C so that pathogens such as Ecoli and other harmful bacteria are killed.
"Similarly, because frozen food products are required to reach a core temperature of -20°C, it's important that those in the sector have an accurate and reliable way of measuring these relevant temperatures," he adds.
Apart from retail customers such as the Musgrave Group, their equipment is used by dairy giants such as Glanbia, Mondelez, Town of Monaghan and Lakeland Dairies, as well as by meat processors Dunbia and Kerry Group in the Republic and Moy Park in Northern Ireland.
Among their pharmaceutical customers are household names such as Merck Sharp & Dohme and Pfizer.
A smaller but still important part of the company's business involves the manufacturer of pressure measurement instruments which are used to monitor air pressure within IT and pharma manufacturing plants where it is important to ensure that air or dust particles generated during the production process are constantly removed by air handling or extraction units to prevent contamination. Monitoring room pressures is therefore important.
To work with such clients requires a detailed knowledge of the sector, of all the legislation governing compliance and of the technology itself. After many years in business, Tom is well versed in all these aspects.
Originally from Newry, Co Down, Tom graduated from Trinity College Dublin before going on to joining Rolls Royce in their aero- engines division. Following that he held a variety of roles in engineering firms that made everything from plastic tubes and industrial fans to exhaust systems for cars and trucks.
However, Tom always had the ambition to set up his own company -and in 1978 he finally made the move. With the help of the IDA, he set up his first company, Eirelec Ltd in Dundalk and began designing and manufacturing a similar range of electronic instruments to what he produces today.
In addition, he also set up a second related business, AMT Ltd, where he was able to produce printed circuit boards (PCBs) in higher volumes and at lower costs through a process known as surface mount technology or SMT.
Although successful, Tom saw that in order to offer a complete suite of measurement instruments to customers beyond what he manufactured himself, there was merit in partnering with other similar firms to complement his own offering.
So in 1990, he linked up with another former fellow Trinity student who had set up a similar business in the UK - and together they established a combined group of companies: the AMT Group. Within five years they had become so successful that the group was bought out by a larger UK company. At the time, Eirelec was employing 10 staff and as part of the deal, Tom agreed to stay on as MD and continue to run the Irish operation.
However, after only three years, the Irish business was closed and all its operations moved to the UK - in the process making Tom and all his staff redundant.
"It was tough at the time for all of us, and while I had an exit, I wasn't ready to just hang up my boots and retire," says Tom with a laugh. "So I decided to set up again, and started Eurolec Instrumentation. Initially, it operated from my kitchen, and then the front room before we eventually found these premises," he adds.
Once back in business, Tom re-employed many of his former staff. In 2005, the new business began to come under increased competition from competitors from the Far East and this, together with the advent of more low-cost and portable electronic instruments, meant that he would now have to become more niche focused if he was going to survive.
He made the strategic decision to pivot the business and began to specialise in producing smaller volumes of high-quality, high-value devices with greater accuracy than that of his competitors. These more robust, splash-proof instruments offer precise read outs and accuracy of up to .01 of a degree, allowing them to be used in both industrial and laboratory conditions.
"Quality is important to us and while some of our competitors' devices still sell well, because they are cheaper, many only last a few months while ours last for years. In fact, we regularly meet people who are still using thermometers which we made during our original Eirelec days," explains Tom proudly. "More recently too, we began to private label these for other international firms who wanted to brand them as their own and we now see this is as a potential route to achieving greater volumes and higher revenues in the future," he adds.
Always interested in taking on new challenges, Tom came across an article in the New Scientist magazine which highlighted the clear benefits for victims of strokes, heart attacks and some brain trauma patients when cooling was applied to the brain to create what is known medically as induced hypothermia.
"The more I researched the subject, the more I realised that cooling an area at the earliest possible opportunity improved the prognosis for many patients. From our experience over the years in cooling technology, we felt that we were well placed to develop a solution to cool the brain quickly and in a non-invasive way," explains Tom passionately.
Realising that a person's carotid arteries are responsible for supplying oxygenated blood to the large, frontal part of the brain (where our thinking, speech, personality, sensory and motor functions reside), Tom and his team designed a wearable helmet- like device that contains a number of fine tubes that, when activated, cause the head and neck area to cool quickly, thereby producing the desired effect. Because strokes and brain injuries can happen anywhere, these helmets were designed to be powered by way of rechargeable batteries or by plugging them into a vehicle, allowing them to be used by medical staff in an ambulance situation where early intervention is critical.
"We have now set up a separate company, Oriel Medical Devices, to focus on developing this technology further," explains Tom. "It has already been favourably evaluated by the neuroscience department at TCD under the supervision of Professor Shane O'Mara," he adds.
And there would appear to be a number of different applications to the technology, such as in the transport of organs for transplant purposes.
"Packing a transport container full of ice doesn't always work. Sometimes organs may be rendered unusable where the ice around them has caused freeze burns to the organ tissue," explains Tom. "And because these organs are so precious, it's important to make sure that they are protected. We put our cooling tubes around the inside of a container that carries these organs, and now they can be transported at a consist temperatures, making it possible to protect them on longer journeys within or between countries," he adds excitedly.
In addition, by using different attachments, the technology can also generate localised heat, which, when applied to soft tissue, can be used for the effective treatment of sports injures in both human and animals.
Last year, Tom and his colleagues exhibited their device at the Irish Medtec conference exhibition in Galway, where it was received with great interest. Having patented the technology, he now hopes to identify partners with whom he can work to further develop his technology and its wider applications within the medtec sector.
"But none of this can happen without the support of our incredibly flexible, imaginative and hard-working staff," he says. "We also have a close relationship with Dundalk Institute of Technology for whom we provide work experience for electronic engineering students as well as students from French universities under the Erasmus programme," adds Tom.
Tom Mears runs a small but successful business providing a range of high-quality temperature, pressure and other complementary instrumentation devices. Over the years, he has managed to grow a loyal and solid customer base that includes some of Ireland's top food and pharma companies, as well as a multitude of international customers and distributors.
They understand and appreciate the quality and accuracy of what he produces because it benefits their businesses. Today, he continues to grow sales - and is hopeful of achieving sales to €1m over the next three to five years.
Blessed because he still loves to come to work every day, Tom now wants to make an even greater impact by getting involved in the medical device sector where he can, using his vast knowledge and experience of temperature technology, develop innovative cooling solutions for, among others, brain and stroke patients.
His experience has also taught him that this will likely come about as a result of collaboration with others and so he continues to search out potential partners to work with him on realising these goals. After all these years of hard work and dedication to his craft, Tom Mears might just have found the game changer for both himself and his company.
Eurolec Instrumentation, Technology House, Cluan Enda, Dundalk, Co Louth. Tel: (042) 9333423
www.eurolec-instruments.com and www.orielmedical devices.com
Tom's advice to other businesses
1. Understand what your customers actually want: “It’s vital to carry out market research to determine what exactly your customers need and how best you can meet these. The best way to achieve this is through constant collaboration and interaction at all levels.”
2. Business is still all about people: “While modern technology is great, business, at the end of the day, is all about people. Therefore you have to invest in developing and maintaining relationships with your staff, your suppliers and your customers.”
3. Be positive and optimistic: “Don’t allow yourself to be put off by challenges or setbacks. Learn to see these as opportunities. Become the sort of person who always sees the glass as being half full rather than half empty. Optimism and positivity are contagious to those around you.”
Sunday Indo Business