30 under 30: The best and brightest of Ireland's rising business stars
From AI to milking sheep, some of the youthful leaders of our most exciting firms gathered at Dublin’s Dean Hotel to meet Sean Pollock
Shane Curran (19), Evervault
Only twice has a BT Young Scientist winner persuaded the world’s most successful Silicon Valley venture capital firm to back them. The first was Limerick’s Patrick Collison with Stripe, the €32bn online firm founded with brother John. The second was 19-year-old Dubliner Shane Curran.
In September, he landed almost €3m in seed funding from Sequoia Capital, the elite firm that backed Google, Oracle, PayPal, Instagram, WhatsApp and Apple before taking a chance on Stripe. Kleiner Perkins, another Silicon Valley VC giant, also participated. But when Collison did it, he was already based in California. It is unprecedented for such tech giants to partake in a seed fund based in Ireland and run by a teenager.
Curran’s company is Evervault, a data privacy startup described as the world’s first cloud-based secure processing product. It revolves around a network of hardware-secured data processing ‘enclaves’, which allow developers to put applications in ‘privacy cages’, without changing the way they build their software.
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Tony Ennis (29), First Circle
While young Irish entrepreneurs often think of US success as the ultimate destination, others are starting to look at the vast potential of Asia.
Such is the case with Tony Ennis, who bagged $26m (€24m) in funding late last year for the startup he co-founded with Patrick Lynch.
The business, based in the Philippines, centres around giving small firms short-term loans to help them grow, with First Circle taking a fair chunk of the risk involved. Ennis, a Northside Dublin DCU graduate, chose the Philippines partly because of its overwhelming preponderance of small businesses and relative lack of lending infrastructure. But he also says he is looking at the broader south-east Asia market in time.
Ennis was the former chief technical officer and founding engineer of the Web Summit, and has taken the same title role at First Circle, while Lynch is the CEO. He also previously worked with non-profit organisations ChangeX and 100minds.
Irene Villafane (27), Calt Dynamics
Innovation is central to Villafane and Calt Dynamics founder Ross Lawless’s venture. Calt is working on developing an industrial-quality 3D printer and decentralising the technology so more people can access it. The product is expected to have a significant influence on batch manufacturing. Last year, the business was accepted on to both a prestigious TechStars accelerator programme in Connecticut, US, and a Stanley Black and Decker Additive Manufacturing accelerator. It has raised €1.1m this year.
Calt director Villafane said the business, which now has a subsidiary in the US, was also looking to develop a suite of virtual reality products for hardware manufacturers. “In five years, we will have expanded the number of decentralising technologies created at Calt Dynamics, and we’ll continue to try and empower people with the positive impact of our tech,” she said.
Paul Walsh and Mark Canavan (29), Greenheart CBD
Greenheart CBD, founded by Paul Walsh and Mark Canavan, was born out of a desire to identify the right technology to help farmers grow hemp and their businesses. The company came about after Walsh discovered farmers were struggling when it came to generating revenue and a viable product.
Walsh got his friend Canavan, who also founded honesty snack box business Halo Munchies, involved and the pair have since been busy acquiring the intellectual property for North American hemp growing equipment in Europe.
Greenheart has also cultivated its first grow, with a new CBD liquid set to hit the market soon. It will also license out drone technology in Europe, which will help improve the efficiency of hemp grows for farmers. “We want to be one of the top CBD companies in Europe,” said Walsh. “It won’t just be about hemp production; we’ve products for the entire growth chain. We will be the leader in Europe from seed to shelf.”
Kelly Fitzsimons (25), Little Lizard
It should not come as any surprise that a young Irish YouTuber makes the list this year. But the Fitzsimons clan from Meath are worth special attention. Siblings Kelly (25), Ryan (28) and Scott (28) are not trying to be corny influencers with deceptive endorsements for dodgy ointments.
Instead, the brothers and sister make a fortune from playing Minecraft and posting the videos online. In Kelly’s case, this is via her playful child-friendly character, Little Kelly Minecraft.
Her daily videos sometimes hit huge viewership figures, up to 28 million each, netting her six figures annually in ad income. It is a similar story with her older brothers, with figures for their firm Little Lizard showing they shared a pay packet of €1.7m last year, based on a loyal fanbase of over four million YouTube followers.
Eoghan Mulcahy (22), Deepseek AI
Deepseek AI has developed an artificial intelligence computer vision system which analyses video data, primarily from aerial drone footage. The technology is expected to be particularly useful in search-and-rescue missions, as well as for security and inspections.
Mulcahy founded the business in 2018 alongside Ciarán O’Mara, after he witnessed someone attempt suicide at the Shannon River in Limerick city. The pair wanted to turn the experience into something positive and designed the system in their final year at the University of Limerick. Since beginning a PhD at UL to continue his work, he has received support from the Local Enterprise Office and Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur awards. “I’d like to see our river search-and-rescue software deployed around the country and worldwide to give rescue workers much-needed assistance in an exceedingly onerous task,” said Mulcahy.
Orla Stafford (21), Izmoo
Childhood memories of trips for ice-cream remain fond in the heart of many, but they went a step further for Orla Stafford. They inspired her to create her own frozen treat franchise, Izmoo.
The Co Louth native grew up in a family environment focused on retail business. She was 19 when she took the plunge and opened her first low-fat ice-cream shop, scooping up financial support from the Local Enterprise Office, which helped her to open a second store.
Stafford has ambitions for more retail locations up and down the country, and has also developed plans for the ‘Izmoo Skool’, an education centre teaching gelato-making to franchisees and prospective retailers alike.
Robbie Henshaw (26), Henshaw Eyewear
Ireland and Leinster rugby star Robbie Henshaw made his name on the field of play but is looking for a big hit in business too. Henshaw Eyewear specialises in blue light filter glasses which reflect harmful blue light that comes from screens.
The glasses are available with or without a prescription and also come in a collection of high-quality polarised sunglasses.
The Irish centre, who is also an ambassador for the National Council for the Blind, says his profile has helped in the brand’s bid to educate people on the effects of exposure to blue light. “I was spending a lot of time at screens analysing games and in the evenings studying at UCD. I found I was having trouble sleeping and did some research and figured out it was down to my screen time, which led to digital eye strain. I spoke with a family friend, who is an optical specialist, and we decided to start the brand in 2017,” he said. He is currently planning an expansion into the US in the next two to three years.
Aimee-Louise Carton (25) and Will Ben Sims (23), KeepAppy
Aimée-Louise Carton turned her own experience of mental illness into the driver behind her business. Alongside her friend, Will Ben Sims, the pair created KeepAppy, an app that offers a practical and data-driven approach to users’ mental health, helping them access 10 psychologist-approved features. The beta version of the app has been downloaded in 62 countries, with the standard subscription model for its users set at €9.99 a month, €59.99 a year and €199.99 for life. It is set to go live in January. Carton, who is the ninth generation of the family which formed chicken processor Manor Farm, said she is enjoying being an entrepreneur in Ireland. “It’s fascinating to be in the startup ecosystem in particular,” she said. “The energy and enthusiasm bursting from everyone here has been incredible.”
Niall Kilcullen (29), KOBBA
From delivering a large project with drink conglomerate Pernod Ricard to redesigning the website of financial services firm Carne Group, Kobba is a creative marketing agency which prides itself on offering the full package. Founded by Niall Kilcullen and Patryk Szafranski (30) in February, the duo surpassed their first-year revenue target of €200,000 in less than nine months. Kobba now has three full-time employees and a part-time contractor for builds and installations, alongside warehouse and office space, a fabrication shop and a state-of-the-art photo and film studio. Kilcullen wants to be working with the biggest brands in Europe and Ireland within the next five years. “Nobody knows the winning formula for being successful as a young person in business; we all make mistakes. Not knowing what’s around the corner is exciting and every day seems like a new adventure.”
Ryan O’Neill (27), Legit Fit
Former personal trainer Ryan O’Neill was inspired to create Legit Fit through frustration with the online booking systems available to fitness professionals, which were either too expensive or too difficult to use.
O’Neill, who has been backed by Enterprise Ireland, completed market research which found the average professional not using any system was losing out on more than €10,000 per year.
“I asked one of my coder friends and another trainer if they’d be interested in starting something up to bridge the gap between client and professional,” he said. “Well, now we’re here.”
The company has launched its app, which helps pair personal trainers with customers, take bookings and offer support to clients. It launched in March, targeting year-one sales of €100,000. O’Neill said it is set to hit €250,000 revenue in two weeks and will soon have its 100th customer.
Jamie Haughton and David McParland, (29) ShakaPoke
Jamie Haughton and David McParland may not have created the poke bowl, the Hawaiian dish typically consisting of sashimi fish on a bed of rice, but they brought the concept to Ireland and soon made it their own.
The duo came up with the idea to bring the food to Ireland while travelling across the US, introducing fresh tropical fruit, vegetables, seaweed and homemade sauces to the mix. Since opening its first restaurant in Blackrock, Co Dublin, nearly three years ago, the business has thrived, with a new outlet opening in Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre earlier this year.
ShakaPoke, which also travels around various food markets, is set to open more franchises across Ireland over the next three years. “We thoroughly enjoy the highs and lows that come with being a young entrepreneur,” Haughton said. “The experience so far has developed us both as individuals, as we have had to figure out the hard way what it takes to succeed in business.”
Sean McGarry (25), Showergem
Trying to keep various shampoo bottles balanced on top of an old white Mira shower unit was beginning to frustrate Sean McGarry and his father. With his two teenage sisters continuing to fly through bottles of hair product, and with no end to the resulting spillages in sight, the pair created the ShowerGem shower caddy, with McGarry instantly spotting the opportunity the product had as a stand-alone business.
McGarry’s enthusiasm helped attract €140,000 of investment and support from the Local Enterprise Office in Mayo, but more investment was soon to come.
ShowerGem appeared on the UK version of Dragons’ Den, securing a £100,000 (€117,000) investment from three investors — Sara Davies, Touker Suleyman and Tej Lalvani — in return for a 24pc equity stake. The deal valued the company at £450,000, which has since grown to €1.6m due to an increase in sales. “It sounds crazy, but right from the beginning, we aimed to make the rusty metal suction cup shower caddies extinct,” he said.
Chris McBrearty (25), Student at NUI Galway
Chris McBrearty is developing a platform diagnostic technology with a focus on prostate cancer diagnostics, a project which won him the Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award last summer. The aim is to provide clinicians with rapid and accurate prognostic information on the disease without the need for invasive needle core biopsies.
“The idea came around when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” says McBrearty. “Not being able to help him, and seeing someone you care about so much going through the rollercoaster of cancer, left me feeling powerless.” Currently, his priority is validating the technology and de-risking the opportunity before applying to Enterprise Ireland and EU funding programmes.
Wendy Oke (28), TeachKloud
TeachKloud is an app which helps teachers to prepare for the range of inspections they face, while also enabling them to spend more time with their students. The company’s app also suggests sample learning opportunities based on the interests and abilities of the child, and can track attendance as well as communication with parents via pictures, videos or in-depth learning journals.
Wendy Oke, who developed the app, said she once took to LinkedIn to express her frustration at the lack of support early-childhood teachers got when it came to educational and safety inspections. It garnered significant attention and resulted in a €55,000 investment in her business.
TeachKloud was named Best StartUp Business by Local Enterprise Office South Cork. The company is set to close a funding round worth €750,000 next month.
“There are many challenges of being a young person in business, but what keeps me going every day is knowing that TeachKloud makes a difference to thousands of children’s lives every day,” Oke said.
Rónán Ó Dálaigh (28), Thriftify
When Rónán Ó Dálaigh bought a €60 college book for just €1 in a charity shop, he knew he had to do more to help raise awareness of the bargains to be had across the country’s many charity outlets.
Combining his passion for entrepreneurship with alleviating social issues, he created Thriftify, an online application which connects charity shops with consumers. It cost €150,000 to develop the software between sweat equity, directors’ loans and €50,000 from Enterprise Ireland.
Ó Dálaigh has big plans for the company, which now cross-sells across both Amazon and eBay, and has sold over 500,000 items.
He believes the charity retail sector has the potential to grow from a €2bn bricks-and-mortar industry into a €20bn digital commerce and omnichannel industry. “We want to be a leading global player in the world of sustainable fashion and used goods,” he said.
Dan Nugent (29), Ambr Eyewear
An idea born from migraines and strained eyes, Dan Nugent and Sacha Cahill — co-founders of Ambr Eyewear — want to save your eyes against blue light damage from screens without compromising style.
Their glasses sold out within three days of going online and they struggled to keep up with the pre-orders that followed. “What started initially as a side-project has grown and grown, and now we have customers in 78 countries,” says Nugent.
While their business started online, they recently opened a pop-up shop on Dublin’s Wicklow Street.
Their startup caught the eye of Ireland’s most luxurious retail store, Brown Thomas, and in January, their spectacles will be flying high with Chinese airline Cathay Pacific.
Neil Dunne (24), Andrson
Andrson is a music discovery tool that links unsigned musicians with industry executives by enabling searches based on an artist’s sound.
Co-founders Dunne and Zach Miller-Frankel (31) are both band managers and developed the tool after becoming frustrated with trawling through social media searching for talent.
“We realised that music discovery is inefficient, expensive and time-consuming,” said Dunne. “One day, Zach turned to me out of pure frustration asking, ‘why don’t we just automate this?’, and through that, we came up with Andrson.”
Having first run a friends-and-family funding phase this year, Andrson, which is backed by Enterprise Ireland, successfully completed a €550,000 seed funding round with Powerhouse Capital in conjunction with Continuous Ventures.
It is planning on opening a Series A round in early 2020 to support its global growth ambitions.
Brendan Crosse (26), Sheep Milk Ireland
Co Tipperary brothers Brendan and Michael Crosse (who recently turned 30) combined their passions for farming and business to create the sheep dairy business which supplies artisan food producers across the island. Since forming in 2016, the brothers’ sheep flock has grown by a multiple of seven, with the company also now supplying milk for the award-winning Cashel Farmhouse Cheese. The Enterprise Ireland-backed company is also beginning the process of developing milk powder. “There have been many challenges since starting in 2016,” said Brendan. “We are the only large-scale sheep dairy business in Ireland, so a lot of what we have learned has been through trial and error.”
Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll (29), Restored Hearing
Restored Hearing began life as a BT Young Scientist project, after Rhona Togher and her co-founder Eimear O’Carroll both experienced tinnitus. The two grew concerned by the lack of solutions available on the market. Restored Hearing has developed two products, SoundRelief, a tinnitus sound therapy which alleviates ringing in ears, and SoundBounce, an acoustic material which absorbs noise.
It has impressed local investors, Enterprise Ireland and funders in the EU. It was recently awarded €2.3m in Horizon 2020 funding.
“Our goal for the next few years is to see our technology, SoundBounce, deployed across a range of industries,” said Togher. “We’re currently working on next-generation vehicles, building materials, white goods and aircraft. We’re excited to see our technology deployed around the world in all of these industries.”
Andre Bastie (24), Happy Scribe
Serial entrepreneur Andre Bastie and fellow co-founder Marc Assens started Happy Scribe in 2017, after Assens became “too lazy” to transcribe an interview for an academic project: “I had to transcribe every single interview that I was doing. I decided to transcribe one of them that was one hour long. It took me six hours to get it transcribed. It was probably the worst six hours of my life.”
The duo then came up with the idea to develop transcription software, looking up voice recognition technologies and then developing the software. When they got it right, it cut the amount of time it took to transcribe the interview by four. Happy Scribe has flourished ever since. It has transcribed 27 years worth of audio and video content for more than 300,000 individuals around the world. The company has big ambitions, with plans to diversify into other areas.
“Happy Scribe does not aim to stay as it is,” said Bastie. “Our product and technology vision goes way further than just providing an automatic transcription tool. We want to change the way professionals interact with languages and show to the world the power that transcripts can have.”
Vanessa Creaven (28), Spotlight Oral Care
Dr Vanessa Creaven founded Spotlight Oral Care with her sister. Both dentists, they aimed to establish the first oral care company to create a range of toothpastes with clinically focused active ingredients in 100pc recyclable packaging, and without the toxic additives that are found in some other toothpastes.
“There has been a general assumption that all toothpastes are the same and that one toothpaste serves all problems, and this is not the case,” she said. “We need to educate our customer on why Spotlight Oral Care is different, why our products are clean of toxic additives but still contain clinically proven active ingredients.”
The company has been self-funded, but it is currently in the process of raising funds through a Series A round. It has developed strong distribution across Ireland and the UK and will launch in 1,000 ULTA stores across the US in February. “In five years, our aim would be that Spotlight Oral Care would have a firm foothold in the US and UK markets. In 10 years, our plan would be for Spotlight to be one of the major players in oral care globally,” she said.
Aaron Hannon (21), Lily Devices
Lily Devices, co-founded by NUI Galway student Aaron Hannon, is aiming to make the lives of cancer patients better by developing a new headband medical device to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy.
“Hair loss has significant negative effects on the mental health and relationships of patients,” said Hannon. “Our device, currently in the early stages of its development, is a portable, comfortable and empowering alternative to existing cold cap therapies.”
The idea — now backed by Enterprise Ireland — originated in the BioInnovate programme at NUI Galway. Hannon and his colleague Dr Barbara Oliveira brought together an initial technical development plan and commercialisation strategy, as well as working with a patient group.
In the medium term, the plan is to achieve a successful spin-out and build a business case which is highly attractive for investment.
Hannon said: “We’re very ambitious for the long-term future of the project. There is a clear need for innovations in the chemotherapy-induced alopecia space, and we strongly believe that this solution can deliver a real impact for patients worldwide.”
Josh Juliano (17), Professional gamer
Dublin Leaving Cert student and gamer Josh Juliano has one over-riding goal in life: “I want to become one of the best players in the world.”
Juliano’s game of choice is Fortnite, where he goes by the gamer tag LolB0om, and he has already proven that he has what it takes to compete at the very top of the e-sports world.
He finished 58th in the Fortnite World Cup at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium earlier this year, walking away with $50,000 in prize money. He had qualified for the tournament to take on 99 other professionals and to win a share of the $30m prize pool.
Juliano plans to build a full-time career out of competitive gaming and has joined the British-based Veloce Esports team. He recently qualified for the heat stages of the Fortnite Championship Series, which has a prize pool of $5m. “Ever since I was little, I played games. I started playing Fortnite for the fun of it because I was curious to see what it was all about. I never thought I would be professional. It’s crazy,” he said.
Johanna Dooley, Chloe Best and Sarah Monahan (25), Borrower Boutique
Three entrepreneurs, Johanna Dooley, Chloe Best and Sarah Monahan, met each other while studying retail and services management at DIT. Dooley spent many of her teenage years lending her wardrobe to family and friends, so when tasked with setting up a business as part of their college course, she had the experience.
The company rents dresses, some worth up to €500, to clients for a quarter of the price. Dooley, Best and Monahan aim to make aspirational brands, such as Rixo, more accessible for women. The three work full-time and spend their evenings offering clients a ‘try-on’ service at their home.
“We are becoming more aware of the damages of fast-fashion and its impact on the environment, and Borrower Boutique offers a sustainable alternative to disposable fashion,” said Dooley.
Lara Pairceir and Laura Brennan (20), Ethicart
Ethicart is an app used to inform consumers about how sustainable or ethical selected food products are, by searching an item or scanning its barcode. It is at an early stage and is being developed by Lara Pairceir and Laura Brennan, who are both part of Launchpad, the startup accelerator programme at Trinity College. “In a nutshell, the user will be shown an overall product sustainability rating,” said Brennan.
“We wanted to start making shopping more sustainable, but found ourselves unsure what exactly sustainability meant. How can we make an impact? We saw there was a huge lack of transparency from brands to consumers and a lack of clear, concise information we could easily digest as busy students. It left us feeling powerless and frustrated; we wanted to change this.”
The pair plan to generate revenue through a subscription-based model with supermarkets, charging a subscription to have their products listed on the app.
Charlie Butler, Brian O’Mahony (21) and RonÁn Dowling-Cullen (23), Bounce Insights
Bounce Insights is a consumer insights platform created by a group of Trinity College students that is aimed at making it easier for companies to get accurate and accessible consumer feedback.
Co-founder Charlie Butler takes care of everything from operations to sales and said he and fellow co-founder, Brian O’Mahony, were desperate to set up their own company.
After some intensive work, Bounce was born. “I think it was Reid Hoffman who said that attempting to build a startup is like running off a cliff with the tools to build a plane, hoping that you pull it all together before crashing to your imminent death. He’s not too far off, particularly when you pull together a team of five college students with no budget, a disruptive idea and an industry that hasn’t really changed for decades,” says Butler.
Ultimately, he said the idea is to disrupt the market research industry: “We believe it is on the cusp of serious innovation and change, the likes of which are [only] being seen in the US at the moment.”
Aoife Mullane (28), Aoife Mullane Design
A graduate of NCAD, Mullane catapulted to success with her unique textile designs. A chair that featured in her final collection at her graduate show was put on display in Brown Thomas and caught the attention of architects looking to collaborate with her on large high-end projects.
She said: “At the time, I was applying for buying jobs and they were all telling me, you look like you have your own brand here.”
She began to build a clientele — one being Dragons’ Den star Norah Casey, who went on to win RTÉ TV show Home of the Year. Clients now include the Alex Hotel and Oslo Beauty Salon on Mespil Road. Mullane was also selected to showcase her work at Maison et Objet, an upmarket homeware trade show in Paris, this January.
Will Conaghan (28), Change Donations
Change Donations is a micro-donation platform co-founded by Trinity College business student Will Conaghan. It aims to help charities and non-profits fundraise in a cashless society, and connect with a younger generation of donors.
“Through our platform, donors can link their credit or debit card, round their purchases up to the next euro, and donate their digital spare change to the causes they care about most,” said Conaghan.
Co-founder Lizzy Hayashida and Conaghan partnered during a Trinity MBA. The firm was bootstrapped for the first 18 months and relied on Government grants and pitch competitions to keep going.
The pair are now in the process of closing their seed round of funding, raising €800,000 from a combination of Irish venture capital, US private equity and Enterprise Ireland.
The company is set to expand into the US this January and in the medium term, aims to have over 200,000 donors using its platform, supporting more than 500 charities in Ireland, the UK, the US and Canada.
Emily Wallace (20), Student
NUI Galway student Emily Wallace is developing a novel and potentially disruptive technology for monitoring sugar levels in diabetic children, using biosensors that are placed under the skin. What makes her approach truly unique is that the sensors are connected to a device, such as a mobile phone.
“The current pin-prick method is uncomfortable, requires self-discipline and will only give information at the time the sample is taken. The advantage with our technology is that it will monitor continuously,” she said.
The project has just been named the overall winner of an EIT Health E-Lab award at NUI Galway. Wallace’s next milestone is to work with the LaunchPad student entrepreneurship programme at NUI Galway to develop a business plan and consider funding instruments to develop the idea.
Additional interviews: Fearghal O’Connor [industry]; Chloe Brennan [fashion] and Adrian Weckler [technology]
Sunday Indo Business