Nutritics founder counting on success
With teams from Man City to the Dubs on the books, Damian O'Kelly's pioneering firm Nutritics is on to a winner
Nutrition has not always played a big role in Irish sport. The night before the Republic of Ireland played Austria in a crucial Euro '96 qualifier, Jack Charlton stopped the team bus at a chipper he had a share in and entered the team in a fish-and-chip eating contest.
Niall Quinn later recalled "burping and farting" all around Lansdowne Road. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team lost. Sports-mad Damian O'Kelly was just 10 at the time and he has been part of a revolution in sports nutrition in the intervening years.
His company Nutritics - founded in 2011 - has developed a software tool that is now being used by athletes, teams, restaurants, food service companies and hospital kitchens, not just across Ireland, but globally.
The Swords, Co Dublin-based company has customers in 132 countries, including Premiership teams Manchester City and Chelsea, and has just signed a major deal with airline food giant Gate Gourmet.
If Charlton's 'Boys in Green' were still around today, the Nutritics software would be ringing alarm bells all around the team bus.
High-performance sport was just the starting point for the company, says O'Kelly.
"Sport is certainly the trendiest part of our business but out of our four key areas it is probably the smallest in terms of revenue split," he says.
The company has been steadily building its customer base across sports nutrition, food services, the healthcare sector and in universities which teach nutrition.
"Food services is where much of the growth for the company has been, particularly over the last 18 months. There is so much potential there. Basically, anywhere that serves food we have a potential customer," he says.
O'Kelly was into swimming and triathlons but he became increasingly interested in the science behind training and exercise after taking a job as a strength and conditioning coach in Google's staff gym in Barrow Street in Dublin.
"I began to understand just how impactful nutrition was. A lot of people in the gym were following these great strength-and-conditioning programmes but it was those who followed a good nutrition plan who got the results. The others didn't get anywhere really," he says.
O'Kelly began to note his observations about nutrition and different foods in a simple Excel sheet that served as a rudimentary nutrition calculator. He became so interested in what he was observing that he quit his Google gym job and moved to Leeds to study for a Masters in Sports Nutrition.
He began working with a hammer thrower and a badminton player to build case studies for his course but quickly ran into a problem.
"I was using the software that was available to dieticians and sports professionals at the time," he says. "It was really limited and I was getting really frustrated with it. It didn't have any of the supplements that the athletes were using or any of the new age foods like quinoa and flaxseeds and different protein powders. On top of that you had to go back to the same PC every time you wanted to use it because it wasn't web based."
Then to top it all off, the file he was using corrupted and he lost all of the data he had been using. "I reverted back to the Excel sheet I had built in Google. It was simple but it included all the foods I needed and I was able to give the athletes simple meal plans rather than the technical bunch of numbers that the other system spat out."
The spreadsheet, he says, was 'Nutritics alpha' and became the template for its later development. O'Kelly's brother Kieran - a graphic and web designer - was also studying in Leeds at the time and he began helping him to add the complexity and user interface that the tool would need. He is still the company's chief technology officer, leading a team of developers who develop all of the company's technology in-house.
The brothers came back to Dublin after graduating in 2011 and Damian took a two day a week role working for well-known GAA manager Seamus McEnaney, who at the time was looking after the Meath football team. He passed around an early version of what would become the Nutritics tool to nutritionists he knew that were working with other teams and soon he was getting a stream of feedback as his colleagues began to use it with their own clients, including the Dublin football team and DCU athletics squad.
"We built a really simple website to put it on and stuck a price on it to see if it had legs," says O'Kelly. "We sold 200 licences in just a few months to freelance nutritionists who were looking for a web-based solution. A lot of it was word of mouth."
Then came a big breakthrough: a call from the English Institute of Sport, which looks after the British Olympic team. "We like what you are doing, can we use your software?" they said.
"We were pretty excited. They signed up and it has evolved. Since then other national institutes of sports have signed up and we have all the Olympic athletes in Britain and Ireland using it."
The company is in talks with the world-renowned Australian Institute of Sport after signing up a string of high-profile teams. The first really high-profile team came in 2014 when Manchester City signed up, followed by Chelsea, Everton and, earlier this summer, Spurs.
"Manchester City was great from an endorsement point of view but it did take a while to break into the Premiership," says O'Kelly. "A sports nutritionist who was working in rugby but who had come from football once told me that footballers were all naturally gifted so they didn't need sports science and that rugby players were more disciplined and will do anything to get the edge. But that is all changing and this type of approach is becoming much more the norm in football."
But as the company's sports-related clientele continued to grow they began to notice another trend: restaurants and other food outlets began signing up to use Nutritics for calorie calculation and nutrition labelling. These businesses also started looking for new features, for example to track and label allergens on their menus.
The company also expanded into healthcare, signing up hospital-based dieticians in the HSE and NHS. O'Kelly also brought in Stephen Nolan, formerly of Macquarie Bank and Deloitte, as chief operating officer to help manage rapid growth.
"We have doubled in size every year," says O'Kelly. "In 2012 revenue was less than €100,000. This year it will be in the low millions but we are really focused on that doubling every year. We have to be really smart about what we are doing the whole time we have chosen not to raise any funding."
The decision was not for the want of offers from venture capital funds and high net worth individuals, says O'Kelly. He does not rule out a fundraising event in the future but, for now, Nutritics' growing number of corporate and individual sign-ups generate cash that recurs annually and fuels the company's growth.
The Gate Gourmet deal alone will be worth a quarter of a million euro a year and will see the Nutritics' software in use at about 200 airports across America, Europe and Asia. The tender alone was extremely complex because of Gate Gourmet's wide international spread.
"Different geographies have different ways of calculating nutrition and every country requires it to be displayed in different ways, so you have different labels, different languages and all sorts of quirky things to think about. The big differentiator Nutritics has is a very wide spread of international data."
This, he says, means that Nutritics has huge potential to grow: "Gate Gourmet is adding new sites all the time and we are adding new value propositions to our product all the time."
For example, Nutritics can produce digital menus to be used on in-seat displays for passengers and is developing a smartphone app for airline passengers that allows them to scan their meal to find out more about the ingredients and to even order them directly themselves.
"There is a lot of upselling that we can do," says O'Kelly.
Nutritics is also about to launch a distribution agreement in the US with the largest supplier of food labels in that market, Daymark, he says. It sells food labels into every food services establishment in America providing the company with a unique opportunity to gain a foothold in the US market.
"Up to two years ago about 90pc of the company's business was in the UK and Ireland," says O'Kelly. "Now the revenue split is about 50pc UK, 10pc Ireland and 40pc international. With Brexit and the volatility of exchange rates we are not looking to move away from the UK but we are very focused on expanding elsewhere."
A key project now for the company is the development of a smartphone app that gives individual users access to this huge databank and connects them with the company's wide network of 30,000 nutrition professionals.
"So you can be here in a coffee shop and login to the app that you have had an Americano and a slice of coconut pie," says O'Kelly. "You will have already set your goals and the app will give you basic feedback based on those goals but will also allow you to consult with one of our professional network. So maybe you want to run a marathon next October? You can be guided through that. The app will facilitate that communication and you can pay the nutritionist, get meal plans, recipe suggestions - all through the app."
Nutritics may be expanding far beyond its sporting roots but It still brings a whole new meaning to the old Roy Keane mantra: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Sunday Indo Business