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The new wave of Irish business tapping into the American dream

As our trade links with the US go from strength to strength, Sean Pollock takes a look at six innovative companies with their sights set on becoming the next CRH or Ornua


Sean Pollock takes a look at six innovative companies with their sights set on becoming the next CRH or Ornua

Sean Pollock takes a look at six innovative companies with their sights set on becoming the next CRH or Ornua

Lets Get Checked CEO Peter Foley

Lets Get Checked CEO Peter Foley

Sam Dennigan, founder / CEO of Strong Roots food company

Sam Dennigan, founder / CEO of Strong Roots food company

Ronan Perceval who is CEO of Phorest

Ronan Perceval who is CEO of Phorest

Ronan Murphy of SmartTech

Ronan Murphy of SmartTech

Dr Nora Khalid

Dr Nora Khalid


Sean Pollock takes a look at six innovative companies with their sights set on becoming the next CRH or Ornua

Three years ago, Reece Smyth, the then US chargé d'affaires for Ireland, came up with a unique metaphor to describe the trading relationship between the US and this country. Writing in the Sunday Independent on the friendship between the two countries, the diplomat thanked Ireland for the "prosperity that results from the mutually beneficial 'two-way street' of investment", comparing US-Irish trade to a road.

"Once a country lane, US-Irish commercial activity is now a super-highway valued at over $590bn (€452bn)," wrote Smyth. "The titans of Irish enterprise tell us the business climate in the States has never been better."

Since Smyth wrote his piece, his assertion that the business climate in the US had never been better for Irish enterprises has been proven accurate. According to Enterprise Ireland, in 2018, there were more than 100,000 people employed by Irish companies in the US, with these firms having invested $146.2bn, making Ireland the ninth-largest source of foreign direct investment in America.

For many Irish businesses, the so-called 'land of opportunity' has been kind. CRH entered the US market over 40 years ago when it acquired Utah concrete products group Amcor, and has grown by acquisition since to become the most significant building materials group in North America. The US market accounts for almost half of CRH's €26.79bn of global sales.

Ornua, and in particular its butter brand Kerrygold, has also flourished in the US. The dairy farmers' co-operative has been in the US since 1990, but it was in 1999 when it brought Kerrygold butter to the States that things took off.

Kerrygold has since become the second best-selling brand of butter there, which helped set it as Ireland's first billion-euro food brand.

However, the US has not always been the land of milk and honey for Irish businesses. The sometimes ruthless nature of business across the pond has famously taken its toll on some. AIB made an unfortunate play in the US market, with rogue trader John Rusnak involved in a fraud that cost the Irish bank $691m. Greencore Group also struggled in the US, ultimately deciding to sell out in 2018.

As 2020 kicks off, a swathe of Irish companies will seek to replicate the form of CRH and Ornua in the US, and avoid the fates of AIB and Greencore. The Sunday Independent has selected six Irish companies which have laid strong foundations in the US that could help them achieve a successful year Stateside.

1. Strong Roots

Having tapped into the burgeoning trend for vegetarian health foods in the UK and Ireland, and succeeding, Sam Dennigan's Strong Roots is ready to taste success in the US too.

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Last year, the firm launched its range of frozen vegetarian meal options, which include sweet potato fries and pumpkin and spinach burgers, across the Atlantic.

It has previously announced deals with three major US chains, including Target, Wegmans Food Markets and Whole Foods, to distribute its products to their stores, with Dennigan telling the Sunday Independent that its products are already available in 2,000 US stores.

Dennigan, who recently opened an office in New York and moved out to Jersey City with his family to lead the company's efforts in the US, said Strong Roots will be in 3,000 stores by March, and hopes to double this number by the end of 2020.

Last September, Strong Roots secured $18.3m in Series A funding in a round led by New York-based private equity firm Goode Partners. The fund has previously backed the likes of clothing brand Supreme and coffee company La Colombe.

Until now, Strong Roots has primarily focused its efforts on the east coast and the south of the US, but recently signed an agreement which will see it take the brand nationwide.

"We just did a trial with Whole Foods in Texas [toward the end of last year], and it's been confirmed that we will be rolling out with them nationwide. Otherwise, it's been about pitching to all of the majors. Some of the big boys will be back to us by the end of the month."

Dennigan added that the company is forecasting a tasty $15m worth of retail sales in the US market over 2020.

2. LetsGetChecked

Peter Foley's Dún Laoghaire-based business, which offers consumers access to home health testing and clinical services, is aiming to become the number-one consumer health brand in the US.

The company was diagnosed with its first significant revenues after it entered the US market in 2017. Since then, the firm has opened an office in New York, raised just under $49m in funding, announced an additional 120 jobs, bringing its total employment to 250 people, and signed deals with retail chains CVS and Walmart. Foley said the decision to target the US was made when it started in 2014, with there being "no secret sauce" behind the American success. "It was just hard graft," he said. "We are a consumer business, and the US has so many consumers."

The US market represents 70pc of LetsGetChecked's business, and Foley is now targeting more deals with some of the world's biggest retailers and health insurance companies.

In 2020, the business has big plans to invest further in its American marketing, getting in the faces of consumers. "Last year was our best year," he said. "But we hope it was a small fraction of what we do in the year ahead."

LetsGetChecked is hoping to position itself as the number-one consumer healthcare brand in the US. Foley said the business would achieve this over the next five years by investing further in its technology and developing more in-home services, such as prescription services, and offering customers advice from its own clinicians.

3. Teamwork

Cork-based software company Teamwork has been growing steadily in the US for years, with 2020 set to see sales of the firm's products and services prosper through the planned expansion of its US-based sales team.

The company, which makes products that help organisations become more organised and efficient, employs 230 people and counts many of the world's most influential firms, including Netflix and PayPal, among its customers. In 2018, it reported revenue of €18.8m, but it still made a €320,000 loss after tax.

Two years ago, the company opened an office in Boston following a surge in demand across North America. Peter Coppinger, a co-founder of Teamwork, said North America, as a region, represents over half of its customer base, meaning that it had to open an office there to ensure it could best serve its American clients.

"The States is really where it's at," he said. "For years, we weren't focused on it enough."

Coppinger, who describes 2020 as potentially a "milestone year" for the US business, said the company is ready to ramp up expansion across the Atlantic, with plans to double its presence over the 12 months. Teamwork will also hold two large conferences with prospective and current US-based customers this year.

The former developer, who will live in the US for two months this year to help the business grow, added that Teamwork is looking to open an office on the west coast in the next few years.

"I envisage we will hire hundreds of people in the US eventually," he said. "Right now, I'm convinced we could hit $100m revenues without writing another line of code."

Coppinger said the key to Teamwork's success in the US so far has been a prudent approach to expansion, based on evidence.

"There are a lot of Irish companies which have gone over to the US, spent a lot of money and left with their tails between their legs," he said.

Teamwork, which has traditionally been self-funded, is set to raise money for the first time later this year, with the two co-founders currently in discussions with several potential American investors. Coppinger said the company would be able to take even more "educated risks" with new funds, which could include hiring more sales staff for the US market.

4. Nuritas

U2-backed Nuritas, a biotech company that uses artificial intelligence to identify supplements and new drugs, is set to announce several deals worth "tens of millions" of dollars in the US this year.

Founded in 2014 by Nora Khaldi, Nuritas, which employs around 60 people, has already raised significant funding, including $20m in a series round led by Chicago-based Cultivian Sandbox Ventures. In 2018, the European Investment Bank invested €30m into the business.

The Dublin-headquartered firm first cracked the US market in early 2019 when it secured a deal with Pharmavite, the second-largest dietary supplements company in America. Nuritas has since launched a new Boston-based office, where it will lead the company's US growth plans.

This year, a new consumer brand featuring Nuritas' Peptide, the first healthcare ingredient conceived and discovered using AI, will launch in the US.

Emmet Browne, chief executive of Nuritas, said the launch of this brand could be very significant for the business.

According to Browne, Nuritas is targeting significant growth in the States over the next year, with some deals ready to be announced.

"We are initially talking about deals in the tens of millions category per deal," he said. "This is reflected across the discoveries we have made.

"Ultimately, these deals will be ground-breaking for us. The next year is going to be very significant in the company's trajectory, with the US spearheading that growth for us."

5. Phorest

Salon software company Phorest is hoping its new Philadelphia HQ, which opened last year, will help it cut more eye-catching and tidy deals in 2020.

Ronan Perceval, the founder of Phorest, said the US market, where the business has 30 people employed, is on track to become its largest.

Phorest currently has 1,000 US customers, with Perceval adding that the sheer scale of the country means there is the potential for around 100,000.

In 2018, Phorest secured €20m in funding from US-based investment firm Susquehanna Growth Equity.

The backers, who are from Philadelphia, have helped to boost the company's profile in the US and attract further business and staff.

Phorest currently makes 20pc of its revenue from the US, and it hopes to boost this to 30pc by the end of the year. "US customers are really open to new ideas," Perceval said. "They are more open to new technology than anywhere else we go, and they are willing to pay for it."

Perceval hopes to announce a host of new partnerships with beauty suppliers across the US to get the company in front of more potential clients.

"The US market is vital for us; it's not the only growth story for the business, but it is, without doubt, the main one," he said.

"We probably left [entering] the US market longer than we should have. We just thought the competition would be so much better; but when we went there, we realised we were in a much better position than we thought."

6. GetVisibility

Irish artificial intelligence startup Getvisibility, which makes software that helps companies identify, protect and understand the data they produce, is ramping up its operations in the US over 2020.

In 2018, Ronan Murphy, founder and chief executive of Getvisibility, decided to target America after comments by Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that companies there needed to prepare for GDPR-like legislation. The company has since set up a presence in both Boston and Atlanta.

Late last year, Getvisibility signed a distribution agreement with US company Arrow Electronics and then a technology agreement with tech giant Microsoft.

"These deals gave us a soft landing in the US," said Murphy. "It's given us a good route to market and a good route to scale.

"We have received the kind of coverage that we could never have got in a market of this size without these partnerships."

Cook's and Zuckerberg's prediction that more GDPR-like regulation would be coming to the US proved accurate. Getvisibility received a boost with the introduction of the California Consumer Privacy Act this month, which will bring some US companies closer to the EU's GDPR rules.

"It's all about timing," said Murphy. "We've got lucky that a lot of the global forces require that companies look at these solutions to fix their data problems."

Murphy said it is difficult to quantify how much the distribution and technology deals will be worth, but he expects them to "ramp up aggressively this year". He has set a target of €5m worth of recurring revenue by the end of this year from the US.

The company is also hiring new employees in the US, growing from four people to 20 by the end of this year across its two offices across the Atlantic.

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