Wednesday 25 April 2018

The smart guys who set up the 'Google of Forestry'

In a new series, Sean Gallagher salutes the unsung heroes of Irish business. First off, are two forestry entrepreneurs whose software is revolutionising the harvesting of timber

'I think most entrepreneurs could identify with the quote from Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you -- and then you win"...'

Recently referred to as the "Google of Forestry", a Cork- based company is leading a quiet revolution to change the global forestry industry, for the good.

Established in 2005 by friends Enda Keane and Garret Mullooly, Treemetrics began by challenging a long-held view in the forestry industry, "that the only way you can know how much timber is in a forest, is when you've cut it down".

Instead, the two friends have spent the past seven years developing software that can accurately measure the shape, size, and straightness of standing trees, which then allows them to predict the quantities of different log products that each tree can produce, as well as their potential value, and all before they are actually cut.

"Owners can save up to 20 per cent of the value of the harvest by cutting more efficiently," Garret says.

"Ultimately, it leads to a reduction in the quantity of trees that need to be cut, reduces waste and improves forest profitability.

"But it isn't all about money either," he says. "We are helping to tackle a major issue for the planet. Some 25 per cent of the world's land area is covered in forests. Trees are the lungs of the earth and, by taking in carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen, they are helping sustain all of us.

"In addition, they act like giant sponges, absorbing vast amounts of water and helping to protect against large-scale flooding and soil erosion."

Enda adds: "There is acceptance, generally, that as developing nations continue to harvest forests for timber or to clear the land to grow food, there is a real potential threat to the planet, unless this activity is managed responsibly".

I first came across Enda and Garret when they won the Intertrade Ireland Seedcorn competition back in 2005. Having won the same competition the previous year for our company Smarthomes, my business partner Derek Roddy and I were effectively handing over the crown to these two guys who seemed to have come up with a great idea.

Arriving at their offices in the National Software Centre in Cork, I was keen to see what challenges the two founders had encountered and what progress they had made in the intervening years.

"It's been a long road for us," admits Enda. "But I wouldn't change any of it," he says proudly. "The biggest challenge", the pair explain, "was in ensuring the absolute reliability of our software solution."

"It has now been tested and proven in 14 countries worldwide, in conjunction with some of the largest government forest owners and independent research agencies," Garret says.

The two men met while they were studying forestry as part of their degree in agricultural science at University College Dublin. Enda Keane, a Corkman, and son of a forester, spent the next 10 years working with Teagasc and a large private forestry business. He grew restless.

"I could see the rest of my life mapped out," he says "I wanted something more, to make a bigger impact." So in 2000, he gave up what he calls "the security of the permanent pensionable job" to start his first venture, Eagleview.

"The company created 3D visuals of buildings, wind farms and golf courses, before they were actually built," Enda says. He saw it more as a lifestyle business and exited the company in 2005. "But it certainly whetted my appetite for business. I call it my five-year real-life MBA," Enda says.

However, in 2004, when he came across a 3D laser scanner, he instinctively realised the potential of applying this technology to the forestry sector. He immediately shared the idea with his former college friend.

From Strokestown, Co Roscommon, Garret had spent the intervening 10 years working with leading private forest management companies and had built up significant experience in all aspects of forestry management and harvesting.

Convinced of the potential of their new idea, the two men put a call through to a renowned world forestry expert in Finland. "He thought it was a great idea," says Garret, laughing. "But he thought we were mad."

"How"? I ask.

"Mad in the sense of trying to change the mindset of a traditional industry which had been slow to embrace innovation," he explains.

Enda interjects with a quote from Gandhi. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win." It's a quote that most start-up entrepreneurs can readily identify with. Both confess to being believers in "fact-based optimism" and quickly realised that they had to definitively prove their case.

It was Coillte, the State forestry company, that became their first and most vital ally and both are quick to acknowledge the support they received in the early years that allowed them to prove their value proposition.

To test their concept further, they linked up with the Freiburg University in German. It was the start of a series of important collaborations with academics and institutions that would prove vital in convincing the market of the merits of their offering, including the Technical University of Dresden, the State University of Oregon and, closer to home, University College Cork and Science Foundation Ireland. Much-needed feasibility funding came via the Council of Forestry Research and Development.

The pursuit for credibility led them to enter and win the International Schweighofer award for innovation in forestry, while the welcome prize fund of €50,000 helped fund the business to the next stage.

Their success in winning the Intertrade Ireland Seedcorn competition proved valuable in terms of PR, improved their investor readiness and helped them secure additional venture capital and business angel funding.

"It wasn't all plain sailing," Garret says. As with all software, there was a protracted process of debugging which called for persistence and patience on the part of both the company and the customers.

Both persevered. Their compelling proposition finally began to gain traction in the market and the industry finally connected with them.

International customers grew over time to include the French and Austrian governments as well as State companies in Ireland, Australia, the UK, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Poland and Canada.

The two entrepreneurs, and their highly skilled team of 15 staff are now entering a new growth phase. This year will see them double employment figures to more than 30 and their turnover will exceed €1m for the first time.

I was glad to see how far Enda and Garret had come since 2005. They started out in business because they wanted to improve how things were being done in the world of forestry. "We didn't set out to change the world," Garret says. But these two Irish foresters appear set to do just that.

Sunday Indo Business

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